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

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The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.

Soueif: “The revolution was not fought along gender lines”

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Picture by Hossam el-Hamalawy: Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir Square

Just a few lines on a really interesting talk last night from Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer who was in Cairo at the time of the recent protests, writing for the Guardian and participating in the revolution there.

Interesting for itself, as she is a truly inspirational woman and fascinating to hear talk generally, the event was also an insight into the role of women in Egyptian protests. Asked about the role of women, she was keen to stress that the protest was not seen in gender terms, and that the country’s women were there, participating, taking an active role in the political action.

“Every single type of woman was there in Tahrir Square. People need to know that the protestors in Egypt were not seeing this on gender terms,” Soueif insisted. And this article supports that ideology – women were being pragmatic, Egyptian, citizens all facing the same oppression.

There are, she admitted, gender challenges ahead. Women in Egypt feel largely patronised by plans to assign a certain number of seats in the new parliament to women, and there are issues around the number of women in the work force that need to be addressed as the new state forms – and some concerns about any extremist party that might rise to power in the current uncertainty. Unquiet has also begun to rumble around the fact that there are no women at all in the Constitutional Drafting Committee   – and rightly so. This is a very comprehensive post that works through the constitution and the new amendments, and what they mean for women, and is well worth a read to get to grips with the changes.

So it was a rare opportunity to hear a powerful voice speak out so passionately about her country, and conclude that yes, there are challenge ahead for the country – but that women will be a part of them, want to be a key part of them, and won’t forget their part in the revolution.

“Things are good in Egypt,” she said. “Things are great and can only get better as far as women are concerned.”

And her conclusion was particularly interesting. She finished by saying that the country was facing the question: “How do the people change policy?” And this is indeed the challenge now facing Egypt – to make all the people united and represented by the new state, without discrimination on terms of race, education or gender.

Girls as young as 13 trafficked in Cambodia

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Girls as young as 13 are being recruited from Cambodia to work in Malaysian households with fake birth certificates, according to a UN report out today.

The girls are being confined in overcrowded and unhygienic “training centres”, with reports of several being killed or injured in desperate attempts to escape – and of course, with human trafficking, someone makes money. And not the person being abused.

In this case, brokers source the girls and get paid the fees. The recruiting companies trick illiterate village residents – more than 100 agencies are reported to exist targeting this sort of business.

The government has made some very positive noises about tackling this problem, which can only be positive, but nonetheless estimated that it will take three more years to fully tackle this problem.

MP and former minister for women’s affairs Mu Sochua has accused the government of complicity in trafficking: “The Cambodian government has effectively legalized human trafficking.” She also said the government was protecting the recruiting companies because some of its members might have financial interests in them.

These examples could be the tip of the iceberg, with the likelihood of girls also being smuggled through into Thailand.

The best way to tackle this is to improve the status of women in Cambodian society, and their rights as female workers. Make a collective decision that it is not acceptable to employ a young girl, without her passport.

Women in Cambodia were denied the right to hold a rally for International Women’s Day this month. Bizarre rules around Cambodian women marrying foreigners are also intended to target trafficking but could easily also be seen as a way of restricting a woman’s human right to marry who she wishes. Domestic violence is largely seen as a matter to be left between husband and wife, even though one-in-four women have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse from their husbands

Give women equal status, equal standing in society, make them financially independent and this sort of abuse will be whittled away to a memory.

Libyan reforms need to accelerate women’s rights to succeed

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Protests in Libya

As political unrest and media focus shifts to Libya, I hope the current protests and calls for political reform also form a basis to improve women’s freedoms in the country. Following the detention of an outspoken government critic, violent protests have left many dead and injured – a very rare show of aggression in a normally quiet country. A newspaper connected to one of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s sons showed the police station in al-Bayda on fire. The newspaper’s website has since been closed down. In a media environment like that, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. There are reports of killings, there are reports of government forces opening fire on protestors.

As the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Gadaffi has his influence in every aspect of Libyan life and government. And, since he came to power, some of the changes in the country have been positive – he even appointed female bodyguards as a sign of the changing world. The women’s lib movement came fairly late to Libya, with the movement really taking off a few years ago – this is a great story about the first female pilot in the country, for example.  And female teachers are not allowed to teach with their faces entirely covered.

But still, only 22% of the workforce are women, and the male relatives of women still have a massive influence over women’s choices in life.  Sexual harrasment can be a problem frequently experienced by women in the country – see this post on one woman’s experience.

Libya has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has ominously filed formal reservations to exempt itself from having to comply with several provisions – which rather defeats the point of signing up at all.

Women’s organisations need to be involved in the decisons made about governing the country in the future, whether that involves a new leader or not. There are some good laws in place – the country’s leaders need to see them through into practice to give Libyan women the equality they have been edging towards.

The women of Afghanistan – wives of the warriors

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

An interesting video from wisemanproductions here, with some fairly rare footage of women in Afghanistan talking about the situation in their lives, the history of women’s rights, and attacks against women in the country. Although it’s only recently uploaded, I think it might be older than that, but still well worth a watch to help tell these stories. Be warned though, some of the pictures in it are shocking.

Also helping to highlight life for women in Afghanistan is a new exhibition opening in the House of Commons in London this week with some beautiful photos and inspiring stories – you can take an online tour here.

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.

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