24 Nov

let’s talk

Years ago when I would read news about world events, I was often faced with a dilemma: I am concerned, but feel helpless to do anything. If I am a youth, a student, a concerned citizen of the world – what can I do to help those around the globe facing insecurity and conflict?

A few weeks ago, I was honoured to be the guest speaker at Concordia University’s Holler Day. Organized by Journalists for Human Rights, it was a 16 hour standing marathon in support of survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That very question was posed to me:

What can we do as young people to support the Congolese population and specifically the women, taking into account the logistical limitations of not being on-the-ground in Africa?

The answer I gave at the time to students was to continue exactly what they were doing, full force. Hold educational activities to raise awareness among peers and take them online, extending their impact beyond the four walls of the school.

I have been thinking about this question a lot and the role that youth can play in major campaigns tackling violence against women.

Public education is key in raising political will for effective action on gender-based violence. The longer I work in communications, the more importance I realize needs to be placed in using online tools for fostering dialogue among already-present and yet-untapped networks. And the untapped resource of youth in fostering and promoting active discussion has still to be fully realized.

Why youth? Well, young students have energy and are creative! They are already engaged online and are concerned about issues that affect the world around them and what world they will live in for years to come.

So, unsure of what you can do? Join the conversation online.

And what better time to start than today! Friday, Nov. 25 is the International Day Against Violence Against Women and marks the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

Sitting at home in bed, at a coffee-shop, in the library? Perfect. Add your voice to those who are using social media to raise awareness about #16days and #vaw . Check out the Center for Women’s Global Leadership for more events going on around the world.

But want to know more about what needs to be done to end violence against women at the policy level? UN Women has come up with a comprehensive policy agenda – 16 steps that world leaders need to take.

There is no excuse to sit idly by, throwing your hands in the air and saying you just don’t know what to do. All it takes today is a tweet or a simple post. It doesn’t have to end there – you can engage you friends face-to-face (gasp) or plan a film night, donate your time – but talking about these issues whether online or not, is the very first step anyone can take.

10 Oct

a nobel prize for women everywhere

On Friday, the ranks of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates swelled with the women who have been awarded the honour – to 15. The committee announced that Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee (who I wrote about during the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in May) would share the prize with Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work.”

The announcement has not been met without contention. Some argue that two women from Liberia should not have been chosen, with the Nobel Committee missing a chance to highlight female activists in other embattled countries, such as Afghanistan. There are also questions whether the committee has decided to play politics, awarding a Yemeni activist openly calling for the fall of President Saleh, and mere days before Sirleaf stands for re-election for president - a move Liberia’s opposition and some analysts say was to bolster her support at home during a tense campaign.

Despite the debates, there is no denying that the individuals honoured have both underlined the importance of women in peacemaking processes, as well as demonstrated immense courage in presenting their views, such as Gbowee organizing women to demand that Liberia’s civil war come to an end – or Karman, in the highly conservative Yemeni society, defying violence to lead protests.

As Gbowee told the BBC:

This is a victory for women’s rights everywhere in the world. What could be better than three women winning the prize? This is the recognition that we hear you, we see you, we acknowledge you. We are ready now to give you the faith to do the work that we know you can do.

While acknowledgment in the form of such a significant prize is necessary, what’s really important is that the international community supports women with the proper tools and forum for integrating them as peacebuilders. As a Guardian editorial on Friday remarked, on-the ground “progress” for women has been slow to come by:

The Nobel prize comes as a salutary reminder that we have been grandstanding on this issue for long enough and need to turn more vigorously to concrete action.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the situation continues to be volatile – with dozens of women injured just Sunday during a celebratory march.

To learn more about Leymah Gbowee, watch Pray the Devil Back to Hell or read her just released memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers. Read Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s memoir, This Child Will Be Great.

04 Oct

invest in a girl and she will do the rest – #girleffect

The world could use a good kick in the pants. 

