What it is to be a woman?
| by Victor Cherubim
( June 11, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) “It is not human to be a woman, but that is what we expect in war, to be called a woman. In the hierarchical structure in society, male dominance empowers life. Man is not only perceived as a symbol of patriotism, but conflict is the driver for his power. This is what it means to be a man, to be both patriotic and in conflict. Thus violence breeds man to overpower woman, in every part of the world.” So said Keedi of ABAAD, an organisation dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of women in Lebanon, at the landmark global summit to “End Sexual Violence in Conflict”.
This three day event, 10-12 June 2014,of world men and women leaders was co-hosted by William Hague, British Foreign Secretary and Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at Excel Centre, Docklands. London.
The background on this summit is to translate the April 2013 G8 “Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict”, followed by the launch of the UN General Assembly Declaration of Commitment of September 2013, backed by 150 nations, including Sri Lanka, to shatter the culture of sexual violence, increase the support for survivors and start changing the ground situation in most affected countries. Within a span of nine months real progress at grassroots international level is seen, in engaging the public to participate with over 160 events and the attendance of over 100 countries.
“We want to encourage men to speak out, “said William Hague, “to agree that it is only a weak or inadequate man who abuses women. It is not a sign of strength, it is the ultimate weakness and shame.”
“We will come after you” says Jolie
At the opening, actress and campaigner, Angelina Jolie said that the conference sends out a clear message, round the world, to those who abuse women, “in answer to the grievances of girls kidnapped in Nigeria, wives stoned in Pakistan and women raped in many war zones. You see how women are treated and abused. No you can’t and we will come after you.”
“Politicians alone with their poor standing on social media and their narrow processes cannot shift the dial on social change. But social change cannot happen without them. Legislation matters, Governments must be involved as well as the people.”
She gave the impression that she will work on this, for as long as it takes. She understood her power base and was also pragmatic about it. But stated she is determined to use it to change global attitudes to gender issues in war.
The victims of war
In the various panel discussions at the summit, the norms of Manhood and Gender Relations were examined. The general consensus was to stop violence before it begins. Communities must undertake to study the root causes and design strategies of prevention. In most cases, changing deeply ingrained gender norms and attitudes become necessary, particularly in discussions engaging men in preventing violence against women.
“The world makes violent men. Violence is a learned behaviour.” The suggestion is that you can beat violence through innovation, collaboration, contribution of resources, skills training, networking and influence. The data collected and available is that children, in particular girls, make up a significant number of survivors of sexual violence in many conflicts. Adolescent girls are most vulnerable due to a combination of their gender, age, religion and discriminatory social norms that affect their lives. This has been demonstrated recently in Syria, where the threat of sexual violence has been a major contributor to displacement as families flee the conflict. Unfortunately, an additional consequence has been, we were informed, an increase in early and forced marriages and “refugee” girls trafficking among others.
“Men are the big mystery”
All over the world, men are the big mystery. Men commit sexual violence for a variety of reasons or for no apparent reason. Discriminatory social norms, like honour and shame, the restrictions on access to public space as well as public resources, community intent, the perception of religious beliefs and not religion as such, the fallacy of men being the stronger of the sexes, environment and school upbringing, all contribute to a false identity of man as the protector and guardian of women. When there is no apparent reason for sexual violence, power is the hidden motive. These manifest differently in different socio-cultural and political contexts and change3 distinctly within conflicts. Here it is well to remember, that our conflict in Sri Lanka seemed to be rather different to recent conflicts around different nations in the world. This perhaps, was in at least one salient feature of conflict, the ferocity and exuberance of anger. This may be debatable.
Is violence preventable?
The underlying theme of the summit is to examine ways and means of prevention of “Sexual Violence in Conflict”. Sexual violence committed in conflict cannot be divorced from unequal power relations between men and women in peacetime. Ending sexual violence in conflict requires challenging gender inequality in peacetime. Empowering girls and women to resist violence, whether it is physical, verbal/psychological, sexual or economic, is one part of the equation, whilst to access justice and support when it does occur, is the other part of prevention.