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The Disturbing Reality Of Gender Based Sexual Violence In Armed Conflict

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By Priyanka Sinha:

‘‘Four women every five minutes are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),’’ says Esperance Kavira Furaha. In 2009, on her way back home after appearing for her school exams, she was ambushed by members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and sexually assaulted. She was able to get help from SOFEPADI, a DRC-based NGO that promotes and defends women’s rights, and now works as an activist with them.

Mother with child in sudan. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Mother with child in sudan. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The situation in the DRC is not unique: sexual violence against women has been a feature of war for generations, across the world. The UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict report shows that in the context of armed conflict, the victims are far more likely to be civilians — mostly women and children — than soldiers.

Rape as a tool of war

Rape in armed conflict is used as a deliberate tool to destabilise and control civilian populations. Women and girls are particularly targeted because of their status in society: sexual violence is used to humiliate and control their families and the wider community.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report shows that the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) has carried out systematic sexual violence against captured Yezidi women and girls who have been given to the fighters as as ‘‘spoils of war’’.

In addition, through reproductive violations, systematic rape is used as part of ethnic cleansing. In the 90s, Bosnian Serbs were responsible for carrying out systematic gender-specific political torture against mostly Muslim women. It has been estimated that over 60,000 women were raped during the war.

Refugee crisis and sexual violence

With the world witnessing the worst displacement crisis since the Second World War, as conflicts in Syria, and recent developments in the Central African Republic and South Sudan have forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes, the situation for women and children caught in the conflict is likely to worsen.

The UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Global Trends report shows a marked increase in the number of refugees, with nearly 60 million people displaced at the end of 2014 compared to 51.2 million in 2013.

When forcibly displaced, women and girls are often separated from their families and are at particular risk of trafficking for the purposes of sexual slavery and exploitation.

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, women face sexualised violence along migration routes through Libya. While male refugees are subjected to torture and other forms of abuse, women are more vulnerable to sexual assault.

Global summit against use of rape in conflict

A summit on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by Angelina Jolie, actress and Special Envoy for the UNHCR and the former UK foreign secretary, William Hague, in June 2014, resulted in a protocol to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts, signed by 151 countries.

The declaration, however, does not create a legal obligation for countries to follow through on their endorsement of the protocol.

The UK government has been criticised for organising this summit while at the same time ignoring the plight of female asylum seekers who have suffered sexual violence in their home countries.

Resolution 1325

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2000 to counter the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls has had limited impact.

While UN intervention has led to increased prosecution in cases, where high levels of rape have been part of the conflict such as in the DRC, there has been an increase in mass abductions by extremist groups in countries such as Syria and Myanmar.

These women continue to suffer stigma and discrimination even after they return home and are unable to access adequate post-traumatic support. In certain cultures, rape is conflated with adultery. For example, in Sudan, women who report rape can be accused of committing adultery (zinna) under Article 149 of the Sudanese Criminal Code of 1991. The promises of Resolution 1325 must be supported to ensure that women’s rights are protected during conflict and perpetrators are held to account.

In recent times, social media campaigns have helped bring to focus, the abuse faced by women in conflict-affected areas. The #bringbackourgirls movement started on Twitter in 2014, endorsed by celebrities and activists from Michelle Obama to Malala Yousafzai, was the global response to the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Although such campaigns play an important role in spreading awareness, the effectiveness of ‘clicktivism’ — a term used to describe activists who use social media to organise protests and show support for causes — has been criticised. Of the 276 schoolgirls, 219 are still missing and the online campaign is not as active anymore.

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  1. Monistaf

    While I will admit that sexual violence in war zones is a serious issue and deserves the attention of the world community, why is it that we do not look at violence as a whole? Are we afraid that we cannot do anything for the “other” casualties of armed conflict? The only ones worth saving are the women who are subject to sexual violence? What about the thousands that are striped, taken to a desert and shot? You mention ISIS. These are the barbarians that take all males over 14 years old into a desert and shoot them, before taking the women. Are we saying that we cannot do anything for those men and boys since they are already dead, so we just focus on the violence against women? Focussing on women’s issues may be the politically right thing to do, but if we have any sense of morality, empathy and compassion, the focus needs to be against ALL violence, not gender based. Michelle Obama started the #bringbackourgirls, but never had a #bringbackourboys for the thousands of boys who suffered and were victims of the Boko Haram. I understand that she only has daughters, but some of us have son’s and they are just as precious.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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