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Zainab Salbi

Zainab Salbi

Posted: October 26, 2009 11:25 AM

Preventing and Addressing International Violence Against Women

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Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing to shine light on the global epidemic of violence against women. Women for Women International submitted the following testimony to the Congressional Record offering 16 years of experience on how violence impacts women, their families and communities around the world and posing key recommendations as to how the U.S. can take a leadership role in preventing and combating this debilitating issue.

Women for Women International, an international development and humanitarian organization helping women survivors of war, congratulates the United States Congress for its attention to the important issue of violence against women internationally.

Violence against women is a global epidemic affecting millions of women daily that presents debilitating obstacles to the development of women, their families and communities, and even their national economies. While the U.S. has taken important steps to address the issue domestically, where according to the CDC nearly one in four women experience violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life, the time has come to turn the spotlight on a crippling issue that affects about one third of all women worldwide.

Women for Women International (WfWI) has worked with 200,000 women survivors of war, civil and political conflict and social strife around the world, distributing $79 million in direct aid, microcredit loans and other forms of assistance to women at the grassroots. We work across the gamut of hot, protracted and post- conflict countries, from the Balkans, to the Middle East and South Asia, to sub-Saharan Africa, where violence against women often is exacerbated by conflict and then continues to ravage communities long after official peace accords are signed. We work to equip women with valuable rights education and vocational skills training while engaging men and community leaders as allies, so that entire communities may benefit from the empowerment of women.

Sixteen years of experience has shown us that violence is debilitating not only to women who are victims but also to larger communities and economies. Similarly, the eradication of violence enables communities as well as women to thrive -- stronger women build stronger nations. In this testimony we present valuable data and lessons we have learned for the United States to bear in mind as it considers its role in preventing and combating violence against women globally and in consolidating peace and development in countries of strategic importance such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We remind the Congress that tackling violence against women is not only a humanitarian imperative, it is a critical step forward in efforts toward poverty alleviation and national security. We look forward to supporting U.S. leadership on this important work to advance the global movement to protect and empower women and create a stronger, more stable world.

Global Violence against Women Today

Women for Women International works in eight countries in varying stages of conflict and post- conflict, many of which, like Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, present primary development and security challenges for the United States today. In countries such as these, violence against women is often exacerbated by war and then remains a critical obstacle to development and the consolidation of peace.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where the U.S. continues to define its strategy to achieve peace and development, the U.N. reports that 80% of women are affected by domestic violence, and rape is an everyday occurrence. Over 60% of marriages are forced and half of all girls are married before the ages of 16. In situations of domestic violence, SGBV and forced marriage, many girls and women resort to self-immolation and suicide, rates of which are increasing. In a report and survey of 1,500 grassroots Afghan women conducted by Women for Women International this year, Women for Women International-Afghanistan staff (all of whom are Afghan) pointed to domestic violence as the number one obstacle to the development of WfWI participants in Afghanistan. This is evidence of what Afghanistan country director Sweeta Noori calls "two Afghanistans" -- one high-level front on which the battle for peace, security and development is waged, and another in the shadows, where women are silenced and abused.

According to UNIFEM, women and girls in Afghanistan are mostly abused by people close to them (fathers, husbands, step family members, in-laws and other relatives). This groups amounts to 92% of reported cases of abuse. Perhaps nowhere more than violence against women is Afghanistan's inability to support and to serve its population more painfully visible -- when women and girls seek protection and/or recourse from the government, they are unable to access shelters or justice, and are often further molested by officials such as the police in their attempts to seek help. This repeated victimization demonstrates the tremendous risk that women face when they dare raise their voice about violence against women. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission cites this culture of impunity, weak institutions and overwhelming poverty as contributing factors to the increasing epidemic violence against women in Afghanistan.

Against this background of violence against women, it is not difficult to see the direct link between the oppression of women and the frailty of national development and security structures. It is not surprising that Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates and one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world, a key development indicator. When half of the population is effectively barred from participation in the reconstruction and development of a country whose institutions and people have been wracked by decades of war, it is impossible to imagine a healthy, wealthy Afghanistan.

Iraq

Despite heavy investment to quell ongoing conflict, combat insecurity, and rejuvenate a decimated economy, the vestiges of war, poverty and increasing calls for a conservative society in which women are subservient figures foster a landscape of violence against Iraqi women both within and outside of the home. The U.N. reports that rape is committed habitually by all the main armed groups.

