DRC: The ‘rape capital’ of the world

April 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Rape is a tool of war, strategic rape is used to render whole communities crippled, physically and mentally. This blog has looked at the situation before for women caught in the warzone – in a country where 40 women are raped every day, the situation has reached the level of a global catastrophe. In a new campaign called Congo Now!, a group of 16 UK_based NGOs, charities and campaigning groups have joined together to raise awareness of the continuing violence and civilian suffering in the DRC. Members include Save The Children, CAFOD, Women for Women International, Global Witness and Christian Aid. In a guest post,  Robert Davidson from Congo Now writes for the Gilded Cage Blog on the situation for women and what can be done to make a difference to one of the worst conflicts of our lifetimes.


The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world’s most forgotten conflicts. An estimated 5.4m have lost their lives in the last 15 years, most through preventable disease and malnutrition unleashed by the conflict.

That is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff and Coventry put together. Another 1.7m have been forced from their homes.

Rape has been used as tool of war in this conflict, with children as young as 3 months and women as old as 80 have been attacked; making the DRC the ‘rape capital of the world’, according to Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

Rape is used by rebels and military to keep the population under control, to force people out of their homes, to coerce people into labour and to appease troops that spend much of their lives hunted in the jungle. As Maurizio Giuliano, at the UN puts it: “This is not about opportunistic rape; rather, it is a strategy.”

Women survivors are often ostracised for having been raped; their husband, their family and their community may shun them. All the while the women are stigmatised, there is often complete impunity for the rapists, even if they are known.

The UK Government is one of the largest financial contributors to the DRC government. The UK will spend an average of £198m per year in DRC until 2015. But how this money will be spent is not yet decided.

Last year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in DRC, yet there is still only one main rape crisis centre where women can go for support.  Often women have to walk for days in order to receive post rape health care.  The majority of these rapes go completely unprosecuted, perpetuating the idea that rape can be used as a weapon of war.

This situation is unacceptable. Now is the time to act.

Congo Now calls for you to write to International Violence Against Women champion, Lynne Featherstone MP to get the UK government to live up to its commitment: the UK Department for International Development have stated that “improving the lives of girls and women will be a major priority” in the DRC.  So help us hold the government to account on this.

 Now is the time when Lynne Featherstone will be deciding which countries to focus on in her role.  We want to make sure that DRC is at the top of this list.

 Click here to sign the petition and add your voice.

Congo NOW! is a coalition of 16 of the UK’s most active NGOs and UK-based Congolese campaigning organisations.  Our aim is to raise awareness of the ongoing conflict in DRC, the continuing violence and civilian suffering as well as to raise broader awareness of the situation in the country as a whole: both the good and the bad.

We believe, NOW is the time for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to be genuinely free: free from violence and free from poverty.  You can contribute to this change; act now!

For more information go to www.congonow.org, www.facebook.com/congonow  or www.twitter.com/Congo_Now


Does banning the burqa protect or punish Muslim women?

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Women in Burqa

The German state of Hesse has become the first in Germany to ban burqa being worn in public places.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of a burqa that it’s worn in public places? This law is a strange one that smacks more of religious intolerance more than anything else. I understand the concern that women might be pressured or forced to wear burqa or niqab by more extreme members of their family, but let’s assume that for the sake of argument that this is the exception and not the rule – I certainly know several inspirational, headstrong, independent Muslim women who have taken to wearing a headscarf in their mid-twenties through no pressure and solely down to their own beliefs. If women are genuinely choosing to wear the religious veil for their own reasons, then there is no justification for the state having the right to force them not to. Are we not all mature enough to allow women to choose how to dress? Do we really need the government to dress us? I am a woman who does not wear a veil. I do not presume to speak for all women who do not, nor to assume that all women who choose to wear one are doing so for the same united reason.

It is a gross violation of human rights and an insulting and patronising move for the women involved. And it is part of a wave across Europe, with Spain and Belgium considering similar moves (and presumably other states in Germany will follow).

And the recent ban in France is a similar example of controversy  in a country that should know better.  It was hailed as a “victory for democracy” – don’t ask me how. I genuinely understand the concern that the veil can segregate Islamic women, can make them seem unapproachable, can represent the oppression of women. But to assume that these stereotypes are true, all this law does is target a very vulnerable part of society.

