Sunday 23 October 2016

Why it's still harder to be a woman than a soldier in war

Dominic MacSorley

Published 10/12/2015 | 02:30

Women in Syria are at particular risk of gender-based violence as the country’s civil war continues. Photo: Reuters
Women in Syria are at particular risk of gender-based violence as the country’s civil war continues. Photo: Reuters

In 2008, retired Major General Patrick Cammaert, Former Division Commander of the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, declared: "It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict."

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In 2015, his statement is truer than ever before.

Today, Human Rights Day, marks the end of the annual UN-backed '16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence' campaign, which has seen a number of initiatives in Ireland and abroad aimed at galvanising action to end violence against women and girls around the world.

Globally, particularly in conflict contexts, gender-based violence is not just a cultural phenomenon; it is a weapon of war. The sad reality is that sexual violence is part of every major conflict on earth. After declining for much of the 1990s, conflict has increased significantly recently. Major civil wars have almost tripled.

Conflicts are becoming more intense and more protracted and there is greater civilian displacement as a result of conflict than at any other time in recent memory.

The level of continued violent conflict across the globe - from South Sudan to Syria, from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo - coupled with the fact that civilians are increasingly entangled within these conflicts, means that women are suffering the ravages of sexual violence in conflict at an extremely high rate at this moment in time.

The 2015 UN General Assembly report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict highlighted the fact that: "In most conflicts, women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected by sexual violence and the brutalisation of women remains a consistent and persistent feature of conflict."

The Irish Consortium on Gender-based Violence was set up 10 years ago as a response to reports of sexual violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. It is a distressing fact that 10 years later the female population in that region continues to be terrorised by regular attacks from government forces and in war-torn South Sudan sexual violence remains endemic. The African Union report, published last month, revealed a truly shocking level of sexual violence being committed by both sides in the ongoing civil war, the frequency and brutality of violence of which is almost unspeakably horrifying.

The situation in certain areas of Syria and Iraq or areas of Nigeria that have been taken over by Boko Haram, where women are routinely kidnapped and enslaved en masse, is equally disturbing. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is estimated that up to 40pc of the population are victims of conflict-related sexual violence. Rape has been an inescapably common aspect of war for as long as we know it, but rarely, if ever, has there existed such a chillingly widespread system of organised enslavement of women as spoils of war.

It's a truly horrific and daunting picture, but as NGOs we need to try to understand what part we can play. What we can and can't do. The first thing we can try to do is to ensure that when vulnerable populations reach refugee camps in neighbouring countries, adequate resources are in place to deal with gender-based violence.

We know from experience that when conflicts such as those in Syria and South Sudan arise, when populations are displaced and when society is thrown into turmoil, this is the time when women and young girls are most vulnerable.

In refugee settings, those most at risk are women and girls.

Worryingly, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that some men who have been impacted by the Syrian conflict use sexual and gender-based violence as negative coping strategies to address feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness brought on by their situation.

Two weeks ago, I visited Lebanon and witnessed the work of one of Concern's programmes, funded by Irish Aid, which is engaging men and boys on the subject of gender-based violence and is impacting positively on their behaviour and attitudes. The wives, daughters and sisters of those men told me how their lives had changed for the better as a result of this programme's work.

The danger is, however, that as the conflict worsens, and the funding crisis for Syria grows, NGO programmes of this type will suffer. With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, more bombs means more fleeing and more displaced people coming into crowded camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. Without funding, gender-focused programmes will suffer, as they always do, when there is only enough money for the basics: food, water, shelter.

NGOs need to advocate for increased funding to mitigate the risks of gender-based violence. Without comprehensive gender-based violence programmes built into the response to the Syrian conflict, the scale of long-lasting but hidden devastation and suffering amongst women will be incalculable. We know from our experience in Lebanon, Sierra Leone and other areas, that programmes which target men on sensitisation and attitude change on gender-based violence are effective.

But if we fail to get funding for these programmes, the incidence of gender-based violence will only increase and the hidden suffering of women will continue long after the conflict has ended.

Assuming of course, that, eventually, it will end...

Dominic MacSorley is CEO of Concern Worldwide

Irish Independent

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