Hope may be a rare word in the discourse of realpolitik that frames much official discussion on conflict and security today. It is certainly not counted amongst the quantifiable resources in security or peacebuilding budgets. And yet it is a word that I have heard consistently over the past two days of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference.....
...from survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, to NGO-based activists to government technocrats.
When it comes to violence against women, the numbers are depressing- an estimated 500,000 were raped during the Rwandan genocide, and 40,000 during the war in Bosnia. In South Africa, a country not officially at war, a woman is more likely to be raped that learn how to read. Despite the prevalence of violence, only one in every 9 victims report the case to police. In Ciudad Juarez in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua a reported 340 women were killed in 2010 alone in gender-based violence related to narco-trafficking. Across the world, conviction rates for sexual violence in particular are alarmingly low. If the numbers are not cause for grave concern, then the forms that violence against women takes certainly are, with increasing levels of brutality inflicted on everyone from newborns to elderly women.
For those who work to tackle these issues every day, the degree and viciousness of devastation meted out on women and girls bodies is certainly cause for despair. Yesterday, while survivors of conflict gave their testimonies, and many of the delegates at the conference wept, a colleague turned to me and asked “how do they do it? How do they keep going after all that has been done to them?”.
At breakfast, Robi Damelin, an Israeli peace activist who mobilizes mothers whose children have been killed across the Israel-Palestine divides reflects “our work is like taking water out of the sea with a teaspoon. But we don’t have a choice! If you live in a conflict you can’t afford not to have hope”.
It seems, then, that there is something pragmatic about hope in a space such as this, where women are gathered to strategise on concrete steps towards ending the complex and widespread practice of sexual violence in conflict. Far from naïve “hippies”, the women issuing the call for hope have themselves stared human brutality in the face, and know too well the texture and force of political and social violence.
One such woman is Irish peace activists and Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, known for her passionate call to non-violence and a radical transformation in the ways that we deal with each other as human beings. She urged conference delegates to recognise: “There is one thing we share in this room- we all have hearts….Our challenge is to extent our hearts beyond our own children to reach out to others who are suffering…That is our challenge, to build a civilisation with a heart”.
Hope, then, is not a simply a poetic concept but a practical tool to both inspire change and sustain the will to seek out and create solutions. To borrow from the wisdom of a t-shirt slogan worn by Jodie Evans, co-founder of the flamboyant peace activist organisation Code Pink “the only recognizable feature of hope is action”.
To read openDemocracy's fullcoverage of the conference on ending sexual violence in conflict click here