Put another way, lets pander to the far-right critics that a woman wearing the veil is forced to do so by an overbearing husband. In France, she will now be punished outside the home by her husband if she doesn’t wear it, and punished by the state if she does – possibly fined up to €150 each time. So she can’t win, and she becomes more marginalised. And after all, nobody in this whole law making process seems to have asked her what she thinks anyway.

It would be better to work on integrating society. Many of the women who wear the niqab in France are from North African descent – many immigrants came across to France after the Second World War and settled there precisely because it was a place that could offer similarities in terms of language and culture. Almost 10% of the country are Muslim, and Islam is the most widely practised religion in France. Work to promote understanding and intergration between different communities would be a much better use of Sarkozy’s resources, rather than pushing them out to the edges of society.

Berlusconi shames Italy’s women

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a quick post here on women in Italy demanding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation – since I’m in Italy this week it seemed a good time to take stock of the situation here. For the last two days, women from the government’s Democratic Party, the main opposition party in Italy, have been protesting outside the Presidential Palace, calling for the 74-year-old to stand down.

More than 2,000 women have also signed a campaign petition entitled “Basta!” (Enough!), co-ordinated by the L’Unia newspaper. The wave of sex scandals that have followed Berlusconi have not done the Italian nation any favours, and have all but discredited his capacity to represent the women who live in the modern European state he governs.

A quick recap of the latest scandal is that Berlusconi is under investigation following allegations that he had sex with Karima El Mahroug when she was under-age, and then abused his power to get her out of prison over theft allegations. But this is not an isolated case – do a little research into Berlusconi and you can quickly see the same pattern of degrading and misleading actions towards women – again, and again, and again , and again.

It’s quite simply time he resigns, and takes these outdated misogynistic attitudes with him. This is not a man fit to represent a country where 60% of graduates are women. I don’t believe that he understands women are more than sex objects and the fact he has clung on to power this long is shameful. Time to go.

Hungarian government takes steps to encourage women to have babies

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hungary Parliament Building, Budapest

A really interesting story on the Guardian website – originally from Le Monde –  on the declining birth rate in Hungary. The population has dived to 10 million, with a fertility rate of 1.27 births per woman forming one of the lowest in Europe.

A number of factors can go towards explaining this of course – in the 1990s abortion rights were heavily restricted so of course the birth right was higher, and under Communist rule, which ended in 1989, women were seen as an essential part of the workforce, both as workers but also as mothers. The pressure to reproduce was heavily emphasised by the state. Women’s rights groups have sprung up in the last 20 years, namely the Feminist Network which was founded by 50 women in 1990, but it could still be said that the post-Communist years have seen women exercise the freedom to challenge their roles from wives and mothers.

Hungarian women are being offered a massive three years maternity leave in a bid to encourage women to have babies – along with plans to improve part time jobs which currently only account for 3% of employment.

Look across to neighbouring Holland, and part time jobs account for 30%.  The problem here is more the challenges of careful town planning to cope as family numbers grow in a densely populated country. The fertility rate is 1.66 births per woman in Holland.

The maternity leave system is also different in the Netherlands – while woman only receive six months leave for pregnancy, she receives full payment of her salary in that time and excellent workplace-related rights. And, crucially, fathers in Holland get good paternity rights too.

Neighbouring Hungary could learn a lot from these lessons – as could the majority of countries in the EU. Make it easier for families to cope with the financial stress of childbirth, make it easier for women to return to work, and for men to take time off to also care for their children. Share the burden between men and women and the whole country suffers.

Otherwise women are condemned to a choice of either family or career.

Instability of Latvian men hinders high-achieving women

December 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

The BBC report on women in Latvia

An interesting snapshot into post-Soviet Latvia here from the BBC. The country, which has 8% more women than men and more than ten years difference in life-expectancy, is struggling with the gender imbalance. The men are facing high levels of alcoholism and depression; the women have fewer choices of partners – leading to increased competition in a sense, with fewer men to go around.

As one Latvian woman puts it: “Here we have a war of beauty – the most beautiful wins” and certainly the BBC delights in showing a wave of trendy and well styled young women enjoying their work and social lives, rightly hailed as the country’s success stories.

The men, although referred to as the root of several of the country’s social problems, are sadly absent from the film.