As sadness, poverty, and conflict seemingly flourish around the globe, you may ask how placing money and hope in a girl can be any less of a band-aid than the other “inventive solutions” out there. But, in the end it comes down to the ripple effect: whatever income a girl or woman earns, she invests 90 percent of it back into her family. That’s compared to only 30-40 percent of what men give back.

That means – very simply – for peace and prosperity, we need to be investing in the education, health, safety, and overall well-being of the girls around the world. And yet, girls are most often ignored in development and reconstruction efforts.

Did you know:

Today, more than 600 million girls live in the developing world. [pdf]

Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.

But, did you also know:

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. [pdf]

An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent. [pdf]

Data clearly shows that educating young and adolescent girls, as well as fostering their health and creativity, empowers them in their own right as leaders, as well as providing great benefits to their families and their communities. They also continue to nurture the same values of education and leadership with their own daughters. This is the girl effect.

What is not so simple, and what I have the most trouble with, are these numbers:

Nearly half of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 15.

In 2002, 150 million girls under 18 had experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence.

Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en route to school.

Girls and young women are often faced with difficult obstacles in gaining an education – cultural barriers or gender stigmas, transportation problems, or monetary limitations, or even displacement and civil war disrupting any potential opportunities which may arise.

However, a girl should never hesitate in going to school because her classroom is unsafe.

Yet girls are faced with various forms of gender-based violence in their daily attempts to achieve, even a primary education: bullying or harassment from peers, threat of sexual assault on the way home, sexual violence or exploitation from peers or school superiors.

Education for girls is one of the most important aspects of the development challenge, but as schooling becomes more accessible, too many girls come under threat within the very space they are supposed to be finding a safe haven. And so comes the great problem of tying in education with the greater issues of health, safety, protection and well-being. Creative solutions have to be found to appease both parents and girls that the classroom is a spot which is in fact providing the tools for daughters to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Donors and international agencies – along with researchers, the media, and the public – have begun to recognize the importance of educating the new female generation, as well as the challenges associated with this undertaking.

The more we talk about these issues, the more research, the publicity – the more change will happen in bringing girls (and women) to the forefront of policy planning.

I’m writing as part of this week’s #GirlEffect blogging campaign. There isn’t much you have to do… but you CAN join the conversation – and it’s simple as pie.

It’s no big deal. Just the future of humanity.

28 Sep

wangari maathai and the hummingbird

As tributes to Kenyan environmentalist and women’s rights defender - Wangari Maathai – pour in, I’ve been struck by how missed her voice will be on the international stage.

The first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, she was able to bring to light many issues women on the continent face on a daily basis – from violence, discrimination and lack of justice, to lack of food and clean water. Known as a the “tree saviour”, Maathai and her Green Belt Movement helped develop the clear linkage between peace, democracy, sustainability and the environment.

Not long ago, my attention was drawn to the story of the hummingbird which Maathai often used in her work. It is the story of a great forest fire and a hummingbird flying back and forth with water in its tiny beak in an attempt to put out the flames as larger animals stand on the edge watching in disbelief.

The story has stayed with me and I often think back to Wangari Maathai’s message. We are battling many fires in our world and sometimes I wonder why I entered this profession when my work and actions feel so inconsequential. But then I know that I would not want to be with the group of animals standing on the edge of the forest watching my earth burn.

Wangari Maathai was a hummingbird – and by doing the best she could the help her earth, she left a legacy of green and inspired women around the globe. It is up to us to ensure that we continue her work, doing the best we can with the determined flight of a hummingbird.

20 Sep

an update and a new campaign

Over the past weeks, I’ve taken on a number of new and exciting projects and have been working to tie up loose ends from previous months – and am still working on how to fit my own blogging and tweeting into my schedule.

As I continue to (hopefully) hammer away at that predicament, I want to draw everyone’s attention to the just announced Campaign Call for the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict.

You – your organization or as an individual – can either join or endorse the call.

It’s being coordinated by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and you can go to their website for more information.

On another, separate (but slightly related) note – I’m taking part in the #girleffect blogging campaign on October 4.

