Taking the reins: who leads the fight to end violence against women?


The key to a more peaceful world, with more effective solidarity and delivery of humanitarian aid is the engagement and empowerment of women. This is, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “vital to better resolve a multitude of problems facing the world, including multiple conflicts and gross human rights abuses.”

He was speaking to a group of nearly 500 delegates from more than 260 aid organizations in Geneva on Tuesday — the opening day of the three-day UN Refugee Agency’s annual consultation between UNHCR and international NGOs, this year titled “Women’s Leadership and Participation.”

The conference, which closed on Thursday, stressed the need for a global partnership between the UNHCR and NGOs as various growing humanitarian crises make environments more difficult to gain access to and navigate. The importance of including women and girls in working to curb everything from sexual and gender-based violence and child protection, to rescue at sea and detention of asylum seekers for illegal entry, he added, is critical — not simply for political reasons, but in order to reshape imbalances that have become societal norms.

"One of the problems of today's world, one of the reasons why we see this multiplication of conflicts, we see this dramatic violations of human rights everywhere is indeed that we still live, especially from the political perspective, in a clearly male-dominated world,” Guterres told the group. “And it's still a clearly male-dominated culture that prevails in the way government's act, in the way that many international organizations... act, and in which even in some societies, civil society is organized.”

More from GlobalPost: Seeking justice for victims of rape in Minova, DRC

The consultation is the second conference focusing on women in just a week for the UN Refugee Agency.

It was the less popular sister of the widely covered four-day summit on ending rape in war, hosted by UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague last week in London. In the culmination of a two-year campaign that brought Jolie and Hague together with victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bosnia, delegates from 117 countries united, “calling for an end to the ‘culture of impunity’ and more prosecutions.”

Before its conclusion on Friday, June 13, Jolie and Hague presented 150 events, open to the public, and a new international protocol to increase and improve the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict.

Hague applauded the success of the conference as “the greatest concentration of effort, of discussion and decision ever seen in combating sexual violence in conflict.”

Almost 150 governments immediately endorsed a “declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict.” Somewhat ironically among them were Nigeria and Pakistan, two countries that have recently made headlines for government handling of the 247 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and the murder of a pregnant woman who was stoned to death outside a courthouse in Lahore, as well as a young woman who was gang raped by police upon her arrival at the station to file a complaint about having been gang raped — respectively. The United States, where just last year there were 5,061 reported cases of sexual assault in the military, has also joined.

Apparent paradoxes like this have not gone unnoticed in the realm of activists and researchers, some who were present, others who were not.

Chief among them is Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network and senior fellow at MIT Center for International Relations, who said, “It is an insult to the women and girls of these countries to see their political leaders applauded in London for promising to take action in the future in their capacities as international peacekeepers, while today the reality on the ground is often one of impunity and inaction.”

The Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege, has also published a range of responses to the conference. While paying respect to the undeniably massive visibility that the conference and, by no coincidence, Angelina Jolie’s celebrity have brought to a faction of women affected by the issue at hand — and asserting that, as a community, women really do need Jolie and her celebrity — some remained deeply critical of the approach.

“On the positive side, it was the first such global meeting focused on rape in conflict and we can use it to push governments to take meaningful action to address the complexities of taking action to stop rape and gender violence (in conflict),” Jody Williams, chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, wrote for the Women Under Siege blog. “On the negative side, the segregation of NGO activities to the ‘Fringe,’ literally a floor below the panels and ministerial discussions, was in the view of many, including me, a deliberate decision on the part of the UK Foreign Office to put to one side and diminish the reality of the critical role that civil society always plays in pressuring governments to do what they should do anyway.”

Williams’ concern over the negligence of civil society and the focus on rape in conflict echoed those trepidations published by Sanam Naraghi Anderlini prior to the conference.

As thousands, mostly women, streamed into London to participate, Anderlini wrote in the Yemen Times, she hoped that “whatever happens in London this week... we won’t be subjected to yet another back slapping summit finale where government bureaucrats proudly claim to protect and empower women, while the women who are fighting this fight on the frontlines — often at huge personal risk — remain excluded and marginalized from the protocol being drafted and decisions made on their behalf.”

Like Williams and UN Commissioner Guterres, Anderlini called for the involvement of civil society, in all countries, as “a critical partner” in the movement to end violence against women, and for the engagement and empowerment of the women-led organizations that are already doing the necessary work on the ground.

“The women who are most at risk and already working at the frontlines should have a prominent role in determining the credibility of states’ commitments and actions, and the success of this initiative,” Anderlini said. “Those of us in the international civil society movements who are directly supporting women’s participation in peace and security, and women’s rights and protection, recognize the value of a senior statesman and a movie star fronting this agenda. We are nonetheless concerned that the focus is exclusively on war-related sexual crimes, and we have often said that the prevention and cessation of war itself is the best means of preventing sexual and other forms of violence.”

The trouble with a summit like this one, Anderlini said, is that for many years, states have “made pledges, drafted protocols and assumed that words on paper will translate into action on the ground for the protection of women and girls.” But “impunity and apathy” remain obstacles in the way of real change, and efforts in this vain are ultimately relegated to mere popularity, and not necessarily deemed effective.

Though it seems everyone is in agreement on the complexities of ending violence against women, the need for collective action and the benefit of celebrity, there are still these substantial differences of approach in question.

Namely, if one of the most crippling problems today is, as Commissioner Guterres said, that we still live in a male-dominated world — both in government and culture — can the gap between celebrities or leading political figures, often male, and little-known women on the ground (in, say, Kyrgyzstan,) be bridged to create one wildly popular and stunningly effective campaign?

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