Ending violence against women: When 'knowing' doesn't translate into 'doing'


Two weeks after UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s four-day summit to end rape in war, the circus of media coverage has died down and the international community has been left with one question: do these wildly popular conferences actually effect change — do they fall flat, or worse, pose a threat to the work many are doing on the ground in every continent, nation and state? In this conversation with RIGHTS, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, senior fellow at MIT Center for International Relations and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), explores traditional conferences and alternative approaches to tackling violence against women. Transcribed below is part one of a two-part Q&A. Read part two here.

RIGHTS: What is at the center of this gap between diplomacy and policy — these massively funded international conferences — and the realities for women on the ground?

SANAM NARAGHI-ANDERLINI: I want to start by commending the UK government and Angelina Jolie for their effort. Many of us have worked on the issues for years and there is a global community of dedicated practitioners and activists and scholars. But the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) raised the profile to a new level. It generated discussion among people who never touch these issues. That is noteworthy. Of course now comes the hard work of getting them to walk the talk consistently. We can’t assume it.

I have this awful sort of feeling that we sometimes believe just because we know something and we become aware of a problem, it implies that we’re doing something about it or taking action and actually I sometimes feel as if knowing does the opposite. We all become aware of sexual violence in conflict, for example, but just because there’s talking or there are statements, doesn’t mean we really reflect what’s happening on the ground. It can be a very dangerous illusion to fall into. Sometimes it’s numbing or so overwhelming that we retreat into believing nothing can be done. In the last 10 years so much has been done but we really need to assess what the impact of that is. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily infer action — actually it sometimes infers inaction or inconsequential action.

RIGHTS: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, speaking at the annual UNHCR/NGO consultations, told delegates that the key to a more peaceful world is for the international community to “engage” and “empower” women as leaders, saying, "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. 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.” How does this strike you?

SNA: We need to look at what people on the ground are doing in response to crises that emerge, or as resilience against the threat of violence. So the starting point has to be: What are they doing on the ground?

I respect what he says and at the same time I find the term “empowerment” sometimes problematic. It’s as if we as outsiders go in and bestow this on women. The reality of what I see, and the 20 years of work that I’ve done, really has been about bringing women’s voices into the processes where decisions are being made — women from civil society. So what I find is whether it’s Syria or Sri Lanka or Pakistan, or any place where there are extreme problems, there are women who are self-empowered — who have taken it upon themselves to take action non-violently, which is incredibly important to acknowledge. Some work on tackling radicalization, or in relief and recovery, or dealing with women and girls, or doing peace work and mediation and so forth — these women are already doing it. They are self-empowered. They don’t need us to empower them.

What they need from the outside world is acknowledgement of what they’re doing and a door opening for them to have a seat in the places and spaces where decisions are being made about their countries and their lives. It’s about a partnership and it’s a change of paradigm, because it’s really about saying, “you, states and humanitarian agencies, are making decisions about what to do in, for example, Syria. Are you inviting Syrian activists who are actually doing relief and recovery work inside and outside those countries to be part of those meetings; for them to brief people about what’s going on, for them to talk to you about what it is exactly that they need, to make their work more effective?” That’s not happening yet at the highest levels and it’s partly because of the way the United Nations’ system functions. It’s still very much a system that has to be government approved. But it’s also that there is perhaps a need for a shift in the attitude.

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For example, the groups that we talk to for years have been saying they don’t need handouts, they need money to be able to pay one group of people here to produce goods for another group of people there — it’s kind of an early recovery attitude to assistance. But you bring this approach all the way to the United States or USAID, for instance, where it’s agreed that it’s important to support women’s work, and often the bottom line is their protocol won’t allow them to hand out money.

So if we’re serious about really giving voice to women and engaging the folks on the ground, we need to put them on the agenda of the decision-making meetings, where funds are being allocated, where humanitarian assistance strategies are being determined. That would be a shift in the way we’re doing business.

Mr. Guterres is right, everything is male-dominated. You’ve got men at the top talking — in peace and security issues it’s often military men and elite politicians or those willing to use violence — you’ve got women in civil society doing their work, and there is this illusion that if we have women in politics here and there that that’s going to make a difference. But the truth is that while it’s important to have women in politics, that alone is not sufficient — especially when they are triply excluded: for being outside of mainstream power, for being in civil society and for being women. The primary driver of change is strong social movements on the ground — women’s movements — that push for change.

We need to identify the folks that are doing the work on the ground and make sure that we don’t inadvertently trample on them in the rush to ‘do something.'

RIGHTS: Often these international conferences will call on women from different countries, whom they designate representatives of a given circumstance or condition, and include them on panels throughout the event. Speaking with one of those women, from Rwanda, at a recent New York City conference, I learned she was upset about having been given just a couple of minutes on stage to “tell her story,” but was quickly dismissed without having the opportunity to talk concretely about issues and solutions. Doesn’t this approach reduce a gathering that could otherwise be impactful into something of a spectacle?

