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’16 Days’ and ending impunity

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This year the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is marking the 16 Days.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) marked the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence – which ran from from 25 November until 10 December – by participating in a global campaign to highlight issues around sexual violence in conflict.

The campaign looked at who sexual violence in conflict affects and where, what the issues and challenges to addressing this are and how the international community can respond.

Journalist Lauren Wolfe is director of Women Under Siege, an independent initiative documenting how rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Asked to write a feature for the Foreign Office, she wrote about the urgency of tracking sexualised violence in Syria.

She explained that what is so difficult about documenting sexualised violence in conflict, is that there’s rarely “proof” of rape.

“It’s not like we can see physical marks on a woman’s body for the most part; the mark is often on her psyche, which suffers when she is forced to hide what is societally thought to be her ‘shame’.”

Syria in particular, she continues, has proven acutely problematic in terms of the stigma of rape.

Women Under Siege have reports ‘of women killing themselves, being forced to divorce, and being murdered because they have been sexually violated’.

“And while we may not be able to verify sexual crimes against women – and men – being perpetrated right now during the ongoing war in Syria, we can collect the stories for future corroboration.”

For, as she points out, it is important to gather these stories before they are lost.

The reports recorded so far are shocking, sickening, tragic.

For example Journalist Aishi Zidan was told by a family about a 17 or 18 years old woman arrested recently in Latakia after participating in a demonstration. She was held for two weeks in an unidentified government detention centre, according to the family, where she was tortured and raped repeatedly.

After she was freed, the family said, she went to her parents house and threw herself from their balcony and died.

One prisoner reported that he and other male prisoners were forced to watch as a young woman was raped by government officers, that four separate groups of prisoners were forced to watch the woman being raped and that this was the fifth rape that one prisoner had been forced to witness.

In another report, a talk show featured an interview in which a former member of the Syrian parliament described a threat he allegedly received from the Syrian government. “You will hear your daughter crying if you do not retract the resignation.” and he took it to mean she would be raped.

“When your daughter is threatened, what can you do?” he said. He and his family have since fled the country.

In an interview with Lauren Wolfe, Gloria Steinem – founder of Women under Siege – spoke about the intrinsic link between sexualised violence during the USA’s civil rights movement and the Holocaust, and present-day sexualised violence in conflict.

Steinem said: “Documenting the problem allows individual victims to know they’re not alone or at fault, and allows the institutions of society to create remedies, from laws to education.

“Naming sexualised violence as a weapon of war makes it visible and subject to prosecution.

“By making clear that sexualised violence is political and public, it breaches that wall. It admits that sexualised violence can be changed.”

And today, Steinem’s assertion about the significance of reporting, recording, and bearing witness to sexualised violence deeply resonates as targeted attacks against women and girls are being utilised to assert cultural, sexual, and political domination in conflict zones worldwide from Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, the aim of which is to replace the culture of impunity with one of deterrence.

The UK assumes the presidency of the G8 in January 2013, and hopes to build a global partnership to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

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