Recently returned from a trip to her home country of Iraq, WfWI Founder and CEO Zainab Salbi echoes reports of increases in rape, trafficking, prostitution, forced and early marriage and domestic violence, noting that mothers and women of her generation and older are often more educated and less socially conservative than daughters.

In a 2007 report and survey of grassroots Iraqi women, Women for Women International found that 63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women in general was increasing, with 38.5% reporting that rape was increasing. At the same time, 76% of respondents were keeping their daughters home from school, foreshadowing a toxic mix of violence, increasing conservatism and decreasing emphasis on education in a country that faces a youth bulge following war.

As in Afghanistan, women and girls often do not report violence for fear of being ostracized or killed. Services for survivors are inadequate and impunity prevails. The link between security and development is obvious - Iraq is a country that has known a healthy economy, an educated workforce, a developed university system and relatively progressive social norms where women are concerned, yet the war has compromised all of this and women bear the brunt of the violence with least voice to stop it. As in Afghanistan, envisioning a stronger, more stable Iraq is difficult while women are marginalized and abused.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Over the course of more than a decade of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), millions of lives have been lost and hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in a strategic campaign of sexual violence employed by virtually all armed groups, including the military, in an attempt to destroy women and the social fabric of communities across Congo. In 2009, the violence is still increasing. The violence causes great psychological trauma in addition to physical injuries and the spread of HIV against a backdrop of a failed state in which services are largely unavailable to deliver treatment or protection to victims nor accountability to perpetrators.

In a survey of 2,000 grassroots women in the DRC conducted this summer, Women for Women International found worrying indicators that violence is on the rise, that it is moving from the frontlines into the home, and that despite the fact that investment in women is a proven strategy to develop communities and decrease conflict, most women continue to live in abject poverty, subject to violence, displacement and the terror associated with war. Eight out of ten focus group respondents reported abuse, an earth-shattering statistic in a social context where women often fail to report violence for fear of being stigmatized and cast out by their families and communities. 88 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence were reported to be members of the military or militia; however, the violence is moving inside the home, with 18% of our female respondents reporting being physically abused primarily within their household. Increasingly, the trend of violence exacerbated by conflict is moving into the home as a culture of violence is established.

This violence is a direct obstacle to the DRC's national development as a whole. The conflict impedes any meaningful economic development. Although the land is fertile and plentiful in Congo, 80% of arable land is unused. Farmers have missed the past three harvests due to conflict, rendering the population dependent upon imports and food aid for survival. Our survey found a majority of respondent households depend on agriculture for basic sustenance and income; however, according to the survey data, only 22 percent of women interviewed engage in agricultural activities, as a direct result of the conflict.

In August of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton established the situation in the Congo as one of key strategic import to American interests by travelling to Congo, where she focused particularly on the epidemic of rape and violence against women in the East. Her visit and consequent dedication of over $17 million dollars of assistance to protect and empower women survivors of war there is a critical precedent and a reflection of the notion that assistance directed at women pays dividends across national economic and security strategies to stimulate economies and consolidate peace.

Response and Recommendations

Sixteen years of experience working with women survivors of war has taught us that the link between security and development is direct and incontrovertible. War exacerbates the poverty trap since risk of renewed violence in post-conflict countries is high -- an estimated 40 percent of post-conflict countries relapse into conflict within 10 years. The roots of poverty often foment conflict insofar as joblessness is exploited by extremists, conflict over resources comes to a head, and education and opportunity are unavailable alternatives to war. And it's expensive: while the risk of failure in these countries is high, the risk of non-action is even higher -- the annual, global cost of conflict is estimated to be around $100 billion. Aside from the financial and humanitarian cost associated with violence, it also destroys assets and institutions.

Yet a growing body of evidence echoes our experience on the ground: we are not without tools to tackle the problem of violence against women, families and societies -- there is action we can take to protect and empower women and create a more prosperous, secure world. Direct investment in women and the institutions that protect and empower them can combat and prevent this global epidemic. Emerging evidence indicates that women who sustain an income are often less likely to be victimized, and are certainly less likely to engage in transactional sex and other forms of victimization.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, violence compromises prospects for peace and stability and undermines the economic productivity of women. Half of WfWI survey respondents knew a sexual violence survivor, yet the women reported that survivors are less likely to be rejected if they are earning an income. Women said that more than anything else, "peace" is being safe enough to work and trade (46%). As a roadmap to that peace, women requested improvements in security (51%), microcredit opportunities (30%), and vocational skills training so they can access economic opportunities (27%).

