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China’s “leftover women” and the left-out system

Can a skin brand “change your destiny” in a socially empowering way? A video titled ‘Marriage Market Takeover’ seems to have done a good job, but not without an underlying agenda. 

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"Lest you drive an angel from your door"

‘Then cherish pity; lest you drive an angel from your door.’
From ‘Holy Thursday’, Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake

The last line of Blake’s poem, with its echo of the Biblical injunction - ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Unawares!’ (Hebrew, 13:2) – reminds us that giving sanctuary or refuge to strangers who need it is part of a longstanding and venerable tradition in Britain. Indeed, by some accounts, we pride ourselves on a liberal asylum tradition that dates right back to the welcome that we gave Huguenots from France and the Protestants expelled by Phillip III of Spain in the late sixteenth century.

MigrantVoice on refuge

Asylum is a subject that is rarely out of the headlines in Britain. Immigration, a constant topic of debate in Westminster. But increasingly, a space for informed, open debate of the relevant issues has been squeezed out by widening divisions leading to a "toxic stand-off".

At openDemocracy we believe that debate changes minds, changes policy and ultimately leads to change in practice. With this as our goal, we will be running an editorial project, MigrantVoice on refuge to bring unheard voices, new ideas and testimony of the lived experiences of refugees in Britain to the attention of our readership and into the public debate during Refugee Week (16-22 June 2008).

Making gender his issue - Amir's story

For Amir, who wants women to be his equals

I know many men who consider women small; men who enjoy degrading women and view them only as tools for satisfying their urges; men who sum up their virility in stoning women. I know men who consider their vicious treatment of women a trait of champions and heroes; men who proudly describe their abuse of women to their friends. I know men who present themselves as open-minded types in public, but beat their wives in private.

Pray the devil back to hell

In her final report from the Wilton Park conference, Rosemary Bechler speaks to Liberian peace activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee, about women's essential role in peacebuilding.

Click here for parts one, two and three

Sexual violence: not just a gender issue

In the third of four reports from a UN conference on women targeted by armed conflict, Rosemary Bechler speaks to Nicky Dahrendorf, who as UN Action coordinator in the Congo holds "possibly one of the most challenging jobs ever devised".

Click here for parts one and two

3. A sobering reality

In that 'can do' atmosphere, I was very pleased to meet up briefly with Nicky Dahrendorf, who we last heard from on openDemocracy in late 2005. We repaired to a comfortable corner so that I could hear about what must be one of the most challenging jobs ever devised. On International Women's Day in 2007, twelve United Nations agencies came together to form the joint initiative, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations

Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) joined forces to improve the quality of programming to address sexual violence, to increase the coordination of efforts for comprehensive prevention and response services, and to improve accountability. The new Secretary General is keen to work on gender issues and has picked up on the challenge of sexual violence, and there is a new sense of momentum in the air. Nicky has just returned to the UN after two years away, to be appointed UN Action coordinator in the Congo.

'Prevention' in the field of sexual violence in conflict tends to be seen as a long-term challenge, involving a combination of judicial processes to demonstrate that there is no impunity for rape, and socio-cultural interventions aimed at changing attitudes in the long run and building women's capacity to expose and protest this violence. However, this is a long term process and everyone at the Wilton Park conference knows that women in eastern DRC or Darfur cannot wait the decades it might take for these efforts to work. The disruption of communities, of society as a whole, for example in the Congo can be measured not only in death, disease and trauma, but in women being kicked out on to the streets with their children and no income, prostitution, criminality and abuse of the kids – there are thousands of street children in Kinshasa, and the problem is growing.

But however tangible the sense of urgency in the people I am talking to, there are real problems in translating this into action. Nicky is currently wrestling to establish the parameters of her huge new remit; on the one hand, helping the DRC Government to develop a strategy on sexual violence, and on the other responding to the UN's new-found commitment to an over-arching approach. "Sexual violence is not just a gender issue," she explains, "It goes right across the board - it is about human rights, security sector reform - it's political. It's strategic. I don't mean to be politically incorrect, but if you are going to deal with this properly you have to integrate it into security sector and law reform. There are two immediate priorities for me - rule of law and impunity. This is tangible. If we can bring both civilians and military people to justice, it will have been a good start." UN Resolution 1325 will be a useful mechanism for communicating what has been achieved on the ground, but first the work has to be done. And this is where the problems start.