Girl Effect is all about investing in girls to make them agents of change in the developing world. Even though girls are often overlooked, by placing them at the center of funding (such as for health care, education, and security), it’s proven that girls will raise the standards of living within their own communities by investing back into their own families. This is the Girl Effect.

The Girl Effect has a kick-ass website which you should check out and an amazing creative team which comes up with fantastic videos such as this one:

It doesn’t take long to write a blog post so join the #girleffect blogging campaign. Go here to sign up!

14 Aug

diversifying the story

Its been a month now since my last post and looking back over these past few weeks to pinpoint what to write about, what has really struck me is the amount of stories on gender-based violence during this time period.

And they are not just stories about rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, which seemed to dominate headlines (if the subject was ever attempted), but the stories feature women from around the globe and the ongoing or past use of sexual violence in war and current research that is being done.

The amount of coverage that violence against women is receiving in the media is the first step in changing and enforcing policy to eliminate it. So instead of focusing on one story, I thought I would do a round-up of some of those which have caught my eye.

One of the most important and unique pieces was by the photographer Will Storr for the Guardian’s Observer Magazine on male rape. It is an incredibly powerful piece that manages to respectfully handle the topic while really demonstrating both the magnitude of the problem and gender issues when dealing with follow-up care or stigma. The article features interviews with researchers, health-care providers and refugees from the DRC who fled to Uganda.

Later on I speak with Dr Angella Ntinda, who treats referrals from the RLP. She tells me: “Eight out of 10 patients from RLP will be talking about some sort of sexual abuse.”

“Eight out of 10 men?” I clarify.

“No. Men and women,” she says.

“What about men?”

“I think all the men.”

I am aghast.

All of them?” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “All the men.”

The article is accompanied by an audio slideshow worth the five minutes.

As the humanitarian crisis in Horn of Africa worsened, with the rates of refugees increasing – so has the sexual violence against women. The reports of women facing attacks as they made their way from Somalia to camps in Kenya emerged early on, and seem to have persevered amid unsafe conditions in the camps.

Margot Wallstrom, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, released a statement this week expressing concern about the attacks.

Interestingly, just before the famine flared, Lisa Shannon – of Run for Congo Women fame and who has now established A Thousand Sisters as an advocacy organizationtraveled to Mogadishu to set up Sister Somalia. Shannon had exclusively focused on DRC before, working with Women for Women International through the “sponsor a sister” method, but this sees the organization branch out to new regions and especially fill a void where it was needed.

Across the world – in Burma – the military regime continues to use rape as a weapon of war against the ethnic communities. A ceasefire was broken earlier this year and fighting renewed in the northern Shan and Kachin provinces. Two organizations Shan Women’s Action Network and the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand are documenting the violence against women in those regions and providing compelling evidence for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry – as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma.

Nobel Laureate and Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spoken out against the sexual violence and urged the establishment of an inquiry -  which could be the first step in sending the junta to the International Criminal Court.

And moving to the scholarly debate of researching sexual violence – a new article in Foreign Affairs examines the difficulty of data and “why the numbers don’t always mean what you think they do.”

The article’s authors (Amber Peterman, Dara Kay Cohen, Tia Palermo, Amelia Hoover Green) call for better research with more comprehensive studies:

….Meanwhile, they must stop relying on “emergency data” — numbers based on rapid assessments or careless extrapolations — and instead invest in less immediate, but more accurate, studies on the prevalence and causes of sexual violence. Of course, no single analysis can provide the “final answer,” but more comprehensive studies are a good place to start.

To address reporting problems, researchers should consider including culturally appropriate questions about sexual violence in routine large-scale health and demographic surveillance surveys. And although recent U.N. Security Council resolutions have specifically demanded numbers, the international community must reconsider its insistence on statistics. Such an emphasis encourages the proliferation of “false facts” about sexual violence and does little to aid understanding. It is essential that researchers, journalists, and policymakers cite credible data sources, lest they undermine their own efforts. Most important, policymakers must ensure that a focus on sexual violence does not crowd out other equally vital wartime issues, such as basic health care, displacement, and inequality.

