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Opinion: Women Bear the Brunt of War, by Jody Williams

By Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Published in the Dominion Post, Friday 15 February 2008.

By Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative
Published in the Dominion Post, Friday 15 February 2008

In February 2007, I led a high-level mission to assess the conflict in Darfur for the United Nations Human Rights Council. That conflict, now in its seventh year, has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives; more than two and a half million have been forcibly displaced and now live in camps for the internally displaced or in sprawling refugee camps in Chad left reliant on humanitarian assistance. Their villages have been razed to the ground, crops and livestock stolen or destroyed, leaving them dependant on humanitarian assistance.

In the year that has passed since my mission, an already horrific situation has deteriorated. Not only does the fighting continue inside Darfur, but the first week of February saw Chadian rebel forces, supported by the government of Sudan, take fighting into the capital of N’Djaména. This is their second such attack since April 2006 as they continue their efforts to bring down the government of President Idriss Déby. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the casualties reported since the fighting began have been civilians with bullet wounds. The fighting has also caused great uncertainty in the refugee camps along Chad’s border with Sudan, while tens and tens of thousands of displaced Chadians are pouring into neighbouring Cameroon and Nigeria.

The international community has talked tough on Darfur, but there is still a lack of effective, concerted action. While the men with guns continue fighting and play around the edges of real negotiations, the marginalization of women is deepened by ceasefires and peace agreements that do not hold and peacekeeping missions that keep no peace. Under all circumstances, women’s rights are either totally neglected or directly under assault.

One of the primary tactics in the counterinsurgency campaign being carried out by Khartoum against the people of Darfur is rape. Systematic, widespread rape is being used as a weapon of war to demoralize and destroy families, villages and tribal structures. In Darfur, the rapes, the displacement of women and their children, and women’s exclusion from official political processes constitute massive human rights and humanitarian crises. These issues cannot be resolved without clear and specific inclusion of women’s voices, without promotion and protection of the rights of women, and without reparations for all that women have suffered in the Darfur war.

While it is the people of Darfur who are suffering and dying, their suffering will not end without a truly global response. Intense pressure must continue to be put not only on the Sudanese government, but also on those individuals and regimes that supply, arm, and back that murderous government. Human rights are universal and their promotion and protection must be the concern every person on the planet.

Holding accountable those who are responsible for mass murder, rape and displacement in Darfur will be a precondition for lasting peace. Gender justice, and prosecution of mass rape as a crime against humanity, must be a part of the Darfur trials by the International Criminal Court. Peace without justice is not real peace; peace with impunity is not worthy of the name.

I helped establish the Nobel Women’s Initiative with six of my sister Peace Laureates in 2006 so that we could use whatever influence and access we might have to speak out for and support women around the world working for peace with justice and equality. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the only imprisioned Peace Laureate in the world today, obviously cannot actively join us as she continues to lead the struggle for peace and democracy in Burma.

As is the case with Darfur, the suffering of the Burmese people will not end without clear and consistent global measures to bring the military junta there to the negotiating table. Instead, as is the case with Darfur, massive arrests and repression continue unabated in Burma in the wake of the unexpected and surprisingly widespread September 2007 uprising there. Prominent activists and members of Aung San Su Kyi’s party are still being rounded up by secret police. As Human Rights Watch has noted, the crackdown in Burma is far from over and hundreds of protestors including monks and students remain unaccounted for. There must be an end to the violence and political repression that has plagued Burma for so long. As with Darfur, there must be gender-based justice for the survivors of ethnic cleansing and the massive rapes as a weapon of war.

While there is a lack of action on both Darfur and Burma, at least these conflicts remain salient, pressing issues on the global political agenda. Elsewhere, multiple lower-level conflicts continue outside the scrutiny of global media, international diplomacy, and public opinion. And everywhere there is conflict, it is the women – and their children – who bear the brunt of the fighting and its aftermath. And not all violence against women is the result of war fighting; many women suffer at the hands of the men who supposedly care for them.

As I prepare for my visit to New Zealand for the Wellington Conference on Cluster Munitions, for example, I have been reading more about the situation facing women in Papua New Guinea, where violence against women is endemic. Preliminary research by Oxfam New Zealand indicates that if you are a married woman living in the highlands of this rugged country, there is a high risk that you will be a victim of violence-related trauma.

Suffering physical brutality at the hand of a relative or stranger is bad enough, yet in Papua New Guinea medical services are so lacking that high hospital fees are charged to treat impoverished women who have been beaten and young girls who have been raped. That does not include vital medicines that are most often not available anyway.

All over the world women are taking action to speak out against violence in their homes, communities and countries. Fighting violence against women is not a task for women to undertake alone. Women and men alike must come together to tackle this seemingly unsolvable problem that strikes women whether in armed conflict or in the so-called sanctity of their homes.

  • Ms. Jody Williams is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, founding chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Houston. Williams was the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), and she has served as an ICBL ambassador since 1998.