SNA: First of all I abhor the whole spectacle approach and the idea that constantly we identify a woman — today a Syrian, yesterday a Congolese — to hear their personal story and not then hear their analysis. To not then think about what this person’s solutions or ideas may be is disrespectful. And I find this with Western media generally. At ICAN we work with women in various contexts and we believe that it’s really important to have women’s voices in the media. But it really bothers me very often that the way we have to generate media interest is to say “this is so and so and she lost her son and then she went off and did such and such,” and it becomes a human-interest story. That is fine, that part of it is important, but what we’re saying is that these people actually have expertise and knowledge about what’s happening.

Why don’t we have them on TV as analysts and commentators on what’s going on, about politics and security, as opposed to just having them tell their story?

If you look at what’s happening in Iraq — from the beginning — the international system has engaged the extremes and the moderate middle, women and men, has gotten lost or were neglected and you just can’t do that. It doesn’t work. You can’t constantly say “if you’re violent we’ll talk to you but if you’re non-violent we’ll put all sorts of hurdles in your way to be heard.” But that’s exactly what the attitude is. Civil society should organize themselves, of course. If you’re pro-peace you should be allowed to be helping shape the decisions that are put forward. Otherwise the logic is that we should arm the women of Congo, we should arm the women of Afghanistan and let them be really, really violent and at some point we’ll notice them and bring them to the table and see what it is that they want.

We’re not naïve. We understand that those making the problems have to be part of the solution — but the operative word should be ‘part.’ The other ‘parts’ of the solution should include the non-violent, constructive actors that are dealing with the impact of war and involved in peacemaking. If you believe in 'empowerment' of women, let them in where power is being determined.

So conferences that don’t take this approach can actually be disempowering. The issue for me is that we as women are asserting our right to have a say in matters of peace and security. It’s not just about saying we have the right to be there. It’s about the right to assert our views, our perspectives and our approaches to the solution of our problems. It really is about believing that we have something different to say — not just about women’s rights or women’s issues, whatever that is, but about problems facing our countries. This is a big discussion in feminist scholarship as well. There is also a fetishization of women, whether they’re victims or heroes or violent, and the habit of making them uni-dimensional is a problem.

I also hate the notion that we are essentializing or stereotyping women who are pro-peace and rights. I’m in awe of the women I meet. I’m not essentializing anyone. I’m very pragmatic in believing that they have something to contribute to peacemaking.

RIGHTS: What about the question of celebrity? There has been some discussion, following the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict hosted by Angelina Jolie and William Hague two weeks ago in London, about whether these movements for women’s rights “need” Jolie for exposure, or become a casualty of her enormity, in terms of celebrity. What are the implications here?

SNA: There is no doubt that having all these countries and all these people coming together to talk about sexual violence in conflict is important as a marker of these issues. But what I’m curious about is what was the reporting, or what were the core messages that the public got? What was the prominent reporting that was done that came out of the London talks?

What’s interesting is that a lot of it gets focused on William Hague and Angelina Jolie. It was about the issues as well, but not about the women (and men) who are doing the work. That’s a tragedy.

And I have more issues with William Hague because I think as a politician it’s a fine line you have to tread. You wanted to do something good, you want your legacy to be this issue, that’s fine, but you must do it ethically and morally. And I really wonder what the net result is of what's been done.

Your celebrity or your power should be opening the door for these voices to come in. At ICAN we work with a network of women in conflict affected countries. We are very clear about what my job is and what theirs is. I can be in places and talk on their behalf, but really my job, wherever possible, is to open the door and let them be in those spaces themselves. We have to be a bridge — connecting our partners in war zones with our partners in governments that are supportive of peace and human rights — and that’s what I would like the celebrities and the big politicians to think of themselves as. They can convene the world’s media around them, but must also be the bridge and let these voices rise. That’s the paradigm shift we need. Otherwise, what you get is Angelina Jolie becoming a dame and William Hague receiving an award at Georgetown University. I’m sure they are not doing this work for the awards either.

All power to Angelina, but let us not stop at her, let it be about her opening the door for all sorts of expert activists on the ground to become known too.

Having said that, there are a whole host of unnamed and unknown heroes and heroines who are working inside foreign affairs ministries, who are pushing these issues. They are just as important and as heroic getting the issues prioritized, funded, and into the infrastructure of their institutions. Now for those people, when their foreign minister comes out and says “we believe in x, y, and z, we support a, b, and c” it becomes an important hope for them because they can go back to them six months later and say “minister so and so, here is why we need to support this group or that group or put money here or there.” Those speeches, those verbal commitments, become a hook for building out new policies into resources and programming. That’s one of the more positive aspects of this. But it’s still not enough.

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