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Beijing Opening Ceremonies 1995
Soon-Young with an Egyptian camel


Violence Against Women

“The issue of gender disparities is ultimately one of disparate freedoms.” (Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Laureate)


Protests at the NGO Forum

When women are free from violence, they exercise their voice and help change the public agenda. This isn’t just rhetoric. We have good proof. When American women lawmakers turned their attention to child and maternal health, infant mortality rates were lowered to 15 percent. (World Bank 2012).

It took many years for violence against women and girls to be understood. Not long ago, we talked about the silent and private agony of battered women in the home. Today, we argue that violence is a cultural problem, a societal pathology that takes other insidious forms: rape during conflicts, female genital mutilation, forced early marriage, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, and femicide. Many groups such as indigenous women, women and girls living with disabilities, the homeless, widows, and women and girls living with HIV/AIDS face multiple discriminations. The same is true for many migrant and internally displaced women, refugees, women in the military and incarcerated women. These complexities made it hard for us to see the common denominator: unequal power relations between men and women.

One of the most powerful and least expensive ways to prevent violence against women and girls is for the world’s leaders to consistently and publicly say that it is wrong. For example, university presidents have to be more vocal about ending rape and sexual harassment on campus. Some men have already set a good example. In May 2013, President Obama stepped forward to support same-sex marriage. At that time, no laws were passed, and no enforcements were in place. However, with his public and very visible announcement, the terms of the national debate were changed. These actions helped to redefine what is acceptable male behavior and made all the difference.  

We also have to be smarter about why small-scale projects aren’t working. Violence against women can’t be solved by a few school educational programs or public campaigns. We could have shelters for battered women on every city street corner, but that still wouldn’t be safe for families . Our approach has to be a comprehensive package targeted at unraveling patriarchal privilege at the core.

There is one glaring gap in our knowledge about prevention. We need to know more about why boys become perpetrators, and why the majority of men do not. Why do boys who experience violence in their childhood home grow up to batter their spouses and children? Why do men who have experienced childhood traumas and conflicts survive and become advocates for ending violence against women and girls? Without a global, multi-country study that identifies risks, protective factors, and causes for men and boys, we are left in the dark about how to tackle prevention and when it can work in the male life cycle.

I think the UN is an ideal place to take the issue globally, because at its core,  violence against women and girls is the most universal and pervasive kind of human rights violation. The founding principles of the UN include development and peace for all women and men equally as a human right. I have great respect for the many UN policy and legal instruments on hand like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol. These instruments carry the weight of the world’s opinion and are the beginnings of policy and legal reforms at national levels. They are our main tools of defining standards of justice and social norms. Let’s begin to leverage the power of global consensus.

Singing for the Dead

During a recent visit to Botswana, Unity Dow invited me to participate in the funeral rites of her cousin. Abandoned by a husband who had abused her for most of her life, the deceased woman had raised five children alone.

We arrived at the mortuary where her children were waiting. The nearest of kin went inside to fetch the body. In accordance with tradition, the deceased woman’s maternal uncle acted as the head of the family and took charge of the rituals. During the ceremony, he didn’t mention that she had died from AIDS, but everyone knew that some of the children might also be infected. If so, their only hope would be the government’s new program to give antiretroviral drugs to everyone with HIV/AIDS.

However, a funeral was not an appropriate occasion to talk about AIDS. It was time for kinsmen to send her joyfully into the next world and for the ancestors to welcome the woman into their realm.  I joined in the feasting.

A teenager with beautiful round eyes and a warm voice was seated next to me. She adjusted her scarf just enough to reveal severe burn marks on the right side of her face. “A group of hoodlums threw her on a barbeque pit,” a woman explained. The girl nodded, showing me the dark grill marks on her right arm, thigh, and leg. “I don’t know why they did this to me, except that I talked back to them when they were rude,” she said. Other women shared horror stories. In bars or at home, day or night, some women never felt safe, and violence was a constant threat behind sexual coercion. Girls contracted AIDS, because they were powerless to defend themselves against older men who believed in the superstition that virgins could cure them.

Not so long ago, one third of Botswana’s females aged 15 to 24 were infected with HIV/AIDS. Although rates have declined, violence associated with alcohol abuse remains a social problem of epidemic proportions.

