Thursday, 13 November 2008

Something to be ashamed of

Both NRT and homepaddock have blogged about New Zealand being the fifth most equal country in the world for women's rights according report by the World Economic Forum. This is an achievement to be proud of but I find myself feeling despondent about the state of the world after reading a powerful speech by Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian opposition leader and ambassador to the UN about the plight of women who live at countries down the bottom of the list.

The audio of the speech is here while the transcript of the speech is over the break. I give a warning that this is not easy reading but should be mandatory as is the Eve Ensler piece I linked to in the text.

I live in a feminist family, I love it. I believe to the end of my days that the feminist analysis of the exercise of male power is probably the most insightful analysis to explain much of what is wrong with much of this difficult world. And I must say that the more I’ve had the privilege of working in the international community, the more I have come to the conclusion that the struggle for gender equality is the single most important struggle on the planet. You cannot continue to marginalize 52% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve a degree of social justice and equity: it’s just not possible.

And when you look at the damage that is done to the women, particularly of the developing world, through so many perverse realities whether it’s international sexual trafficking or female genital mutilation or child brides or honor killings or an absence of inheritance rights or an absence of property rights or an absence or laws against rape and sexual violence or an absence of microcredit to give women some sense of economic autonomy or a lack of political representation – whatever the panoply of injustice, discrimination and stigma visited on women it seems to have no end, and it so profoundly compromises their existence.

And what has happened through the developing world latterly in many parts and which is so unsettling, unnerving, so profoundly compromising are the patterns of physical and sexual violence. The World Health Organization just did a quite astonishing study. It interviewed twenty-five thousand women in fourteen countries about physical and sexual violence. It found that the lowest levels of violence were in Japan at 14%, and the highest levels were in rural Ethiopia at 71%. And when they looked at the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada they found interim levels of 30-35%. So they saw that this was a pattern so deeply entrenched, whether it’s marital rape or sexual violence from intimate partners or domestic abuse, these patterns are overwhelmingly entrenched.

And then when you get destabilization in countries they are further accelerated. A country like South Africa is a good example, where you have 5,700,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in a population of somewhat over 40 million. Incredibly enough, South Africa is a country where eight hundred to a thousand people die every day of AIDS-related illnesses. And in the most recent year for which statistics are available, which is 2006, there were 52,000 reported rapes. And everyone knows that reflects only 5-10% of the actual number because women are so reluctant, for a whole range of reasons, to actually, formally, to report the rape and begin to engage in a police and judicial process.

And it gets worse still when there is conflict. When there is conflict it goes right out of control. I don’t understand what these berserk lunatic predatory male sexual behavior – how it happens under conflict – but it happens and it never seems to end. And it’s not merely on the continent of Africa which I admit is a continent I love, but throw your minds back to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The President of Indonesia just apologized to East Timor for the sexual violence that was unleashed by his forces when they tried to prevent the independence of East Timor. In the Balkans, I remind you a white, Western country, or countries, in the Balkans you have several military commanders who have come before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes against humanity rooted in sexual violence. The same is true for Colombia. There seems to be no part of the world which is exempt.

But in parts of Africa it really is astounding what is taking place. In the post-election violence in Kenya, suddenly more and more women were turning up at the hospitals, raped and subject to the most grotesque sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, an organization which I am involved with and to which I will refer at the end, AIDS-Free World, that Lisa mentioned in the introduction, I can’t go into details, which you will understand, but we have been over the last few weeks in an unnamed country in Africa, interviewing and taking affidavits under formal legal terms from the women who have been raped by Mugabe’s Youth Corps as Zimbabwe has ground down over the last several months. And Terror Camps were created --that’s what they’re called – to subject women associated in any way with the political opposition to insensate sexual violence.

And I was recently in Liberia, meeting with the President of Liberia and the Minister of Gender and the Unicef representative and they were telling me that the majority of rapes now in Liberia – after the civil war is over but the raping continues – the majority of rapes are committed against young girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. And everybody knows what’s happening in Darfur, that need not be explicated at length. For five years now the entire world has agreed that there is a genocide taking place and for whatever unconscionable reason we’ve never been able to bring it to an end. I mean, forgive me but this is not the Taliban in Darfur. These are Janjaweed militia commanders on horseback! And it is entirely possible to have subdued that and brought it to an end if the world cared a tinker’s dam for what was happening in that country.

And in the case of the Congo, you have a war on women. You know, if I may make a somewhat more intellectual observation, rape is no longer a weapon of war. Rape has become a strategy of war. You rape women in such numbers, so savagely that you humiliate entire communities through the women. The women hold the communities together. On the continent of Africa, nothing happens without the engagement of the women, particularly at the grassroots, particularly on the ground. And what happens is that the entire community is subdued, oppressed, overcome by these roving bands of marauding militias, who rape the women, move the community off the extractive resources, which is what they want, or turn the women into sex slaves and the men into the laborers who do extract the resources. And it’s hideous, the consequences, and it’s been going on since 1996. More than a quarter of a million women have been raped. And what is so unfathomable about it is everyone in a position of power knows, and it continues. I’ll never never comprehend.

