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UN At 75: Here’s A Look Back At How It Has Empowered Women In Conflict Zones

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In the ‘z’ generation of the 21st century, it is of vital importance for us to discuss unchaining and unshackling of normative gender roles and needs.

In this context, I would like to talk about women’s safety and their issues in areas of conflict, which is an often undermined topic but is essential to be discussed especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. War zones are ground zero for brazen ethics and human rights violations, including abduction, rape, sexual exploitation, mass killings, illegal detention, forceful usage as women and girl children as soldiers, and usage of ammunition to injure or maim vulnerable, defenceless populations, of which women are usually a part.

Representational image.

but are unable to seek appropriate redressal because the healthcare they deserve is not available to them. They become refugees of war, seeking asylum in overcrowded and mismanaged detention centres, where they face the risk of separation from their family, of catching deadly diseases, or of becoming internally displaced within their own country.

They lose their cultural values and heritage to mass destruction. The primary factors causing these crises include the operations of rebel, militant and terrorist groups, interventions from foreign governments, megalomaniacal tendencies, prolonged protests and political conflict for control over resources.

In the current global healthcare scenario (caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic), medical vulnerabilities have prolonged the agony of women and children in regions like Libya, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, China’s Xinjiang, Ukraine, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Myanmar-Bangladesh Rohingya camps.

Adding on to this is the lack of economic upliftment and of food, shelter or employment opportunities for such women.

But there is another side to the narrative – a situation of conflict gives women and other undermined groups (such as tribals) the chance to seek independence and empowerment in fighting against an enemy force or to engage in peacekeeping for communal harmony. In this light, it becomes important to discuss country-specific problems in war-torn areas, and to find plausible national, regional and global solutions to social, political, cultural and humanitarian issues – especially in terms of the roles and rights of women.

How UN Helps Women In Conflict Zones

Since the United Nations is celebrating 75 years of its existence this year, I would like to point out how this multilateral body carries immense responsibility for helping women in conflict zones. Firstly, there is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, which sets universal standards for the upliftment of women across the world. Its work is furthered by two UN bodies, namely the Commission on the Status of Women and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (or UN Women).

There is also the landmark UNSC Resolution 1325 of 2000, which encourages each country to enhance women’s participation in peace and security, especially in areas of conflict. To do this, gender mainstreaming and gender-responsive budgeting are of the essence. Most importantly, the UN has determined standards for a gender equality commission as part of every governmental body, that focuses specifically on women’s issues, and attempts to address them vividly. Conflict-related abuse against women restricts them from unfolding their full potential in building peace and in sustaining national security, and we must do everything in our capacity to express, empower and enlighten them.

An important aspect in this discussion is Women’s equal political participation, which is guaranteed to them by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is furthered by Article 25 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR). When women assume prominent decision-making and leadership roles in war-torn regions, they can ideate upon solutions that benefit women again the adverse impacts of prolonged conflict.

Women experience mental and physical trauma (like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, unwanted pregnancy due to sexual exploitation, starvation, and malnutrition, etc.) in areas of prolonged conflict. Representational image.

Such solutions could include frameworks for detecting early warning signs specific to conflict-related sexual violence. At the same time, the kind of decision-making that takes place at the top levels in the government are mainstreamed and budgeted in a targeted way, specific to deal with the complications faced by women as a separate, vulnerable group during the conflict. For example, the Arab Spring, which comprised of a series of protests against dictatorial, oppressive regimes across Africa, starting with the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali in 2010, has demonstrated that women are fearless against oppression, and have the capacity to take up both, protest and peace-building, in such regions.

Conflict also gives rise to the question of Human trafficking, of which women and female children are the worst sufferers. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime clearly states that the risk of Human Trafficking increases by 31% in conflict and post-conflict situations and 69% of all victims are used for exploitation and forced labour, while the remaining 31% are used for sexual slavery.

It is saddening and yet interesting to note how women’s bodies become weapons for battle.

Representational image.

It has been increasingly reported by rebel groups in areas of conflict that they only abduct women or girls for trafficking to prove to the regime against them, that they have the capacity to rape, assault and use their citizens for forced labour, and will continue to do so till the opposition gives in. This gives light to the need for the work being done by the UNODC, as guardian of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), as well as the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, Especially Women and Children, and the work that remains to be done, with regards to the rights of victimised women in terms of reproductive rights, economic opportunities and rehabilitation.

Joint initiatives to end global trafficking nexuses with the help of strengthened border security frameworks, cooperative mechanisms like data sharing and joint investigations, and collaborations with UN projects like the GLO-ACT Asia and the Middle East, will help countries willing to end violence against women act effectively and in tandem, because what strengthens the ideology of traffickers (or even terrorists and rebel groups) the most is the satisfaction that they will be able to receive protection and refuge in another country, because of lax protocols.

Finally, the role of the International Criminal Court here is immense. The ICC, guided by the Rome Statute, has the capacity to investigate war crimes committed in areas of conflict, against large populations, Suo Moto (that is, without any prompting or appeal for investigation from another party). In countries like Libya, where the Libyan National Army, led by the ruthless General Haftar, which have witnessed growing atrocities committed against women and children, the ICC must take it upon itself to bring war criminals like Gen. Haftar to justice.

When the world ignores the plight of a conflict, women awaken to bring justice to all those affected by the atrocities. As stakeholders capable of engaging in civil and political decision-making, the governments, international and sub-national bodies, and civil society organizations have the responsibility of truly understanding what it means to eliminate violence against women and to put sustainability at the core of their work. Only then will words turn to effective action.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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