‘At last the attention it deserves: has the time come for action on violence against women?’

On 25th February 2013, I spoke on a panel at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on violence against women and girls. On the panel with me were Dr. Gina Heathcote of SOAS,  Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters and Farida Deif of UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.

 

 

I apologise for not being able to transcribe the whole event but this is the text of what I said:

I am going to talk about violence against women and the links with peace and security. Over the last twenty years, countries have been paying increasing attention to prevention of and response to violence against women and girls – especially when it comes to conflict related sexual violence. There is growing attention of it as a development and human rights issue and that it is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality.

There has been more resistance to accepting the links between violence against women and peace and security. Violence against women and girls not only is a key driver of conflict but it also constitutes a form of conflict in and of itself. New research by Valerie Hudson found an empirical link between levels of violence and other forms of insecurity and instability. Violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of not only gender inequality but also of conflict. Further, ‘conflict’ should not only refer to guns and bullets but also people’s experiences of violence. Violence against women and girls is endemic during conflict, and in many cases, increases after the guns stop firing as combatants return to their communities, non gender sensitive disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation processes and contestation over changed gender power relations as women face backlash against the positions of decision making they were forced to assume.

My work is to do advocacy and campaigning focusing on UK development, diplomatic and defence policy and practice. The UK has increased its work on gender-based violence in the last 18 months. DFID are building the skills of country offices and expanding funding and programming and the Foreign Secretary has committed himself to mobilising the international community to end sexual violence in conflict. However, this is far from enough.

1)     Focus has been on building institutional capacity rather than addressing women’s empowerment. Now, of course, improving the police, judiciary and other state institutions is vital – but so too is tackling the root causes of violence – the unequal power relations between women and men. Increasing the quality and quantity of participation and leadership in political, economic and cultural decision-making at all levels is key. At the moment we have emphasis on violence against women and lip service paid to participation and empowerment – these are two halves and cannot be separated. We need to problematise the focus on VAW and not challenging the broader gender power relations of which violence is a part.

2)     Focus has been on building institutions rather than supporting those who create change. Recent research looked at activism and policy development on violence against women and girls in over seventy countries and across four decades. It found mobilisation of feminist activists had increased and longer lasting impact than political parties, number of women politicians, or national wealth. Despite their catalytic roles, women activists and organisations continue to be overlooked. Only 1.3 percent of the funds for gender equality screened by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups the world’s main donors, went to women’s rights organisations and women’s ministries in 2010.

3)     There has been little take-up of a gender analysis into conflict, peace and security practice. Despite calling for and working towards peace, human rights and justice, women continue to be excluded and marginalised. Those who have the power to decide often simply do not view involving or thinking of women as a priority. In the past 25 years, only one in forty signatories to peace agreements have been women.  Only sixteen percent of peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 even mention the word ‘women’ and even of these 16%, many mention ‘women’ to restrict their rights and say what women can and cannot do. Support given to build security and justice systems often do not take the security needs of women into account. Specialised and integrated services for survivors of gender based violence are often sidelined and deprioritised in emergency response e.g. of the $31m allocated to DRC between January and October 2012, protection received less than 1 percent of funds.

I am going to talk a little bit about Afghanistan now. GAPS runs the No women, no peace. campaign which works with women’s rights activists in Afghanistan to amplify their voices to UK and international decision makers. So much has been achieved – women in parliament, girls in schools, equal rights enshrined in the constitution and a law to eliminate violence against women. However, 87% of women face violence, the biggest fear of women under 30 is sexual assault and the Eliminate Violence against Women law is only enforced in 10 out of 34 provinces.

Before going further, I want to dispel a myth. I always address this when I’m speaking about women’s rights to pre-empt the Q & A – I would hope that wouldn’t be the case at SOAS but I’ll do it nonetheless. Often I hear ‘It’s not their culture. They’re not like us. We cannot go in and try to turn Afghanistan into Sweden – or Denmark – or Norway.’ It is interesting, isn’t it? We do not hear this about the human rights of men – when we talk about freedom of speech for example – but whenever we talk about women, there is always someone talking about the need to be ‘culturally sensitive.’ As if it hurts less when a woman is abused because it is in Kabul rather than London. In reality, women in Afghanistan had equal voting rights before women in the UK. Women in Afghanistan drafted the 1964 constitution, which provided for equality between women and men. Until the early 1990s, women were teachers, ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and parliamentarians. There have been folk songs against child marriage for generations – proving that in Afghanistan, as in all parts of the world, there has always been an active movement for women’s rights.

In Afghanistan, as in all parts of the world too, women experience violence. They face violence at home and then again for running away. In 2010, Bibi Aysha had her nose and ears cut off by her husband because she ran away from abusive in-laws. Alternatively, women who escape violence end in prison. Half of the women in Afghanistan’s prisons are there for zina or sex outside marriage. This includes women fleeing from forced marriage or domestic violence. In many instances, women who are raped or forced into prostitution are put in prison instead of being given medical care and psychological counselling.

There are many women and men who fight for women’s rights – who push to have women’s rights in the constitution and laws, run refuges and shelters, educate women and girls and work to change attitudes and behaviour – but they are in constant danger of violence. They are followed in the street, are verbally and physically attacked and their offices and homes targeted. In July last year, Hanifa Safi, head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman was shot and killed. Her successor Najia Siddiqui was killed less than four months later. In addition to all of this, there are simply not enough refuges in the country to which women can go to. Those that exist struggle month by month for survival – and this is a country that has seen so much aid. Why has more of that not been for women?

In order to address violence against women in Afghanistan properly, the international community needs to spend at least $90m over 5 years. When we ask UK officials whether women’s rights will be a priority in the new UK development plan for Afghanistan, we are told this is not likely. So much international money has gone into Afghanistan, why has it not done more to help women?

Even if the government has a peace deal, I fear that women will be prisoners once again. I don’t want this and I don’t want the international community to forget us.’ Tahmina Kohistani, athlete and only woman from Afghanistan to compete in the Olympics

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