Already, a raft of political obstacles have been strewn across Nicky's path. It is not just enormous challenges, such as the glaring lacunae in the relevant data that concerns her, "Anecdotal evidence is all we have and much of it is incorrect. We can't develop our peacekeeping programmes without understanding the perpetrators and victims better. We need dedicated sex crimes investigators who go straight out to talk to these people. But after all these years - nothing has been done to pull the crucial data together. We need a proper stocktaking so that we can find out who is doing what where, so that we can begin to predict trends."

But the biggest problem is the UN machine itself. Already, her new post is beginning to feel to Dahrendorf like a sticking plaster over a gaping wound:

"Everything in the UN is a very gradual awakening - we know that. It needs a lot of lobbying and a lot of criticism. But I am very concerned about my job - put there in a senior position, but with absolutely no support. I have to scramble to get a computer: it's the same old UN story. The whole sexual violence issue does not lack funds. There is too much money around in my view. But the resources are really badly allocated. Important governments are duplicating their efforts in their haste to contribute. This project-oriented approach is not helpful, when what we need and what the Congolese Government needs, is strategy.

It's very late in the day. I think, to be truthful, it's too little too late. A lot of donors have got upset with the fact that the money that they have put into DRC and sexual violence has not seen results. It is a fact that certain lead agencies haven't delivered. Some of the international NGOs - IRC, Oxfam and others - have quite rightly asked why, with all the guys we have on the ground, we haven't been able to focus more on sexual violence as a priority. I've got about a year, but so far the work has been tedious and demoralising."

I come away from that conversation with a challenge of my own. Nicky has been thinking about her advocacy and communication strategy - radio, theatre, whatever it takes: "At the moment we are doing something with posters, and I can't help asking myself what some Interahamwe soldier sitting in the jungle in East Kivu is going to make of a little poster saying, 'Don't rape'." She wants to know if we have any good ideas...

The realities as Nicky describes them are sobering from every point of view: "We are nowhere near understanding the complexity of the problem. The way we are programming at the moment certainly does not address the complexity of the problem. This is not just about armed men in uniform: there are a whole host of other issues. Some are related to the conflict: some existed before the conflict, in belief systems such as fetishism, and whole cultures where notions prevail such as that raping a young girl cures HIV/Aids, or that raping an old woman strengthens the spirit. It is the human rights issue, I think. I might change my mind totally after a few more weeks in the job, but that is what I think now - and it has never been addressed that way."

 

Women targeted by armed conflict

Read the four reports from the conference

The changing face of war

Protecting women and girls in conflict

Sexual Violence not just a gender issue

Pray the devil back to hell

 

Also on openDemocracy: Anne-Marie Goetz, "War and sexual violence: an issue of security" plus an interview with John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs

Stop rape now: UN action against sexual violence in conflict

Open borders, global future

The worldwide movement of people across borders demands imaginative and radical new thinking on migration, says Brian K Murphy.

Protecting women and girls in conflict

In the second of four reports from the UN conference on women targeted by armed conflict, Rosemary Bechler talks to military peacekeeper Patrick Commaert about the responsibility to protect, and learning from Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica.

Click here for the first report

2. "The good news"

I caught up with Patrick Commaert once he had delivered his speech on how to meet the protection needs of women in armed conflicts. After serving in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Major General spent eight years with the DPKO both in the field and at HQ, and the last years of his career in the DRC, as the General Officer of the Eastern Division of the UN mission, MONUC, commanding some 15,000 men and women from 53 different nations 'with robust armament'. His paper drew its examples largely from the DRC, where the unchallenged use of sexual violence especially in the eastern part of the country was "probably among the worst things I have been directly confronted with during my entire military career". I asked him why this conference was being held now? He was ready to acknowledge that when he first encountered this disturbing problem in 1992 in Cambodia, it had not been obvious where to turn. Now, over fifteen years later, thanks to global communications, there was a wide enough understanding of the epidemic scale of the damage to make it impossible for the international community to ignore. The DPKO, especially in the wake of the landmark 'Brahimi Report' that recommended sweeping changes in the way that UN peacekeeping and associated post-conflict peacebuilding were conceived, planned, and executed, had 'advanced enormously' in that time. To be sure, it now had to deal with 21 missions all over the world, and up to 125,000 people in uniform deployed in the field at any one time, on a budget of only seven billion dollars. But the climate now was very different.

