November 25th marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, which actively rallies against gender-based violence around the globe.
The UN estimates that “1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence”. Gender-based violence results in physical, socio-economic, and mental health impacts, which can include post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and often times isolation that last for generations.
Although violence against women occurs in innumerable communities worldwide, there are groups especially vulnerable to discrimination and acts of violence, particularly those in marginalized or minority groups, or those living in poverty. For example, “the scale and severity of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls in Canada—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis—constitutes a national human rights crisis” (Amnesty International).
In their 2014 report, Amnesty International noted that “in a 2009 government survey of the ten provinces, Aboriginal women were nearly three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report being a victim of a violent crime”. While leaders, parliamentarians, and civil society organizations have offered some support, women have undoubtedly taken the lead in the reconciliation process both in Canada and abroad.
Leveraging international commitments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified by 187 countries, organizations such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada have continued to promote and defend the rights of Indigenous women.
Similarly, organizations such as Women for Women International have recognized the importance of addressing the vulnerability of women around the globe. During a panel discussion at the 2014 Overcoming Isolation Symposium, Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, discussed the effects of violence against women, specifically in times of war.
Most, if not all, research indicates that women have a very unique experience in how they come not only to deal with the effects of war, but how they overcome the harsh realities that accompany it. “From conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Peru to Rwanda, girls and women have been singled out for rape, imprisonment, torture and execution,“ which leaves women as one of the most vulnerable groups in conflicts (UNICEF). Many women have reported feeling ignored, voiceless and isolated. As Zainab mentions, “war makes you feel alone and like the world has forgotten about you”. This is especially the case for women, as they are often times left out of the “war narrative”.
However, understanding the experience of women in war is extremely important as they often bear the brunt of poverty, unequal access to education, lack of healthcare and economic opportunities and often suffer through some of the worst acts of human rights violations. This is particularly true in what has been deemed as the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Being raped can lead to long-lasting trauma and suffering for the victim, but also “erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape’s damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and pain stamped on entire families” (UNICEF). This leaves the impact of sexual violence lasting far beyond the end of the war and continuing to push women into some of the most vulnerable positions in society.
Despite the clear consequences of war in the lives of women, the female experience and perspective has been largely unaccounted for in the research and discourse. What Zainab suggests is that there is power in telling a story— in telling the female narrative that is so often left out entirely. This is why her organization, Women for Women International (WfWI), provides not only the opportunity, but the platform for women to share their stories while also offering support and tools to help women “move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency”.
By offering this platform, WfWI highlights the stories of women who are often dealing with their experiences in complete silence due to fear of ostracization from family and other community members. The inability to share their experiences can push these women further into isolation and intensify the negative mental health impacts of gender-based violence. However, Zainab emphasizes that the opportunity to share a single story can help bring people together to tell a truth that otherwise goes unheard, but that is often a part of a collective narrative.
The female voice is important for ensuring that women are able to overcome feelings of shame and isolation, but also to ensure that society as a whole can move forward in the peacebuilding and healing process after war.
Amid 39 active conflicts over the last 10 years, few women have actually been present at peace negotiations. And, out of some 585 peace treaties drafted over the last two decades, only 16 percent contain specific references to women. However, it has been proven that the involvement of women in peacebuilding leads to a quicker and more successful process and outcome. This is clearly outlined in the UN Resolution 1325, which “urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts”.
There is huge merit in bringing women to the table to share their experiences. For example, the UN Peacebuilding Commission, who spearheaded the peace negotiations in Sierra Leone, made it their official mandate to include women in the reconstructive process and pushed for implementation of a national approach. Thus, tangible progress has been made under the national development strategy, “Agenda for Prosperity” that includes 8 pillars one of which is gender and women’s empowerment.
It is also important to note, however, that the female perspective is not crucial only as the perspective of a victim, but as mothers, sisters, and daughters who watch their homes and lives be torn apart without ever having the opportunity to share their stories.
War is not just a male experience and women are not just victims, they are a part of the narrative— they are the narrative and forgetting to include their voice is a part of the problem, and further perpetuates feelings of isolation and helplessness. Allowing women to share their stories brings them together and let’s them know they are not alone in their experiences.
“In telling your truth you show vulnerability. And in the showing of vulnerability you actually allow others to join you and say, “Oh, I am not the only one who’s feeling that feeling.” And when you do that then you starting create a “we” story.” – Zainab Salbi
There is strength and power in storytelling, so on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we urge you to match your commitments to gender equality with meaningful action and resources that reduce the prevalence of violence against women. Let’s commit to supporting women so they know they are never alone.