World

Women and girls should not be seen solely as victims of conflict – they must have a role as agents of change

By Caoimhe de Barra

Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence conference teased out the issues with women leaders.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the most systemic and widespread human rights violations of our time.

The reality is that one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence during their lives. But the problem is much more prevalent in developing countries impacted by cycles of crisis.

GBV, which is rooted in gender inequality, threatens the lives and wellbeing of girls and women, preventing them from accessing education and other opportunities that are fundamental to their development and freedom.

Different types of crises exacerbate GBV. For example, we are seeing during the current pandemic the shocking increase in domestic and sexual violence.

Climate change is also recognised as a serious aggravator of GBV with evidence showing that crises induced by climate change can exacerbate levels of domestic and other forms of violence. I saw this first hand when living in Malawi in 2015-16, during one of the worst hunger crises the country had ever seen.

But conflict and instability are also a significant driver of GBV, heightening discrimination that already exists. In conflict situations women and girls are subjected to arbitrary killings, torture, and forced marriage. They are targeted using sexual violence, which is also used as a weapon of war.

A lack of essential services for people living in conflict situations has a disproportionate impact on women and girl who face additional obstacles in accessing education for fear of targeted attacks and threats against them. They often have to assume additional caregiving and household responsibilities due to the breakdown of health and childcare systems.

This week, the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGBV) hosted a conference titled “From Awareness to Accountability”, as part of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.

At the heart of conference discussions was the humanitarian system and the impact international organisations, including the United Nations Security Council, can have to tackle gender-based violence and introduce the systemic changes that are urgently required.

International experts explored the barriers to responding to increased violence against women and girls in areas of conflict, and the needs and priorities of survivors.

Attending the conference was Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason and a message of solidarity and support was shared from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

We also heard from powerful women activists working with survivors from Syria, South Sudan, DRC, and Colombia. They shared their experiences with supporting and empowering GBV victims in conflict zones.

Dr Rouba Mhaissen, a Syrian-Lebanese economist, activist, community mobilizer, and development practitioner, highlighted the importance of a safe environment in preventing gender based violence.

“Victims are experiencing GBV from continued and multiple streams. This complicates what accountability means as it’s not always a straightforward system. A lot of survivors do not know their rights or what accountability means.”

She added: “We need to trust local organisations and plan holistic interventions. Fixing tents in the winter can be a form of GBV prevention as having a safe environment is very important. We also need to ensure access to safe schooling and healthcare.”

Caoimhe Ní Chonchúir, an Irish diplomat and lead on human rights and gender equality at the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations, called attention to the lack of political action and implementation which she said is crucial to alleviating GBV in developing countries.

“The international community needs to focus on implementation. The commitments are there on women, peace and security but what we lack is political will and implementation. We have no shortage of international law or Security Council resolutions. What the Security Council need to do more of is talk to women instead of talking about women. We have the tools, we just need to get on with it and translate the written word to the concrete reality on the ground.”

The paradox is that while women are the main civilian victims of conflicts, they are shut out of processes to prevent or help resolve them. They are excluded from the negotiating tables when it comes to finding resolutions, and they are marginalised in the post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.

The exclusion of women from decision-making positions prior to, during and following violent conflict, reinforces gender inequality. It perpetuates the cycles of poverty, violence and injustice that disproportionately affect women and girls. It denies women their right to voice and influence.

Women need to be listened to and given a seat at the decision-making table. Perpetrators of GBV need to be held accountable. Women and girls should not only be seen as victims of conflict and instability but should have a role as active agents of change.

This conference has shown that women leaders are more than ready for that challenge.