Commaert's main message was a simple one: despite decades of neglect and the absence of state authority in these countries, "provided with a robust mandate, peacekeepers can play an important role in protecting civilians from sexual violence during armed conflict." In the aftermath of the failure of the UN Missions in Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica, the United Nations Security Council mandated new UN missions to "protect civilians under imminent threat of violence within their capabilities and deployment" under Chapter VII of the UN Charter; i.e. using all necessary means, including the pre-emptive use of deadly force. This phrase, as the Major General sees it, gives force commanders in the field all the tools they need to act. In his opinion it is not a stronger mandate that is needed, but that troops, and in particular, their commanders, fully understand this mandate and their rules of engagement. The willingness of UN Commanders to take swift decisions when the presence of armed groups is reported is key to the effective protection of civilians: 'If they fail to act because they give scant regard to sexual violence, perhaps because their society or culture does not pay this much attention - then they have failed in the implementation of the mandate. That is the job. Commanders of all sorts of levels of command must understand this. They need to be taught this in their staff colleges, think tanks and preparation for missions by people who know the business. Preventing and dealing with sexual violence is part of that protection."

If it was amongst military peacekeepers that the analytical gap in identifying this type of threat seemed most glaring, it is also amongst military actors that innovative ad hoc responses could be found, thanks to the individual commitment of certain commanders in the field and the empathy of some of their troops. To the firewood patrols, night patrols in camps for internally displaced persons, and efforts to protect women collecting water, Commaert added the suggestion that donor countries should invest in the training of military prosecutors and judges and the establishment of Mobile Military Courts of Justice. After three years of lobbying, the Congolese Army Chief of Staff had issued a call for the setting up of Follow-Up Committees to monitor proceedings on human rights violations perpetrated by his soldiers and ensure a follow-up. This was a start. As for the UN, Commaert had found that a visible UN presence on the ground could inspire a sense of security among populations and encourage them to continue their daily lives. Of course they had to take action if needed, and limited troops often found themselves saddled with an enormous area of responsibility: the DRC is the size of Western Europe.

Here, Mobile Operating Bases were invaluable. Temporary camps set up in areas dominated by illegal armed groups could lay on intensive day and night patrolling for a few days, before moving to another site, only to return shortly afterwards. This effectively deterred illegal armed groups from settling in the vicinity of villages and committing atrocities. Quick Reaction Forces were able to identify hot-spots through close collaboration with the local chiefs of villages and humanitarian actors on the ground to set up alarm systems that could alert UN forces, using church bells, beating drums or mobile phones. Further measures Commaert was after included supporting the International Criminal Court; strengthening national judicial systems; effective investigation and documentation of alleged sexual violence; and strengthening medical services in places where health infrastructure is often entirely absent. Lastly, "a critical mass of women in peacekeeping missions can enhance confidence-building with the host community by presenting an organisation that looks more like a civilian society than a military occupation force. Military and police components should include female community police, liaison officers and military observers, female medical doctors, and language assistants."

Of course, it wasn't all unalloyed progress. This March, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations had complained bitterly at the decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council not to renew the mandate of its independent expert on human rights for the DRC, calling this "a betrayal of its responsibilities toward the Congolese people." Patrick Commaert had to agree. It was contrary to the UN Secretary General's commitment to intensify actions to end violence against women and children. But, "it shows yet again that any UN mandate is only as strong as member states want it to be."

Commaert's final message however, he directed once again to the commanders of UN military peacekeeping troops:

It doesn't specify in the mandate against whom they have to act: it can be militias, gangs, it can be criminals, and it can be government security forces who may arrest and threaten their own populations. So that means that if you are faithful to your mandate, the force must look into and act in all those eventualities. And that, as you can imagine, has political consequences - because that means that you may find yourself saying to your host nation, 'Hey listen - your forces are misbehaving! Do something about it because otherwise I have to do something about it - I will have to arrest the perpetrators of that violence.' If you want to preserve the credibility of the United Nations in general and your mission in particular, and if you want to keep the confidence of the local populations, then you should act. Otherwise those people will say, 'Why are you here? You are not defending us. You are not protecting us.' Now, of course, you can argue that, 'In my division I had 15,000 troops in an area twice the size of France.' But you have been told to do, 'everything within your capacity and where you are deployed' and you cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening where you are deployed. Don't give me Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica. Yes a lot of things went wrong then. But since then, we have made good progress and we can and must do more."