This isn’t a scenario that unfolds only in Africa.  Violence against women and girls is global. It is a societal pathology that takes a variety of malevolent and deadly forms in many cultures across many classes. It is the most prevailing violation of women’s human rights globally and a major reason why women and girls do not feel safe at home or in the streets. In the United States, there is a strong link between intimate partner violence and HIV. For example, women in relationships with violence have four times the risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, than women in relationships without violence.

Gender-based violence is also an urgent economic and social development issue. According to the World Health Organization, domestic violence and rape rank higher than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war, and malaria in the global estimates of risk factors for women. Domestic and sexual violence in the United Kingdom alone costs the country £5.7 billion per year, including costs to the criminal justice system, health care costs, housing, and the loss to the economy. In the United States, the health care cost of intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking totals $5.8 billion each year, nearly $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health care services. Lost productivity from paid work and household chores and lifetime earnings lost by homicide victims total nearly $1.8 billion.

What is the UN doing about this? The UN Secretary General, supported by UN Women, has taken the lead, including engaging men and boy toand combat gender-based violence. At the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting, hundreds of NGOs gather together to prevent and end violence against women and girls. In its (a consensus document that provides policy guidance for the UN and governments), the Commission strongly condemviolence against women and girls and noted the important role that men and boys can have in prevention. I plan to return to Botswana very soon to catch up on some good news. I heard that the Harvard AIDS Initiative is working closely with the government to combat date rape and other forms of violence against women and girls as part of their HIV/AIDS prevention program. Let us hope that combined effort between social reform and health can make a difference

Breaking the Silence on Women’s Human Rights

The Pacific women shine in Beijing 1995

Based on an article authored by Charlotte Bunch and Soon-Young Yoon titled “Women – The Long, Long Journey” that was published in The Earth Times.

Every year, women around the world celebrate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence starting on November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women, and lasting through December 10, International Human Rights Day. Like musicians improvising in a global concert, women trumpet their issues and create a resonant noise. The political rhythms vary, but the themes are loud and clear. Women’s rights are human rights. Violence against women – rape, female genital mutilation, trafficking of women, domestic violence, the use of rape as a weapon of war – must end. LGBTQ and non-binary women must be protected.

Why are these campaigns so important? For centuries, violence has been – and for many women still is – a constant threat. Sati, or the burning of widows on funeral pyres, sacrificed women for the sake of family pride, and no one called it a crime. British common law declared it legal to beat your wife as long as you did so with a stick “no thicker than your thumb.” The rape of women and girls was considered a soldier’s just prize, a side issue to the tragedies of war. Such abuses were kept hidden and trivialized. Violence was a personal shame that most women hid. It was not understood as a human rights violation worthy of international attention by the United Nations.

Many of these abuses still occur. Customs and law sanction honor killings of women. Religious leaders condone the infibulation of girls as a justifiable means to give men pleasure. The UN and governments are starting to redress these abuses thanks Security Council resolution 1325 and actions of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Additional advances were made when the CEDAW committee issued a new General Recommendations document  that required governments to report on women in conflict and post-conflict situations as well as the women’s access to justice. The Beijing Platform for Action, adopted in 1995, outlined recommendations to ensure human rights literacy for women to know their human rights and also spelled out policy actions on violence against women and situations of

The credit for the UN’s actions goes to the women’s movement. In the last half century, activism reached a critical mass that was reflected in the UN’s decision to call for an International Women’s Year in 1975 followed by a UN Decade for Women and four UN world conferences on women. The UN world conferences of the 1990s served as global town meetings where women exchanged ideas across the boundaries of culture and nationality and brought their experiences to bear on the global agendas of those events. For many women, these meetings also provided the first opportunities to meet together internationally.

Women organized events and hearings to expose violations of their rights and formed caucuses regionally and internationally. They also prepared documents that introduced women’s human rights perspectives to the agendas of many UN conferences, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Social Summit in Copenhagen, the Habitat Conference in Istanbul, and the Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. Women have since rallied to hold governments accountable at follow-up UN events, such as Beijing Plus 25 in New York in 2020. These events and caucuses have moved women’s concerns beyond the women’s conferences and provided a powerful voice for women on many global issues, such as the small arms treaty and international crime.