15 Jul

canada’s missing women

During the first week of July, I had the privilege of working with the communications team for Women’s Worlds 2001 – the largest conference of women ever held in Canada. Over four days, women from 92 countries discussed everything from gender in post-conflict reconstruction, to prostitution rights, to applying knowledge from indigenous cultures for empowerment.

Although I had wanted to write about the conference earlier, as someone behind the scenes and without a chance to attend the sessions I was at a loss about what to emphasize about the gathering. But as an afterthought one of my last evening’s, I had grabbed a couple of reports from the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Finally now having a chance to read them over, I’ve been left with an uneasiness that I can’t shake.

Along with a report on the research findings of the Sisters In Spirit initiative on the numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada, I read through a Community Resource Guide for those wanting to get involved in raising awareness on the issue. It also provides information on what to do if a loved one is missing -  including a mock missing poster – and advice on how to talk to frontline services and media so that they will listen. There are also toolkits on how to stay safe, such as what to keep in your car and how to strategically look upon your relationships.

The fact that there is a need for such information to be published and distributed should give every single Canadian pause to think.

The NWAC found that in the last two decades, almost 600 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered. Between 2000-2008, Aboriginal women and girls represented some 10% of all female homicides in Canada, while only representing 3% of the population.

According to the CBC, a 2009 Statistics Canada report indicated that 13% of aboriginal women over the age of 15 self-reported being a victim of violence during the 12 months leading up to the survey. Nearly two-thirds of those victims were between 15 and 34 years old.

During the conference, the NWAC organized a Solidarity March to Parliament Hill. A thousand-strong, the women demanded action for the hundreds of missing and murdered. Yet, the Minister for the Status of Women declared that while the government stands “in solidarity” with the Aboriginal women, the government is already doing plenty and no task force or national action plan will be established:

“I can tell you that we are all, at the territorial and provincial and federal level, putting in place — and have already put in place — very good concrete measures to deal with this issue.” – Rona Ambrose

When countless of women are unaccounted for, with ineffective local and national security services – to the point of needing to distribute your own Missing Posters – no government agency should ever say, “they are doing enough.”

18 Jun

the rape of nanjing

In December 1937, in what is still considered to be one of the worst massacres in history, the Japanese invaded the Chinese city of Nanjing (Nanking in English) in the midst of the second Sino-Japanese War. It has become known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’, with estimates of 300,000 civilians killed and anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 women raped.

BBC’s Witness recently took a look back on the events from 70 years ago and it is worth the 10 minutes – if only to remember that the brutality women in war face today is not a new phenomenon.

BBC Witness: The Rape of Nanjing

There is significant evidence that the sexual violence in Nanjing was perpetrated in a systematic fashion, with widespread gang rape and extreme mutilation. As BBC notes, the violence ended in March 1938 when the Japanese realized they needed the support of the population to govern the city.

14 Jun

‘killing done with love’ – insecurity for rape survivors in libya

More information has emerged on the scale of rape being committed in Libya since the ICC announced its investigation last week. The BBC reported today that women who are victims of sexual violence are now being killed by their families in the name of ‘honour’.

An aid worker explained that in the Western part of the country – which is particularly conservative – women are being raped in front of their fathers and brothers:

“To be seen naked and violated is worse than death for them,” says Hana Elgadi. “This is a region where women will not go out of the house without covering their face with a veil.”

Charities told the BBC that they were ‘fighting time’ with honour killings becoming widespread when families found out their daughters had been raped, ‘killing out of love’. One aid worker explained they are working to provide abortions for women before pregnancies become visible – with fatwas already made sanctioning abortion in the time of rape.

The extreme level of stigma and apparent danger can easily explain the low ‘official cases’ the UN human right investigator has logged. The case of Libya however is unfortunately the ideal example of how ‘formal data’ is not representative of the security environment for women on the ground and why the approach to sexual violence in crisis situations has to be re-examined by the international community.