Breaking the Silence

A recent IRIN article discussed the strengths and shortcomings of the protections of international and humanitarian law offered for women to prevent and address sexual and gender-based violence. Again, it comes down to the way we talk about these issues, or fail to talk about them.

“A fundamental problem with [humanitarian and international law] is that laws and courts exist within society as it stands. Where women – the most frequent victims – are discriminated against, that is reflected in their experience with the law…it comes down to the different relationships of men and women to the structures of power, particularly in the context of transitional justice, where national courts will eventually take over from international tribunals…”

Laws discriminate against women everywhere. You see this not just in time of war, but in times of peace. You see it right here in Uganda, where coalitions of men, largely religious figures, are seeking to eradicate the progress that we as a human society have made in mitigating this discrimination. A recent Times op-ed by Sisonke Msimang talks about how domestic laws laugh in the face of international laws by generating policies that allow for justification of public strippings and mob justice for women who dare to dress the way they want:

“First, this loose men’s movement developed a set of “decency bills” urging women not to undermine their African culture by dressing “inappropriately.” In Uganda, an anti-pornography bill initially sought to criminalize the display of “sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks or genitalia” and to ban behavior that might cause sexual excitement. Overzealous police officers began to arrest women wearing short skirts even before Parliament voted on the measure. Fierce opposition from women’s groups forced changes to the final bill signed last year by President Yoweri Museveni, but it remains a vague and problematic law that gives broad discretion to state officials to define pornography and arrest those suspected of an ill-defined crime.”

For women who endure sexual or gender-based violence in times of conflict, once the transition is made to domestic justice systems, the same retrogressive policies that discriminate against women will be the guiding hand behind the often blatantly sexist verdicts:

“One woman, who was sixteen at the time of her rape, was cross examined for several days on the issue of her consent to having sex with one of the commanders…and that had an enormous impact on women in Bosnia. They wanted to withdraw because they said, ‘We are not going to be subjected to this sort of denigration in a court of law when we are the ones seeking justice.’ The case was won… but still it caused damage.”

Cases like these demonstrate an extraordinarily pressing need to facilitate dialogue around the underlying nature of SGBV. These acts are based in a deeply entrenched set of norms that dictates that the decision-making power of men are somehow entitled to greater weight than the decision-making power of women. Consent should never be a point of contention – if a woman is arguing that she ever provided consent, this is not to be assumed to be a ploy to sabotage the life of a poor innocent man, but rather an expression of the fact that the sexual act that took place was coerced. These are the types of ideas that need to be shared between women and men all over the world.

Here in Kyabirwa Village, where I hope to soon generate programming that addresses SGBV in our community, the key is to involve multiple stakeholders in ongoing, safe and constructive dialogue. As Jackson Katz declares in his brilliant TED talk, “violence against women is not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue.” We cannot have these conversations without men, or without women for that matter. These archaic laws set in place in so many parts of Africa and all over the world, during conflict as well as peace, are perpetuating long-fought lenses of hierarchy between men and women. The dialogue needs to be engaged in at the policy level as well as the community level, and these two conversations need to work together to recognize these issues for what they really are.

“…addressing sexual violence is not just about putting into place good facilities and skilled professionals…it is also about breaking the silence and fighting against taboos. You can only do this if the victims are in an environment with a person they trust.  And to achieve this it’s vital that any work that we do is combined with community-based approaches.”

Msimang ends her piece with the sort of optimism, clarity and exuberance about the inevitable equity of women around the world necessary for this global movement to keep moving forward:

“Fortunately, the continent is home to loud and organized women’s movements that have thus far been able to repel many attempts to undermine women’s progress through protests and parliamentary campaigns and the creative use of media and technology. Their protests have been daring and their collective message has been clear: The walk from the streets to the halls of power may be long, but the goal is well within reach.”