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MEDIAWATCH: Women's Day, a time to grieve, a time to be inspired

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 6 Mar 2008 17:59 GMT
Author: joanne-tomkinson
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Whether they're widows left destitute after decades of war, or victims of sexual violence and abuse, women are often disproportionately affected in times of conflict. In honour of International Women's Day on March 8, the media is reporting heavily on the soaring rates of violence against women around the globe. It's an important topic and a worrying trend, but it's important to remember the positive stories too.

South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper reports that rape and sexual violence are reaching "epidemic" levels in times of conflict.

In Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan's western Darfur region, rape is increasingly being used as a weapon of war, the United Nations children's agency Unicef is quoted as saying in the paper.

Unicef described the violence as an "epidemic" because the use of rape as a weapon is now spreading from armies and militias to civilians involved in conflicts. In Kenya, for example, reported cases of rape and sexual violence doubled within days of the conflict erupting.

"When societies collapse there seems to be a licence to rape in some of these countries. That's why we call it epidemic proportions Â? it takes a life of its own," Unicef deputy executive director Hilde Johnson said in the paper.

And once a conflict has officially ended, violence against women doesn't just go away, as an article in the LA Times makes clear. Habits of violence towards women that are established during periods of conflict, leave an enduring legacy long after the violence has officially ended.

"In West Africa, as in so many other places where rape was used as a weapon of war, it has become a habit carried seamlessly into the "post-conflict" era," writes the LA Times commentator.

A study conducted by aid agency International Rescue Committee and Columbia University's School of Public Health found that well over half the women interviewed in two Liberian counties had survived at least one violent sexual attack during an 18-month period in 2006-2007 Â? over three years since the violence officially ended.

"Where normal law enforcement and justice systems have been disabled by war, ex-combatants and civilian men alike can prey upon women with impunity, and they do", the paper says.

Justice systems for female victims are also failing to deliver, according to Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, has clear statutes to enable it to take legal action on gender-based crimes such as rape and sexual slavery, but progress towards getting justice for female victims has been painfully slow.

Many women are reluctant to come forward to speak about their experiences of sexual violence, and the ICC has officially identified just 17 victims of these crimes so far.

The stigma associated with sexual violence can be huge burden for women, forcing them into silence, the paper writes. The ICC needs to do more to reach out to female victims in conflict zones to help them come forward.

Women are vital for the wider health and vibrancy of children and families, the Star says, and combating gender-based violence is important for the well-being of whole communities.

INSPIRING STORIES

Given how much there's still to do in safeguarding women's rights in times of conflict it's easy to get down-cast Â? but there are some very inspiring stories around too.

In South Africa, a unique project is helping girls to cope with the experience of rape. Girls' Net provides training in the use of blogs, websites, and radio channels to empower girls to speak out about their lives.

"Girls have something to say about their own lives and communities, and what they have to say shapes how we seek solutions and create laws," said Lerato Legoabe, the Girls' Net Project Manager.

For Sonya Sharma*, a 17-year-old high school student, her involvement in the project landed her an invitation to Parliament to speak about forced marriage and influence legislation on a child rights bill.

"I was so scared but I knew I had to find the courage because the girls who are forced into marriage are my sisters Â? it happens around my area and I've seen it," she said.

In Burundi, women were fully involved in the country's peace process, helping to integrate gender equality into government processes. This participation is essential to ensuring sexual violence rates decline, the United Nations Commission on the Stautus of Women says in an article on the Reliefweb website

Burundi has made huge progress, and women now hold 30 percent of parliamentary seats there and seven ministerial posts.

And there are plenty inspiring stories about women taking action after conflict too. Jane Odwong Akwero from Uganda, told Nobel Women's Initiative conference in 2007 how the conflict that erupted in her country in the 1990s empowered her to rebuild her community.

Before the bloodshed she told the conference that she was a "shy housewife, unable to talk to more than five people at once, and even then I would whisper!" but had become one of Uganda's leading peace activists.

Tell us what you think can be done to help safeguard women's rights around the world. Who should take responsibility, and how can we stop the rise in sexual violence towards women?

*Sonya's name has been changed

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