Women targeted by armed conflict

Read the four reports from the conference

The changing face of war

Protecting women and girls in conflict

Sexual Violence not just a gender issue

Pray the devil back to hell

Stop rape now: UN action against sexual violence in conflict

The changing face of war

1. "The bad news"

My lightening visit to the Wilton Park conference on "Women Targeted by Armed Conflict: What Role for Military Peacekeepers?" last Wednesday was a real eye-opener.

Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow

The unregulated work of Chinese immigrants on the margins of a rich western society puts them in a trap with many locked doors, finds Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Making women work for development - again

The shift of development policy and discourse away from gender equality and towards market-led growth is a regression that poses new challenges, says Rosalind Eyben.

Iran's virtual crackdown

Women's rights activists in Iran have been hit by a fresh crackdown that threatens a vital campaigning tool

A few days ago we hit a new low in systematic filtering of women's rights websites in Iran. Along with the website Change for Equality, 11 other sites and blogs belonging to local branches of the One Million Signatures Campaign in several cities or regions in Iran (Arak, Rasht, Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Zahedan) were blocked simultaneously. The list of blocked blogs included Men for Equality, set up by male activists in the campaign and those of a few Iranian immigrant populations in other countries (Kuwait, Cyprus, Germany, and the US). Campaign websites in Kurdestan and Azarbaijan had been blocked in April 2008.

Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: "living the other side of existence"

Afaf El Sayyad tells Jane Gabriel about living within a strict section of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, what drove her to leave, and how it felt to take off her veil after eleven years

Tibet independence girl

The attention of the international media to the Tibetan issue is set to continue for some time. But a part of the Chinese media and internet community has been sidetracked by a 21-year-old philosophy student in Hong Kong whom they have christened “Tibet Independence Girl”. Tibet Independence Girl (aka Christina Han Chau-man) was one of nine protestors arrested in China for wrapping a Tibetan flag around herself during the Olympic torch relay and has now sprung to internet fame – for all the wrong reasons.

Ancient Traditions and Modern Technology – A Deadly Combination

Like many forms of modern technology, mobile phones can be both a useful tool and an unwieldy new weapon. The recording feature on mobile phones is a novelty which has yet to wear off. Just last summer, an Australian man was arrested for piracy after he recorded a whole film at the cinema with his. On the positive side, it has led to a crackdown on police violence and other crimes which can now be recorded at the push of a button. The threat of being so easily and imperceptibly caught on film can act as a deterrent.

Rwanda: the colour of hope

Rwanda's people, refusing to be trapped in or defined by the 1994 genocide, are writing a new chapter in their history, finds Gerard J DeGroot on a visit to Kigali.

Liberal gains rolled back in Afghanistan

As Afghan and foreign troops continue to battle the Taliban in the plains and hills of Afghanistan, another battle is being waged – and lost – in the country's legislature. The Taliban don't need to recapture Kabul for their puritan and parochial values to recapture the public stage. Afghan lawmakers – part and parcel of the new, democratic government installed since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 – are edging towards reintroducing strict bans on supposedly un-Islamic cultural forms. After six years of uncertainty, corruption, carnage and waning confidence, Afghanistan may be sliding right back to where it didn't want to be.

"Anything men do we need to be able to do"

Mine action is seen as a predominantly male profession, and indeed it is. But there are a significant number of women working in, and benefiting from, demining and they give the usual macho world of explosives a different dimension. Flora, Joice and Joice, three women I've been working with in southern Sudan, are some of those who put the usual gender stereotypes to the test.

Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal

The work of Mai Ghoussoub and Parvin Paidar embodies a humane and life-affirming engagement with the world that is needed today more than ever, says Fred Halliday.

(This article was first published on 18 April 2008) 

Darfur: no redress for rape

A Human Rights Watch report released yesterday delivered a stark reminder of the ongoing crisis of sexual violence in Darfur, and of the need to step-up pressure on the Sudanese government and international forces to address the problem effectively.