Women around the world broke the silence with their actions. They found a common language of liberation and helped the UN and governments look at the world through women’s eyes. Women’s groups have shown that a nonviolent social movement for change can be revolutionary and that there are peaceful means to ending violence. They have also established that the world vision for peace cannot be achieved as long as there is a reign of terror against women and girls.

What Women Have in Common with Camels

Soon-Young and an Egyptian camel

Once while visiting quarries near the Egyptian pyramids, a scruffy stone worker gave long, hard looks to me and my companion. I thought his looks were just signs of curiosity, but they turned out to mean much more. He stopped his work and, with the help of a translator, proposed to buy me. In between the misunderstandings about the exact price, there was something about how white and straight my teeth were. Fortunately, my partner wasn’t short of cash, and he declined the offer.

Later, I learned from my Egyptian friends that I had experienced something fairly common in rural areas in other parts of the world: evaluating a potential bride by her teeth. According to my friends, women’s teeth indicate their age and health status. It seems that teeth are also considered a private, sensual part of the body. I was less amused when they told me that when traders buy camels, prices were determined by using similar physical standards.

This experience did little to lower my self-esteem. However, it did remind me that in many societies, women and girls are traded like animals on the market. The trafficking of women and children has emerged as one of the darker sides of globalization, with a criminal underground network flourishing and using new information technologies to violate, rather than defend, human rights. Boys and young men are also victims of forced labour and sex trafficking.

Controls on the illegal flow of sex workers have been complicated by the increases in international migration. In the last decade, the number of females leaving to seek work abroad has increased at a faster rate than that of men, particularly from countries whose economies have suffered. Moreover, many women are migrating alone as temporary workers in low-paid jobs, and they are vulnerable to employment scams that are fronts for the sex slave trade.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in cooperation with other UN agencies, is taking action to protect international migrants while opening borders for easier movement of labor. Its efforts are admirable, but the real problem for women and girls goes beyond labor standards and fair wages. For women, the culprits are international criminals who use legitimate open markets to traffic organs, drugs, tobacco, and people for lucrative profit. Let us keep our focus on law enforcement and criminal justice, not just migration policies and labor practices.  

What’s Optional About the Optional Protocol?

UN Vienna anti-trafficking display

Many of us are signing up for a self-taught crash courses on law and treaties. With terms like “optional protocol” floating around, we have to become on-the-spot legal experts or lose track of key debates. What if we are considered quacks? So much the better. The demystification of professional language is absolutely necessary – even desirable – when it comes to issues like violence against women. The Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) can enhance women’s political presence only after it has been unfolded from UN baggage and made to fit the average person.

As I understand it, the document gives women a means to enforce CEDAW with a procedure for complaints. But I found that many of my friends shared my misconceptions. When I first heard about the Optional Protocol, I was quite confused. My first question was: What is optional about the Optional Protocol? I assumed that it would be a useful “escape” clause, allowing governments to qualify their commitments to CEDAW’s provisions and make it less binding, otherwise optional. In fact, this is way off the mark. The document is supposed to give CEDAW bigger teeth.

I also misunderstood the use of protocol in this instance. I assumed that it would contain significant statements about the importance of women’s rights. Wrong again. Much to my surprise, the document was almost entirely about the rules by which complaints can be lodged and how to respond.

Lesson number one: Governments that have signed and ratified CEDAW have the option of adopting this additional process. Signing the Optional Protocol was a sign of sincerity and opened the way to self-criticism. It would also grant a higher enforcement influence to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and more weight to the words of the CEDAW document.

Lesson number two: The Optional Protocol is not about new rights. It is about how to make violations known. It describes who can file, how to do it properly, and other such operational details. Individual women or possibly groups may take their own governments to task and make their cases known to the CSW.

Lesson number three: Since the Optional Protocol is subordinate to CEDAW, only those countries that have signed and ratified the convention will be allowed to sign onto this portion. Unfortunately, this means that there is no possibility that the US will be a party to this document. This is a loss for American advocates to end violence against women and girls.

Lesson number four is yet to be learned. That lesson is how to finance, manage, and respond quickly to a barrage of cases. With the majority of the world’s poor women deprived of the rights to adequate food, safe water, and clean environment, the complaints concerning economic rights alone should create an instant backlog. With this in mind, it is essential that governments provide funding for human rights education on how to access national and regional mechanisms before reaching the CSW. In the long run, human rights should not be the sole responsibility of the legal systems, but part of good global citizenship.

