RAPE IS ONE of the most insidious and low-profile weapons of war the world over.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 48 women are raped every 60 minutes. In post war Liberia, a World Health Organisation survey found that 90 per cent of women interviewed had been subjected to sexual abuse while, in Lebanon, Concern’s staff on the ground continue to hear the horror stories that have come with the Syrian crisis.
‘War rape’ has left millions of women and girls traumatised, forcibly pregnant and possibly HIV positive. The consequences of such violence can be, and are, fatal or life-threatening and certainly life-limiting.
Take Benu, who I met in a rural village in Liberia. Young, bright, confident and vibrant, she is eager to talk to me about her life. What started as an excited conversation soon turned into the grim reality of a young woman, abandoned with three children, no home of her own, and forced to stay with relatives to put a roof over her children’s heads. With low status in the community given her age and lack of a husband, and no access to land or employment, Benu talked to me about her risky coping strategies, which include walking for a day to the mines to eke out a living of cooking for miners and any other demands that are made of her, some of which I don’t care to imagine.
Violence, marginalisation and exclusion
Benu’s is a life of extreme vulnerability and violence, marginalisation and exclusion. This, unfortunately, is the reality for many young women in Liberia, a country that went through 14 years of conflict.
More topically, while the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon continues to make world headlines, we hear little about the women and girls who are at increased risk of multiple forms of violence due to generalised insecurity and limited access to support. Being displaced from one’s home and homeland would affect anyone, but it negatively impacts particularly on women’s and children’s lives. They are separated from their families and so have increased vulnerability, experiencing violence and a denial of the life and rights they once knew, and which now seem a distant memory.
The reality of ‘survival sex’ is on the rise as women and girls desperately try to access income to survive the living costs they are faced with in Lebanon.
The Syrian crisis has particularly hit home with our staff, as they listen to the stories of people who once experienced good lives, decent education, and a middle class reality that compares to many in Ireland. Imagine being stripped of everything you have and forced to flee to a neighbouring country with almost nothing …
Yet, some might say that this is one of the realities of war and nothing can be done. Well, we can make a start. Giving women the opportunity to break the silence on this very taboo subject is the first step in helping them regain their dignity and build their confidence. Supporting women’s groups to build an awareness of the endemic and damaging nature of violence and influencing leaders and communities to take action to end impunity are all important steps.
Engaging with men
Engaging with men in the process is fundamental, as they have the power to change the situation.
Society pressurises men to ‘be a man’. In certain ways, and in many contexts, that means the more violent you are the more of a ‘man’ you are. But not even men themselves are happy with these situations of violence and domination. Change has to happen and it is possible.
Increasingly, for instance, Concern works with men on issues of gender equality and gender-based violence issues. Change is taking place.
The 8th March each year marks International Women’s Day. It is a time for us to recognise the women and girls of this world who are living in poverty and vulnerability due to gender discrimination. It is especially poignant now that we are hearing on a daily basis about the increasing number of conflicts around the world, from Central Africa Republic to Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan to Syria. The many impacts of climate events and the increasing number of natural disasters also threaten to increase further the discrimination and vulnerability of women and girls.
It is against the background of such insecurity and lack of stability that women and girls experience the harshest of realities. Rape continues to be a weapon of war and is used to dehumanise both women – and men – in their own families and communities.
Gender inequality is a human rights violation
International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us all to celebrate, recognise, and show solidarity with the dreams, aspirations and empowerment of women and girls. It is an opportunity to commemorate the bravery of women who confront injustice across the globe and to reflect on the important gains made in addressing gender inequality in recent times, but also the continued challenges that exist.
Gender inequality is a human rights violation – but change is possible. We need to ensure that on an international scale continued resources, interventions and lobbying are exerted for this change to materialise. We must keep this pressure on.
Realising that women and girls are the solution to global poverty is a powerful insight to which the wider world has yet to awaken. In the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
Concern works in both long-term development and emergency response situations in 27 countries around the world, with an increasing focus on empowering women and girls. Meeting women like Benu in Liberia inspires me as an Equality Adviser to continue this invaluable work. Most of us in Ireland are in a privileged position to be able to celebrate being a woman; the same can’t be said for millions of women around the world.
This International Women’s Day, let us reflect on their situations and really believe that change is possible.
Bernadette Crawford is an Equality Adviser with Concern Worldwide.