Rebuilding Women and Communities affected by Violence
This International Women’s Day, we share stories from those dedicated to helping girls and women affected by violence. We hear from Dr Denis Mukwege about rebuilding women’s bodies and lives after sexual violence in DRC; from Dr Bogaletch Gebre about her campaign to end FGM in Ethiopia; and from Vanna Lawrence about tackling root causes of violence in Jamaica.
Violence against women takes many more forms than these examples. Across the world, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual abuse, most often by a partner. In some countries the figure is as high as 70%; in many, data is difficult to come by.
Violence can lead to long-term physical, mental and emotional health problems, and in some cases, death. Yet less than 40% of women who experience it seek help of any sort, and only a tenth of those who do go to the police or health services.
“If women continue to suffer sexual violence, it is not because the law is inadequate to protect them, but because it is inadequately enforced,” said Margot Wallström, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
From victims of rape to actors for change
Fraught with civil war for over a decade, a report published in 2010 found that more than 1.69 million women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been raped. Dr Denis Mukwege is a renowned Congolese gynaecologist who has dedicated his career to treating these women.
In 1999 he founded the Panzi Hospital to try and combat the DRC’s high maternal mortality rate. “It was a shock for me to see women dying in childbirth, when it’s possible to prevent maternal mortality,” explained Dr Mukwege. Unfortunately many of the women who presented themselves at his clinic came seeking treatment for rape.
“This was extremely violent rape which resulted in the destruction of the genital organs. So I found myself treating victims of sexual crimes with serious genital injuries,” said Dr Mukwege. Over the years he has fought for these women’s lives, both in the operating theatre and in the political sphere.
Known as ‘l’homme qui répare les femmes’, or the man who mends women, Dr Mukwege has become a public figure, advocating for justice for these “courageous women victims of violence, these women who resist, these women who despite all remain standing.”
“I believe that the ingredients of success of this project are first and foremost the women, who are the victims, but also survivors who have become actors for change. I think these three stages that they go through impress me immensely. To see that someone wanted to ruin her life, wanted to destroy her body, but when you treat her you give her the opportunity to heal. And she becomes a survivor.
“Once she’s a survivor, she takes all the opportunities that she can to become an actor for change in society. And when women change society they don’t just change it for themselves, they change it for their families, for the community. That is why I believe we should give women more space at the decision making table; they are capable also of changing nations,” concluded Dr Mukwege.
The fight against FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) goes by many names, including “female circumcision”, “cutting” and “removing the dirt”. The WHO calls it “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”, and estimates that 100-140 million women and girls alive today have suffered it.
The practice is especially prevalent in Africa in a belt of countries from the Atlantic Coast to the Horn, but it is also found in communities in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North America. It is often motivated by beliefs about women’s sexual behavior and chastity, and considered necessary for a girl to be accepted in society.
Besides the immediate risks of infection or bleeding to death, FGM can lead to reproductive health problems and fatal complications during childbirth. The UN has defined it as a violation of human rights; it is often also child abuse.
For activist Dr Bogaletch Gebre, it was a fact of life in the part of Ethiopia where she grew up. “Cutting was a precondition for marriage,” she explained. “Afterwards, girls celebrate, announcing they are ready for marriage, for womanhood, by taking out exactly what makes them feel like a woman.”
Few people in her community realized that the practice is prescribed neither in the Koran nor the Bible. It was an unquestioned part of the culture, until Gebre, returning to Ethiopia after studying abroad, began a different conversation.
Together with her sister, Gebre founded KMG, “Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma”, or “women working and standing together”. The group worked an incredible transformation of attitudes and practice in Ethiopia, lowering the incidence of FGM from 100% to 3% in the areas in which they worked.
For Gebre, the key to eliminating FGM lies in addressing the multiple discriminations faced by women, with lack of education at the core. “When trying to improve women’s lives, it is not one single thing. Each factor - economics, education, lack of access to health - impacts the other, and put a woman in her place,” said Gebre.
“So we link economic problems, social problems, health and education - particularly promoting education of girls, that’s the biggest thing we do. As a person who grew up in that area, and had the opportunity for education - they are no different from I, the difference is I had access to education, information. If I bring that to them, they will change, and they have.”
Addressing root causes
Yet investing in girls is only half of the answer to ending violence against women in all its forms. Even in countries where women have ample access to education and opportunity, they are not free from abuse.
In Jamaica, which till recently boasted both a female Prime Minister and head of the judiciary, women are highly represented in the workforce and well educated. Better, in fact, than most men: 85% of university students are female.
“In terms of gender, the situation is not perfect,” said Vanna Lawrence, Project Manager in the EU Delegation to Jamaica, Belize, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands. “There is a pay gap. Males earn more for the same jobs. And as women makes strides for achievement, advancement and empowerment, there is a corresponding hike in incidents of violence against women and girls, especially violence against empowered women, almost as if it is an attempt to equalize the situation.”
The level of violence against women and girls in Jamaica remains “unacceptably high,” according to a UN Human Rights Council report. Twelve per cent of all visits to Jamaican emergency rooms were because of rape, according to Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner.
“There are several programmes to influence men and boys against tolerance for violence against women,” said Lawrence. “One example that the EU supported is the UN “He For She” initiative, in which men register to say they are not tolerant to violence against women.”
Targeted campaigns like these make an important contribution to a change in attitudes. They also recognise that the other half of the solution to gender-based violence lies in investing in boys and men.
To find out how the EU will promote equal rights and opportunities for women, men, boys and girls in all its external action, look out for our article on the new Gender Action Plan this week.
Teaser image credit: MONUSCO