Child Prostitutes

Violence against girls includes crimes that threaten their mental and physical health. Children trafficked into prostitutes are among the most vulnerable. Furthermore, in countries like Nepal, the AIDS epidemic is a serious threat to girls lured into prostitution. The criminal trafficking of women and girls, fueled by booming tourism, has driven thousands of women and children into sexual slavery. The most vulnerable are the members of remote hill tribes and lower castes, both of which provide a steady stream of sex workers into the market. In addition to sexual slavery at home, girls are sold as child brides across the border in India.

At a meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a Secretary of Nepal’s Ministry for Law and Justice noted that his country’s borders were difficult to patrol. He explained that the prostitution problem started when women from hill areas were brought to Kathmandu as housemaids. In hard times, employers released them from domestic work and turned them over to brothels. A bill to control trafficking was passed in 1986, making the offense punishable by 15 years’ imprisonment, but the situation has worsened.

Child prostitutes are in greater demand than ever before because of the mistaken notion that they are less likely to be infected. Virgins are presented at high prices to brothel clients as AIDS-free. They are exploited, and many become pregnant. Abortion laws do not allow them to terminate pregnancies without parental approval, a condition impossible for these girls to meet. Thus, 14-year-old girls run the risk of bearing HIV-infected children or dying in childbirth. The government has tried to take charge of the situation by gathering evidence. The first two HIV-positive cases among Nepalese women were identified in 1989. Since then, many more HIV-positive have been identified in comparison to HIV-positive men. However, the rates of infection among children and girls in sexual slavery is almost unknown. With few hospitals and the high costs of detection, no one knows for sure how many child prostitutes will die from the virus.

CEDAW recommended that the Nepalese government enforce stricter laws to protect the rights of girls against rape, violence, and prostitution. The South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, held in Kathmandu, also introduced a convention on trafficking in girls and children. These measures, along with the recommendations of the General Assembly, are essential steps toward protecting the future of girls like those in Nepal. The international community must be alerted to the plight of these children whose daily lives are a gamble with violence surrounding AIDS.

The Truth About Gender-based Violence

FIRE radio broadcasts

On December 10, 1997, Ana Parejo Vivar went on Spanish television to reveal how her husband had abused her. Then, much to his surprise, she announced that she was seeking a divorce. Ten days later, her husband doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Death was a high price to pay for speaking out, but she would not hide in terror. That year, 17,000 cases of domestic violence were recorded and only five percent of women went to the police.

Courageous women around the world have declared that gender-based violence/femicide should not be a guarded secret, and they look increasingly to the media to help them expose its malignancy. Fortunately, there are signs that mass media is paying attention. Many television producers now regard the rape of women refugees in Eastern Europe and Africa as legitimate war stories equal in importance to the siege of a city. Newspaper editors have listed domestic violence stories in their crimes section – a step up from the traditional attitude that these stories were not newsworthy. Moved by tragic accounts, well-meaning journalists even portray the sordid details of fatal beatings: broken bones, slashed breasts, and swollen bellies. We are horrified by the assaults. We grit our teeth and swear we will do something to help. However, does reporting about gender violence inspire action?

I suspect keeping the public eye on the problem raises awareness, but merely tantalizes our sympathy. Just the facts may not be enough to stir the average citizen out of complacency. Reports of gender-based violence/femicide buttress the false notion that men’s nature is naturally savage, brutish, and nearly uncontrollable. The public can even develop a depressing attitude of indifference, because there is little in the news that shows a way out of these situations.

The remedy is that we need more good news. By good, I don’t mean sugarcoated tales that ignore what’s wrong. There has to be more balanced reporting between tales of misery and upbeat stories about women’s leadership, activities, and progress. The truth is that women aren’t just victims. They have mobilized for years to fight gender violence and are making important gains. The stories that need more coverage are the ones that show how the UN, governments, judges, police, and doctors are making a difference in partnership with local men and women’s groups. That kind of news encourages citizens to take action. Alas, many of the wonderful news groups like FIRE and the International Women’s Tribune Center have been lost, and more effort must be placed on funding feminist media.