"We live like the dead"

A new report produced by the Karama network ‘Refugee and Stateless Women across the Arab Region: stories of the dream of return, the fear of trafficking and the discriminatory laws' (pdf) is a ground breaking work written collaboratively by women from Syria, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Somalia and Morocco. It combines original research and personal testimony with historical and political analysis, to call for a response to refugees that moves beyond relief services to the promotion of rights. The authors address in detail the particular problems faced by Iraqi women living in Syria, Egypt and Jordan, Palestinian women living in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, Sudanese women living in Egypt and Somalian women living in ‘a nation without a state'.

Rights not relief

by Afaf Jabiri

Afaf Jabiri is a member of Karama and one of the authors of a new report on refugee and stateless women in the Arab region. She writes here about the group's decision to produce it.

The shadow of the gun

India is one of the most heavily armed nations in the world, and is suffering an epidemic of gun violence. Writer and activist Binalakshmi Nepram tells of her work tackling small arms proliferation, and working with women survivors to rebuild lives.

A rare victory for women's rights in Iran

Human rights defenders have welcomed a "rare ruling" leading to the release of a woman awaiting execution by stoning in Iran. Now, the women's movement must move forward to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women; "nothing more and nothing less" writes Elahe Amani.

Enough: tackling sexual violence in eastern DRC

A new report aiming to protect women and girls in eastern DRC argues that policies to prevent sexual violence be closely linked to established and ongoing conflict resolution and peacemaking initiatives already underway.

Sukkar Banat: sweet like candy

Shortly after the downfall of the Taliban regime, the media relayed many stories illustrating the great liberties given to Afghan women by democracy: their newfound ability to drive and go to school, their right to not wear the burqa and bizzarely, the establishment of beauty parlours.

Jasmine blossoms, bombs and Bruce Lee

A ten year old Bruce Lee fanatic attached to her Adidas trainers and determined to become a future prophet is not your average leading lady. Meet Marjane, of Marjane Satrapi's Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, adapted from her autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. At a packed ICA screening in London this week, part of the Bird's Eye View festival, much of the audience fell in love.

Rebuilding civil society in Sierra Leone

Hussaina Abdullah spoke to Jane Gabriel about rebuilding civil society in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of civil war.

Clowning glories: Hollywood's screwball women

Kasia Boddy welcomes a London retrospective showcasing comediennes of classical Hollywood, and celebrates the brief reign of screwball's madcap women.

One day of life: a Romanian odyssey

Cristian Mungiu's portrait of a young woman's illegal abortion in Ceausescu-era Romania makes humane and moving art from its bleak subject-matter, says Grace Davies.

Women and world poverty

The basic rights of women in the developing world are being ignored in the battle against poverty

We stand for all women

by Houzan Mahmoud

Women's freedom means freedom for all. It is time to stand together, writes Houzan Mahmoud as part of our ongoing coverage of international women's week

Getting close to Musharraf

Speakers rightly fear misleading introductions, and so too should films. As an audience of scruffy aesthetes sucked on their complimentary ActionAid rock candy, a staffer of the Birds Eye View Film Festival rose to introduce Sabiha Sumar's "Dinner with the President". This was, she promised, a timely and relevant film, delving into Pakistan's abiding political crisis as the country remains in the glow of the global spotlight. But for any observer of Pakistan, the subsequent film was less timely than it was out of touch. Such is the speed of events in Pakistan that a documentary released in late 2007 can already feel sepia-toned and out-dated by early 2008.

Women and politics: the Brazil paradox

Despite an established and diverse women's movement, prominent in civil society, Brazil has one of the lowest rates of women's political participation in the world. Ana Alice Alcântara investigates a Brazilian paradox.

“Being a man” in contemporary Russia

The depiction of Russian men in media and social commentary often focuses on negative or self-destructive behaviour. But the working and family lives of men in the post-Soviet era is more complex than the image suggests, says Rebecca Kay.

Why Muslim women can have it all

Muslim women in Britain, are sluicing away restrictive cultural practices and reclaiming their fundamental Islamic rights, says Samia Rahman, part of our coverage of International Women's Day, 2008.

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