Where women are trained and able to participate in their national economies through concrete economic opportunities, they thrive and their families and communities see them as assets. Women farmers enrolled in an organic farming program run by Women for Women International in Sudan are on track to earn double the per capita gross domestic product of their country after only six months. Country director Karak Mayik reports that the male community leaders who were originally hostile to the concept of working to empower women now have asked her to expand to neighboring states and literally "spread the wealth."

While direct investment in women is a critical step, our efforts must not exclude men. As the majority of perpetrators of violence, controllers of wealth and influence and leaders of institutions, the men must be engaged in the strategy to prevent and combat violence against women and foster stronger nations. Through our Men's Leadership Program that trains male community leaders from all aspects of society to understand the negative effects of violence and the marginalization of women have on the development of the community as a whole, we have seen the progress that can be made when men are engaged in a campaign for behavior change and opening of social, political and economic opportunities for women's participation. In Afghanistan, for instance, Women for Women International trained 400 mullahs to incorporate the value of women's rights and value to the economy and society in their Friday speeches, thereby promoting women's participation amongst congregation members from across the society. In the DRC, thousands of men have participated in the training program, where 91 percent of graduates agreed there are good reasons for a husband to stay with his wife if she has experienced violence and 93 percent said program encouraged them to prevent VAW in the community. One militia commander who had always commanded his men to rape abolished rape in his unit after he learned about the spread of the HIV virus.

While the obstacles poor women face globally -- violence preeminent among them -- are many, so are the opportunities investment in them presents not only for preventing and combating violence, but also for stimulating national economic development and a more stable and secure world. Our approach should include a global gender strategy that unites protection and service provision for victims; economic development opportunities for survivors; and community (and men's) education and engagement campaigns whereby communities design and implement their own strategies to end violence and engage women in social, economic and political processes and institutions. Steps the United States can and should take in assistance programming include:

1. Invest in women. Increase official development assistance (ODA) for women by tracking and evaluating existing aid commitments based on impact on gender equality and developing new commitments that scale women's programs beyond pilots and token projects.

2. Protect women. Protect women from violence and exploitation by strengthen rule of law and accountability mechanisms for prosecuting perpetrators and ensuring that policing, peacekeeping and military operations are gender-sensitized. Enable women to safely access and exercise their human rights and full political, economic and social participation, and prevent and combat institutionalized violence like trafficking and honor crimes. Protect women, from leaders who seek local and national office, to farmers traveling to and from their fields to girls traveling to and from wells, bore holes and remote sources of water and fuel.

3. Resource women. Women constitute the majority of the world's reproductive labor and are often the least-resourced, most-exploited actors in the formal and grey economies. Open socially- and market- viable opportunities for women's economic participation through job training and creation. Promote women's access to and understanding of resources such as credit mechanisms, information technology, extension services, and property rights. Codify women's ownership of their labor, inputs and profits.

4. Educate women. Worldwide, the full development of women and girls is avoidably constrained by inferior levels of literacy, basic education and skills training. Ensure women and girls have equal access to education across all levels, ages and tracks. This includes primary, secondary and university-level education; literacy, financial literacy and adult basic education; vocational skills training; and civic education outlining the rights of women and girls as they are outlined in national, family and religious laws.

5. Serve women. Women and girls are underserved the world over. Develop and expand social services that take women into account -- women's programs should be mainstreamed across all of government, with each ministry drafting a gender action plan that allocates and tracks resources through gender budgeting. Prioritize health and legal services to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates and treat, protect and empower survivors of rape, domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.

6. Invite women. As half of the population, women are stakeholders in everything. Ensure that gender is integrated across every political body, policy measure, donor conference, development strategy and military campaign, from the public to the private sector and from the local to the national level. Women must be at the table in more than token -- if not equal -- numbers.

We thank the Congress for its attention to this important issue and look forward to supporting and expanding existing efforts to take a leadership role in preventing and combating violence against women so that families, societies and nations around the world will benefit.

More information can be found at www.womenforwomen.org or by contacting Lyric Thompson, Policy Analyst and External Relations Officer, at 202.449.9440 or lthompson@womenforwomen.org.