In August of last year, Eve Ensler, the magnificent dramatist and writer of the Vagina Monologues went off to the Congo to see for herself what was happening and she spent a month or more and she came back and wrote an immensely powerful essay, the first words of which were, “I have just returned from Hell.” And I do not have the emotional equanimity to read to you the case histories that Eve set out. But after she came back suddenly the Undersecretary General of the United Nations, John Holmes, goes off to the Congo, comes back, writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calls it the worst place in the world for women. The Undersecretary General of the United Nations, who appears before the Security Counsel on a regular basis, and then suddenly there’s a front-page piece in the New York Times, and a front-page piece in the Washington Post, and a front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times, and Anderson Cooper of CNN does a twenty-minute segment on 60 Minutes, and everybody is caught up in the anxiety and urgency of what is being done to the women – it’s impossible to say in a way that can be absorbed what is happening to the women.

In the city of Bukavu in the Eastern region of the Congo there’s a little hospital called the Panzi Hospital where a lovely group of surgeons attempt desperately to repair the reproductive tracts of the women. This is rape that isn’t merely the gang-raping of eighty-year-olds and eight year olds, although that takes place. It’s rape with mutilation and amputation and guns and knives. Guns shot into the vaginas of women. I’m speaking to a sophisticated audience that cares about human issues – there is a medical term in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu which I never in my adult life expected to encounter: it’s called “vaginal destruction.” And Eve Ensler has appeared before the Security Counsel, and we had an ostensible peace agreement, part of which peace agreement provided an amnesty for the militias that were doing the raping. And the war never ended. And the raping continues. And the war is now resuscitated. And so bad have things become that Condoleeza Rice, on June 19th, at the Security Council, introduced a resolution branding sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security. That had never happened before. And we have seventeen thousand United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo, the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world, and we cannot protect the women. And everyone knows its happening. And everybody knows that if we increase the numbers of peacekeepers, or the United Nations agencies did their job on the ground, or we confronted the government of the Congo in a way that no-one has had the courage to confront, we could perhaps abate the violence. But I have to tell you it’s so monstrous, and it’s so rooted in gender inequality, that it makes one feel not just tormented but dismal about the prospects for human behavior.


Nikki said...


That speech is the reason I'm heading where I am. Wish it wasn't... but until it isn't, it is.

Carol said...

An appalling situation. But isn't there also a link between this kind of gnerder violence and poverty and/or international capitalism?

Aren't the worst situations for women in the poorest countries and/or ones where the conflicts are related to attempts to entend the reach of transnational corporations and power?

In the gender-capitalism-violence dynamic, I'm not sure totally about the thesis that gender inequalities are the main underlying cause. Maybe a bit of both gender inequalities and trans-national capitalism, which interact at various points?

The ex-expat said...

between this kind of gnerder violence and poverty and/or international capitalism?
Well some of the worst mass rapes happened in the former yugosalvia, a prosperous former communist country.

Interesting anecdote a good friend of mine who severed with the United States Army was in charge of setting up women's organizations there after the conflict. The theory was, that if women didn't have any political or economic power then they would never be able to weed out the causes of future conflict.

Carol said...

ex-expat, note that I included a dynamic that included poverty and/or international capitalism

Hugh said...

Well some of the worst mass rapes happened in the former yugosalvia, a prosperous former communist country.

Despite the proclamations of socialism by the Yugoslav government, capitalism was pretty well dug in there. It certainly wasn't out of the reach of international corporations.

The ex-expat said...

Despite the proclamations of socialism by the Yugoslav government, capitalism was pretty well dug in there. It certainly wasn't out of the reach of international corporations.
Yes I was reminded of how far the reach of international corporations can reach when I was drinking coco cola in North Korea ;-p

tussock said...

Carol, it's war that causes these things; turns groups of men into unfeeling engines of destruction. Though war is in turn largely caused by the capitalists seeking favorable access to resources.

The Congo in particular goes back to human resources, in the original sense. King Leopold of Belgium's rule over his colony there was entirely built around the idea that all the natives would be worked to death for short-term profit (the population halved over his twenty year rule). The resistance that rose up was ruthless in the extreme, it had to be to survive. The King's response to continued resistance was an attempt through mass mutilations to make the people unwilling or unable to fight, while still capable of some work: sexualised violence against women became a universal experience.

Most of that ended 100 years ago, 1908, but what followed was absolute rule from Belgium, and no basic human rights for the locals until the revolutions of the late '50's.

Next came Mobutu, who's stated goal of "stabilising" the country (the Belgians liked to assassinate anyone who actually did that) simply returned it to the brutality of earlier times. He eventually resorted to genocide against recalcitrant sections of the country.

Then the Rwandan genocide spilled over, Mobutu stepped up his repression, and everyone took the chance to ally against him.

But that didn't last. Those who sponsored the overthrow want control of the diamonds (don't ever buy diamonds) and continues to sponsor insurgents (actual ones, not the sort the USA pretends they're fighting against).

Ultimately, too many of the people there have seen officials as being the people who kill you if you disobey for most of the last 120 years. Rights are what you take, fighting the government is a noble cause, people who do the moral thing just get killed anyway, and mass mutilation is how things have always been resolved.

Compared to their neighbour the Central African Republic, with all that and a constant bombing campaign by the French air force in support of their favoured dictator (in the guise of peacekeeping), it's not all that bad of a country. Almost everyone in the capital still has all their limbs, for instance.