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Bring them into the daylight

The session on Sexual and Reproductive Health rights in Africa, held by the Amanitare Sexual Rights Network opened with the blunt observation by Dr Lesley Ann Foster, director of Masimanyane, that just as violence against women is global, so too is the failure of every government in the world to meet its obligations in international, national and regional law to protect women. For all the advances in our understanding of the problem she said, “ What we cannot claim, is that we have changed the culture of impunity.“

Women UN limited logo and linkSo what have we understood? Gudrun Jonsdottir from Stigamot in Iceland, spoke of how international surveys focus on the women who are raped – measuring their guilt, their feelings of shame, the different ways in which they are blamed for the fact they are raped. Where, she asked, are the surveys measuring the perpetrators guilt? 85% of the women who make it to the Stigmont shelter do not report the rape because they feel ashamed, 75% because they think it was somehow their fault. The Icelandic government ran an anti-alcohol campaign telling women they would be less likely to be raped if they did not drink. The real connection? Two thirds of men who rape do so while they are drunk.  In terms of the how the courts deal with rapists, she could count on one hand the number of cases successfully taken through the high court. The effect of impunity is that women continue to think that it is their fault.  She called for women working to end violence against women to change the way they work, to perform a paradigm shift in their attitude to their work  by  “adopting a holistic approach to statistics and measure the invisible factor in this – the men who rape - and bring them into the daylight”. She said that preventive work must be aimed at the guilty ones in the group – the men, and that “we must name the beast if we are to change anything”.

Rachel Paul of Norwegian Church Aid, working in the middle east spoke of women in Jordan being held in prison for up to fourteen years for ‘protection', not because of crimes they have committed, but for crimes that have been perpetrated against them that now leave them open to attacks by their families for having ‘dishonoured’ the family – even though the crime may have been committed by someone with that same family. Impunity at work again.  Men get mitigated sentences of three months if they are ‘saving the family’ from defamation.  Control of women posing as protection. Under this kind of impunity we are getting nowhere, again – it’s time to change the focus from the women to the men. 

Rashida Manjoo is the new UN Special Rapporteur on the causes and consequences of VAW and she rightly paid tribute to her predecessor Yakin Erturk for “pushing the boundaries of the sterile UN machinery in a transformatory way”. Rashida has chosen this year to report on reparation and will focus on conceptualising the issue redress and what women understand and want from it. In 2011 she will focus on prevention. Two years ago there was a huge push to work with men in the struggle to end violence against women and previous speakers had spoken of seeing this as key to prevention, but Rashida struck a note of discord when she said that this approach was ‘highly problematic’ on the grounds that it diverts money away from the work of the SR for which “there is a complete lack of resources” and went on to say that she had heard of many contexts and ‘horror stories’ of programmes working with men which had resulted in them increasing their power and control in the name of protecting women. Two steps forward, three back.  She is for moving away from any protectionist model and sticking with the empowerment model. For her engaging with men is a real dilemma, if we are going to do so, she cautioned, we must be sure of both the premise and our methods. 

Lesley Ann Foster talked of how the resurgence of religious and cultural conservatism has not only made the challenge of implementation of  legislation harder, but has resulted in the re-emergence of old traditions and tribal practices in Africa such as witch burning in the case of women who are believed to have infected men with Aids, and the return of virginity testing in which girls as young as the age of three are being brought in to be tested by women – and then sexually abused by the men who have asked for them to be tested because of the myth that sleeping with a virgin is a cure for Aids.

Violence against women remains one of the most pervasive violations of human rights and in the last decade has been recognised as such, cross cutting all boundaries. Some progress. Lesley Ann Foster called for women to build a global movement to end impunity, for while it lasts we are getting nowhere.

 

 

About the author

Jane Gabriel founded and edited the website openDemocracy 50.50 in 2006, publishing critical perspectives on social justice, gender and pluralism. The site was run as a feminist editorial collective until 2016 when Jane retired as editor.

Prior to joining openDemocracy, Jane produced and directed more than 30 documentaries for Channel 4 Television and the BBC international current affairs series Correspondent, winning the Royal Television Society and One World Media awards for documentaries filmed in Greece and India. In 1980’s she was a member of the UK's first all-women television production company, Broadside. In the 1970's she worked at Granada TV in the UK, and at Pacifica radio KPFA in the US. She is a qualified advocate for children in care, and a Trustee of the IF Project.


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