Women’s media like the WRUN is an online resource for feminist news. These days, the buzz is about the international campaign known as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This global event has become so popular that many governments have become official sponsors.

Men are also getting more involved in combating gender violence. Canadian men are showing their commitment by wearing white ribbons, signing petitions, and making donations to support women’s shelters. Breakthrough, an award-winning grass-roots campaign, reaches millions of men and boys who ring the bell to end violence against women and girls. The media need to pay more attention to these kinds of events, because the bad news about gender violence is only half of the whole truth. The rest is about hope.

Children Under Fire

Bangladesh child

In the 1970s, many Lebanese children were born, raised, and died in a decade of total war. Like kids in Detroit, Michigan, who can identify car models by their engine noises, Lebanese children played games to see who could tell the difference between one kind of gunshot and another. Many of them had an additional skill: how to distinguish firecrackers from machine gun fire within the first few bursts. Even these imaginative escapes had their limits. Children missed the simple pleasures of peacetime, like going out into the streets safely. Outbreaks of fighting during the day kept children from going to school. Some never went at all.

Although women’s groups and peace organizations tried to cross over enemy lines to establish peace, other leaders were organizing children to make sure the hostilities endured. Before his assassination, I learned about this first-hand from Bashir Gemayel, former head of the radical Christian party. Through special arrangements, I had a tour of East Beirut with him at the wheel and armed guards in the back seat. To dodge possible car bombs, we changed cars several times before we arrived at his final destination. A fanatic militarist leader, he was proud of his plan to raise the next generation of loyal youth for what he thought was a holy war. We stopped in front a school with students in their early teens lined up in smart, scout-like uniforms. “This is my next army,” he announced. He had realized that the wars could continue long enough for this to happen.

Distorting children’s impressionable minds to sway political allegiance has been a common strategy of dictators. Unfortunately, recruiting children into armies is also becoming more widespread. UNICEF estimates that some 300,000 children under the age of 18 are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. In many parts of the world, children as young as eight and ten years of age have been forcibly recruited, coerced, or induced to become combatants. Other grave violations include killing and maiming of children, attacks against schools, and denial of humanitarian access for children. Lest we think that this only affects boys; up to 10 percent of children carrying arms are girls. A Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) General Recommendation on Women and Girls in Conflict and Post Conflict is a welcome legal instrument. Pramila Patten, then CEDAW expert and chair of the working group for that General Recommendation, hopes that it will help to protect girls from being kidnapped by armies as well as help them to reintegrate into their communities once they return. The UN’s Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict was established in 2012 to give a moral voice and prominence to the rights and protection of children affected by armed conflict.

As part of preventing violence against women and girls, we must also pay more attention to what happens to boys during wartime. In countries with prolonged civil strife, such as in Sierra Leone, many children missed the chance to go to school and develop precious ties with classmates. Instead, they might have been involved in demonstrations or have even gone to jail. Often, children don’t have to be coerced to join armies. They volunteer, because there are no options, no schools, and no jobs. Without schools to bond youth together, boys can easily be attracted to renegade groups, like gangs that give them a sense of belonging. Even if they are lucky enough to attend school, they may not learn the values that would rescue them from a cycle of violence. We all know that childhood experiences help shape adult worlds. Many of us had our chances. Shouldn’t these children also have theirs?

Female Genital Mutilation – Who Should Lead the Way?

In the early days of the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM), a French women’s group circulated a petition protesting the practice at an international meeting on women and development in Dakar. They had heard their African sisters tell how young girls were infibulated and their entire private parts removed and sewn back together. This extreme form of FGM induced psycho-physical trauma in girls that would endure their entire lives. In the case of infibulation, re-cutting would have to take place before intercourse and cause more physical pain and injury with each childbirth. The French participants were so outraged that they called for a ban on the practice.

As the petition reached me, Belkis Giorgis, my Ethiopian friend, whispered to me not to sign it. She felt strongly that African women should take the leadership on this issue, because Westerners might misunderstand the practice. In her experience, FGM was sensationalized, associated with “barbaric” African practices, and taken out of its cultural context. The African women raised their voices in protest and brought the petition signing to a dead halt. The French women were shocked at this resistance and insisted that collective action was the only answer. The African women would have no part of their initiative. Resisting the French feminist call for action, the Africa group started their own movement. At that meeting, the first pan-African NGO association against FGM was organized and is known as the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.

