"Somewhere in Colombia, a girl is hiding. Somewhere in Colombia, a woman is silently enduring her husband’s beatings. Somewhere in Colombia, an adolescent girl is being raped in front of her community. Somewhere in Colombia, a woman’s tears are being silenced. What do all these stories have in common? One word. Guns."
To a packed audience, Rebecca Gerome of The Advocacy Project, opened the event In Harm's Way: Girls in Settings of Endemic Armed Violence organised by the IANSA Women's Network, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, and the Mission of Norway to the UN.
Chaired by Clare Hutchinson of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations/PBPS, the event highlighted the impact of armed violence on women and girls, violence which is particularly brutal in many conflict zones, as well as countries where it has reached a chronic level, including many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ambassador Mona Juul, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, reaffirming her government’s commitment in dealing with armed violence, outlined how the burdens caused by armed violence are simply unacceptable – both from a moral, humanitarian and legal viewpoint. She called for greater understanding about what feeds armed violence, and the reasons why people pick up arms. A key part of this will be a High-level Conference on Armed Violence and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Oslo in April 2010.
In a striking example of how gun violence affects all countries and communities, Samantha, Phoebe, and Niles, Eighth Graders at the Little Red School House and Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, shared their experiences. They have met with survivors and campaigners working to reduce and prevent gun violence, and questioned why gun violence is portrayed as normal and unavoidable. Using statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they shockingly revealed that 3,184 children and teens died from gunfire in the USA in 2006 alone. Samantha explained that this means one young life was lost every two hours and 45 minutes, almost nine every day, 61 every week.
They talked of meeting families and individuals that have been affected by guns, and showed videos of women such as Devina Perez of the ‘Put Down the Guns’ organization. Devina was shot at point blank range in a New York City train station, targeted as part of a gang initiation; Yvette Forehand, mother of a murdered son, explained how she started the Rory A. Forehand Foundation in his memory, to provide educational and recreational activities in a safe environment; and Gloria Cruz who established the Bronx Chapter of the Million Mom March after her niece was shot and killed at a Labor Day picnic.
In her speech, Glynis Alonzo-Beaton of the YWCA – Guyana, linked the issue directly to the Beijing Platform for Action. She commented on how familiar we are with the most obvious consequences of armed violence – death, injury and disability – but how the impacts are far reaching and go beyond the victim involved to his or her family, friends and wider community. In addition to physical risk and harm, the presence of guns encourages violent rather than peaceful resolution of problems; exacerbates community tensions, and increases the threshold of violence; negates measures to build confidence and security; is an obstacle to development; discourages investment and tourism; and contributes to human rights violations. Although this all seems insurmountable, Glynis reminded everyone that the change starts with us. This is why the YWCA is responding to the impact of gun violence on girls and young women through programmes and initiatives to empower them and support their role as peace educators within their families and communities.
Bibiane Aningina Tshefu of Women as Partners for Peace in Africa in the DRC put it bluntly, “It is clear. Guns facilitate the destruction of more than 50% of the Congolese population.” She made concrete suggestions on immediate action to stem the flow of weapons into the country. She called upon government forces to stop selling guns to non-state armed groups; that the soon to be negotiated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) must stop supplies from entering countries bordering the DRC so that they cannot be diverted to the country; and that an ATT must not allow international transfers of weapons and ammunition where there is a significant risk of sexual and gender-based violence, or grave violations of human rights.
In his closing remarks, Daniel Prins of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs stressed how a people-centred view of security is necessary for national, regional and global stability with the participation of women as a key component.
Despite the different countries and contexts of the speakers, their words paralleled each other in describing how armed violence in the home and community, armed conflict, and the availability and misuse of guns feed each other in an unending cycle. The speakers stressed how these are not simple issues with easy solutions but that this cannot justify apathy, silence, and inaction. They identified ways forward including data collection on gun possession and its links to violence against women in order to formulate and implement successful public policies to address the phenomenon. They are also demanded action to end impunity for armed violence against women and girls; and gun violence prevention through a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty. Finally, they agreed that gender equality and empowerment of women - the third Millennium Development Goal – cannot be achieved without eliminating gun violence against women.
Sarah Masters is the Coordinator of the IANSA Women’s Network, the only international network focused on the connections between gender, women’s rights, small arms and armed violence. The IANSA Women’s Network supports organisations working on women and violence prevention to combat gun violence in their communities and support the global campaign to reduce the proliferation and misuse of small arms. Its aims to connect organisations, provide information and resources, raise public awareness, and build a united and dynamic movement of women resisting gun violence around the world.