What is filmed as basically a light-hearted piece (“Look how well these women are doing – although they’re all so beautiful and yet can’t find a boyfriend!”), it fails to address the real social issues at work. The transition to capitalism threw up many opportunities for women, but also placed a lot of pressure on men to succeed financially. The country has maintained its “macho” based culture  that puts pressure on men to drink, smoke, gamble, earn lots of money – to live fast. Consequently, the country has the highest rate of single-mothers in the EU, more than 80% of suicides are committed by men, and highly-educated and intelligent women are often left choosing to be alone or to leave the country rather than settle with a man they see as inferior. And there is a sadly inevitable issue with the underground sex trade and human trafficking, not to mention cases of domestic violence and women stuck in abusive relationships where they feel are unlikely to find another partner if they leave this one.

More focus on education would have a positive impact on future generations of both men and women, and help to maintain the country’s emerging economic successes.

Ireland might be forced to face abortion issue

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment


European Court of Human Rights

When it comes to human rights, life gets complicated. Someone being able to exercise their human rights might have a negative impact on the human rights of someone else – and thus the neverending debates around the subject.

In the case of Ireland an importance ruling for women was made this week – the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of women.

Controversy surrounds the case, which is slightly more complicated than it sounds – three women took the case to the ECHR, and only one woman was ruled to have had her human rights breached.

The key piece of information however is that the Irish government is likely to now be forced to introduce new legislation.

According to the BBC’s Irish Correspondant, Mark Simpson: “Changing the law would also be a political minefield. Ireland is bitterly divided over abortion, and the Irish government has plenty of other priorities at present with the financial crisis and a general election early next year.

“The European Court ruling means Ireland must now reconsider its abortion legislation. The current government will be in no rush to do so.”

Of course a cynic might point out that addressing unwanted pregnancies could form a key part of the country’s economic policy, but its not economy that makes the Ireland government avoid touching this issue with a barge pole: its religion. And that’s far more complicated to address.

The key part of this case is how the women described that they felt stigmatised and humiliated by not being entitled to an abortion, and all three said they had suffered medical complications on travelling to Britain.

The court described the Irish medical system and courts as inadequate to considering the real effect on women’s health. The system is not fit for purpose – abortion is currently only allowed if it will endanger the woman’s life. But what, exactly, will that entail? Do they consider the physiological effects on the morther? Not adequately enough, according to yesterday’s ruling. It took a referendum in 1983 to establish that the mother’s right to life was equal to that out of the child.

So, for now, abortion remains illegal in Ireland – along with large parts of South America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. It is, however, the only major country in Europe to maintain its anti-abortion laws (the only others being the Vatican City and Malta), and that’s interesting in itself: the rest of European countries have policies to address the seissue for the good of their women. Ireland must stop hedging away from this issue.

But, the pressure is rising, and it looks as though their might be a time in sight where women don’t have to make the distressing trip to another country and endanger their physical and mental health.

Lack of coverage on “honour killings” shames us all

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Having the word “honour” associated with any type of crime is a contradition in terms, and honour killings have to be one of the least spoken about crimes against women, in my opinon.

A report from the UN finds today that Afghan women are still at massive risk of violence and “honour” crimes. The government is simply not doing enough to protect women – probably because they are not really adressing issues like education or financial independence, which have the power to place women in a much stronger position than simply bringing in a new law – which they have done. Laws are easy to bring in, but not to enforce, particularly in a difficult scenario like this which delves into the heart of private communities.

Women in Afganistan

The other day I was on the Stop Honour Killings site, and with less than five minutes on it you can see examples of recent honour crimes in Iraq, the UK, India, Kurdistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda  – and it really hammers home that this is a worldwide  issue. This site has a gallery of victims on its homepage of honour killings, and it makes chilling viewing to see so many women assualted or killed in the most gruesome of circumstances, in cases that never made it into the papers.

Perhaps because it goes on typically within smaller or more private communities, or perhaps because they frequently take place in Islamic communities where the press is wary to probe, these crimes just don’t seem to get the press coverage you’d think they would.

Our real shame in these crimes is that we just don’t hear enough about them – shocking when the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are murdered by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the victims are at least four times more. So, as many potentially as 20,000 women and girls are directly affected – and many reports suggest that incidents are increasing in the last 20 years. The victim’s family members – male and female, guilty or innocent – are affected. Their communities are affected, by implication their economies are affected, and the country is affected.  

How many more people have to be affected before this stops being a “women’s issue?”

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