The petition effort was decades ago, but it is important to remember that choice of leadership is still an issue. FGM is a heinous violent act against girls, but it cannot be eradicated unless those who are fighting for change understand the deeply-entrenched beliefs of the people who practice it.

Whether the movement against FGM is in the Sudan, Senegal, France or Germany, the women who have to live with the political realities of banning FGM should lead the way. They are the most knowledgeable about the political landmines, the evolving cultural contexts, and how local women react to outside involvement. At the same time, when international action is needed, sisters from around the world should be ready to help.

Women who want to show support for the African women’s cause can often contribute by learning about their own governments’ positions at international meetings on FGM. These women can also be advocates for foreign policies that are a combination of non-interference and unwavering financial support for women’s sexual and reproductive rights as a human right. Respect for diversity requires us to share leadership, and the women’s movement is learning these lessons the hard way. In some countries, it is taking time, but once the lessons are under our belts, we’ll be qualified to teach others.

Making Governments Accountable for Sexual Violence

Dalia Lemairt, former Chair of CEDAW

On July 18, 2011, during its 49th session, the Committee to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) had a General Discussion Day to launch the drafting of an important General Recommendation. This document would be on women and girls in conflict prevention, conflict, and post-Conflict. The General Recommendation was needed, because governments failed to report on conflicts. If countries did not report, how could CEDAW be used to help victims seek justice?

To build the legal framework, CEDAW experts need solid data. Unfortunately, there was very little research that accurately portrayed the situation of the victims. For the first time in CEDAW’s history, this gap was to be filled through regional consultations with Pramila Patten, the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict who was also serving as the lead CEDAW expert for this topic at the time. At her suggestion, I travelled as an NGO observer to regional consultations. I was anxious to learn more about how CEDAW could make a difference to the survivors of violence.

These regional meetings gave Pramila important insights into the challenges facing CEDAW in Africa, the Arab States, Asia, South and Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. As the meetings progressed, I watched the scope, the definitions, and the concepts of the General Recommendation evolve and grow in response. It was like watching a skilled potter create a new vessel from clay – and I was fascinated.  

What did I learn? I discovered in those meetings how important it is to build a bridge between those you seek to protect and the legal instrument you craft on their behalf. That distance can be very long. CEDAW General Recommendations are like encrypted codes which, like other UN documents, may speak in highly esoteric, legal jargon enveloped in distilled theories.

Perhaps the most moving experience for me was in Guatemala. In a special session with about 20 survivors of the country’s prolonged war, indigenous women described how government troops came into their villages to recruit their men for the army. When the men hid in the fields, women stayed behind to protect the children and homes. That’s when soldiers went on a rampage destroying property and livelihood and committing some of the most shameful acts of sexual violence against women and girls. We listened to the women’s testimonies of sexual slavery, rapes of pregnant women, destruction of fetuses, exhibitions of mutilated women’s bodies, humiliations, and forced naked dancing in front of soldiers. Rape was often a prelude to death, as it had become a part of the rituals preceding the massacres committed by the army in the highlands. These tactics were not random acts by soldiers, but deliberately designed to intimidate the population. Selective sexual violence was also used to torture and repress women in social or revolutionary organizations, an approach that often became a generalized practice to punish any enemy.

What were governments in this region doing to assure women access to justice? Dr. Miran Perla Jiminez, Honorable Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice from El Salvador, explained that governments tried very hard to restore the strength of their judiciary systems by creating special lines of recourse for survivors. However, in her country as in Guatemala, the rising tide of international crime and the strength of armed vigilantes were unraveling possibilities for women’s security. While I was there, the reports of femicide (the killing of women for their organs) and drug crime were so threatening that the Minister of the Interior advised all of us to return to our hotels before dark. I learned international crime joins with local unrest to undermine the states’ authority and the rule of law.

Hope comes from some countries, where women’s NGOs take great pride in their roles as agents to prevent conflict. Early warning systems using mobile phones, training the judiciary and police, use of whistleblower protection laws, and witness protection programs have been put in place. These advances are a source of hope for prevention policies and programs in other regions and to the survivors I met in Guatemala.

