No rubber stamping here

Anyone who's never been to a big feminist conference doesn't know what they're missing. It's not just the jokes that are constantly flying around the room; it's not just the fact that making space for women to tell their stories is in the DNA of such events

Jenny Morgan
24 May 2011

so that when DRC survivor Rose Mapenda stood up from the floor, as Jessica Horn reports, and told us what it was like to see her own husband shot but be told 'we won't waste a bullet on a woman', and held back from taking her own life during sixteen months 'under the gun' in a camp because their ten children would have had no parent, nobody told her she was out of order or cut her short. It's not just the laughing and the crying that make these events so compelling and so invigorating.

It is the almost physical sensation of very focused thinking going on in the room as we sit there. The 120 women from thirty-three countries who are attending this Nobel Women's Initiative conference in Montebello -- they include survivors of sexual violence, grassroots and international activists, military personnel, academics, lawyers, doctors, media people, businesswomen, philanthropists -- aren't rubber-stamping position papers developed by 'sherpas' in months of background haggling. These women are their own sherpas, and the heavy lifting of formulating policy is going on here and now, in the room.  

The ambitious aim of this conference is that participants walk away on Thursday with the lineaments of a global collective campaign to end sexual violence defined and agreed. Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, who chaired the afternoon session on justice and accountability, told the conference she and Nobel peace-prize-winner Jody Williams had walked on the beach after the campaign to win a landmine ban had succeeded when no-one believed it was possible, and had talked about how to transfer the lessons of that campaign into a global campaign to end sexual violence in conflict. This conference was, Sirkin said, part of that dream.

Two important lines of action emerged in the discussion. One was the need to continue to challenge impunity by pressing for criminal prosecutions, particularly of high-level perpetrators. Susannah Sirkin said this issue could not be more central in 'the global conversation' that it was at the moment, with one of the most powerful men in the world arrested on the basis of a rape allegation by a migrant hotel worker, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announcing on 18 May that he was investigating institutional rape by police forces in Libya.

But the thinking going on in the room produced all sorts of shading on this line of action: someone said it was important not just to go for perpetrators, in the case of the military and armed groups, but to prosecute the administrative levels behind them -- tackle the whole process of institutional concealment. Others said the justice system can't be isolated from the security system and the legislature: the whole system has to be structurally enabled to deal with sexual violence against women. Lydia Alpizar Duran of AWID said it was unrealistic to imagine that, for instance, the Minister of National Defence in Mexico would be charged in the foreseeable future, even though military forces rape indigenous women (among many other crimes), because Mexico to all intents and purposes functions as a narco-state, and the Minister is reported to have links with some of the criminal networks. 

The other line of action that is emerging is the need to put survivors at the centre; this means making their protection and financial support, and the issue of reparations, central to the idea of justice for survivors. Naw K'nway Paw Nimrod, of the Women's League of Burma, said the twelve Burmese women survivors of sexual violence and torture who had testified at mock trials in New York and Japan during 2010, needed to have some sense of the outcome of their brave decision to testify in public. 'Testifiers need protection', she said. Speakers from the floor said testifiers' advocates needed protection, too -- doctors and lawyers. And survivors were very often facing absolutely basic struggles for food and shelter -- these issues needed to be addressed before the question of bringing a prosecution.

An activist like Godelieve Mukasarasi from Rwanda is working in a situation where 70 per cent of the women raped during the genocide contracted AIDS. Some have subsequently died, but even though anti-retroviral treatment is available free in Rwanda, the poorest survivors don't eat well enough to be able to withstand the treatment. 'What would an economics of peace and security look like?', ActionAid's Joanna Kerr asked the conference to imagine. It clearly wouldn't look like the situation Mukasarasi is working in.

Can the multi-layered thinking that is going on at this conference actually make UN resolutions against sexual violence in conflict have some purchase; actually transform lack of political will into its opposite; actually lead to a global campaign that protects women and ends rape in war? Well, no-one believed landmines would be banned...


What defines a 'conflict'?  Lydia Alpizar Duran, the executive director of AWID, says Mexico is currently one of the most violent countries in the world, with around fifty people killed each day. The government itself says 40,000 people have been killed in the past three years. Yet because Mexico is not recognised as a country that has a conflict, international humanitarian law does not apply there.

The situation is terrifying, for most citizens but especially for women. Feminist lawyer Andrea Medina Rosas says that from 1993 to 2004, 214 women were murdered in the city of Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua state. But in 2010 alone, 304 women were murdered there. The Mexican government has not complied with international standards, and refuses to modify legislation which prevents indigenous women raped by soldiers from bringing cases in the civil courts; meanwhile military courts decline to hear sexual violence cases.

Mexico City is a bubble, says Alpizar Duran, because the narco networks very often have their families living there. But outside the capital, in many areas people live in a state of siege. There are communities, she says, where parents won't let their daughters out of the house after 5pm, in case they get picked up and killed, or picked up and kept as sexual slaves. Activists calculate that in the past four years, at least 6000 people have been disappeared; there are women who are crossing the country, says Alpizar Duran, going from mass grave to mass grave, looking for their family members.

And, she says, 'we can't do advocacy the way we did it ten years ago'. The shocking murder of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz in December last year has frightened many people. Marisela had been campaigning for several years for the murderer of her teenage daughter, Rubi Marisol, to be brought to justice. While Marisela was protesting outside the state governor's office in Chihuahua City, a man got out of a car, pulled a gun on her, and chased her across the street, shooting her dead in full view of onlookers and the security cameras on the governor's office. 'Women have become targets for denouncing violence against women', says Alpizar Ortiz.

She describes a nightmare regional situation, where Guatemalan special forces known as the Kaibiles have linked up with Los Zetas, a criminal network that came out of the Mexican military; the Zetas are now operating all the way down to Costa Rica. Alpizar Duran says one has to look at the political dimension. Brazil and Argentina, for instance, have moved away from dependence on the USA; investment is coming in from China and South Korea; they have trading relations with India, South Africa, and so on. Yet thanks to the growing regional grip of the criminal networks, Costa Rica, which has no army, has recently agreed to have 20,000 US marines stationed there. Political dimension, or what?

In the meantime, women are dying in crossfire or being picked up by the military or the criminal gangs. And Alpizar Duran believes it will get worse before it gets better. But none of this is defined as a conflict situation.  





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