These days, whenever I hear about a new UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence during conflict or the importance of women in peace building, I remember the faces and stories of the survivors of gender violence I have met. I believe that when we keep these faces before us, we can’t help but strengthen our resolve to use every tool – legal, social or economic – in our power to prevent such injustices.

Rape As a War Crime

Korean comfort women

In 2005, Jeom Dol Jang, a former comfort woman, spoke at the Korea Society in New York, recalling her own experiences as a victim of the Japanese Imperial Army’s sexual enslavement. Jang told us how she was taken from her family when she was just 14 years old and told she was going to work in a factory. When she ended up at an official brothel in Manchuria, she attempted suicide and tried to escape. She was caught and beaten so severely that the left side of her face was permanently paralyzed. After a year and a half, she was transported to another station in Singapore. Several pregnancies ended in miscarriages during her time in the captivity. In 1945, after Japan’s surrender, her captors left her and her fellow comfort women destitute and marooned thousands of miles from home. Relying on the kindness of strangers, Jang eventually returned to her village in Korea, but found that her family had been scattered by the war.

Her story was a tangible example of the war crimes of sexual slavery during World War II. During the war in Asia, an estimated 200,000 girls and young women – some as young as 12 years old – were abducted or coerced to become sex slaves for the Japanese army. According to one account, Korean girls were repeatedly raped, tortured, and subjected to sexual servicing for up to 100 soldiers a day. Many had multiple pregnancies, forced abortions, or were given sterilization injections. Japanese records reveal that victims were transported to comfort stations in countries throughout the Asia and Pacific region. Sex slaves were killed at the end of the war as the soldiers retreated. Those who survived lived with physical and mental disabilities for the rest of their lives.

The demonstrations and public hearings at national and international venues, including the UN, by former comfort women was one of the most important turning points in Korea’s social history. In my eyes, this campaign symbolized the blossoming of the modern Korean women’s movement and part of a global effort to deal with rape and sexual slavery as war crimes. Sexual violence – a very personal matter – was put on national and international policy agendas as the international women’s movement rallied to the cause. Korean politicians took notice of women’s human rights abuses as a matter of national urgency.

Sexual violence in conflict zones of Africa and other regions became the subject of increasing reports. Thousands of tragic women’s stories, past and present, could not be ignored. Political action was finally taken when the UN adopted Security Council resolution 1325, recognizing rape as a war crime. If anyone accuses the UN of being irrelevant, its actions on this issue stand out in its favor. With the UN’s support, national actions take on global significance that can help bring perpetrators to justice and give victims a pathway to justice.

Women Light the Way for Human Rights

Women light the way for human rights

Two young Polish women, Justyna and Paulina, stepped up to the podium at the Church Center in New York City to share their story. Their testimony stunned the audience gathered at the Global Tribunal to Celebrate and Demand Women’s Human Rights. When they were only 16 years old, two men promised them their first model shoot. Instead of giving them jobs, the men drugged and abducted them to Germany and forced them into prostitution. Once freed, Justyna and Paulina eventually became university students and took their case to court, but had to face a long, slow journey to heal their psychological wounds. It was a courageous struggle that no teenager should have to face.

After they told their story, there was a hush in the dark room. A chapel was the perfect place for their testimonials; confessions and absolution are a part of its tradition. More testimonies came from women around the world: Zarghuna Waziri (a teacher from Afghanistan), Alda Facio (from the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice in the International Criminal Court), Lydia Zigomo Nyatsanza (Zimbabwe), Maria Gerardina Lopez ( Costa Rica), and Palesa Beverly Ditsie (South Africa). Each of their stories broke a silence about a victim’s past. Before this sympathetic and often tearful audience, they could share their tragedies and turn our attention to the need to speak out.

I have always been moved by a singular feature of these women’s testimonials. They did not cry out for vengeance. Their stories had the voice of compassion, a plea for justice based on legal measures. They called for non-violent solutions: protests and legal action. I asked myself, ‘How could these women be so magnanimous after what they have experienced?’ It was as if they felt that revenge would be a waste of time. The need to rescue others was a much more urgent matter.

After the women spoke, the group marched outside for a candlelight vigil. We observed a minute of silence in remembrance of women who have died from gender-based violence. Then, the solemn mood changed to celebration as we cheered the achievements of women who have helped light the way for human rights.