Violence Against Women and Girls

Violence against women and girls is crippling communities and economies.

Afghan Tribal Elders Ban an Abusive Tradition for Women in Khost Province and What that Means for Women across Afghanistan

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

In December of last year, a council of tribal elders and religious leaders in Nadir Shah Kot, a district of Afghanistan's conservative Khost province, banned the traditional practice of giving away a young girl as retribution for a family member's crime, called baad. Though the local-level political developments of a single district may seem unremarkable, this action actually represents an important step forward for all efforts to combat Afghanistan's entrenched patterns of violence against women, for two key reasons. Firstly, this is a policy response developed, championed and adopted locally, a crucial detail that makes its implementation and credibility all the more likely. Second, the measure was developed, advocated and successfully adopted through the leadership of male community leaders, rather than the exclusive work of women advocating from the margins of the political debate. The Khost province effort to prevent and respond to violence against women locally will be a critical test case for how national-level efforts to curb violence can be successfully implemented on the ground.

Although significant pressure from American and international leadership, as well as from Afghan women in-country, has produced a proliferation of national-level policies aimed at preventing and responding to violence against women throughout Afghanistan, the justice sector has neither the capacity nor, it often seems, the will, to mediate the thousands of family disputes that arise in its nearly 400 districts each year. Therefore, most conflicts in Afghanistan's districts are settled by the local jirga, community councils governed by local elders and religious leaders. The jirga ordinarily deliver verdicts based on traditional or religious interpretations rather than law, often with limited to no proper legal expertise. This often results in verdicts that are discriminatory to -- and often exploitative of -- women.

The practice of baad is a product of jirga tradition. According to a report by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), this informal method of dispute resolution was established as a punishment for serious crimes, like murder and rape, which many tribal leaders argued could not be justifiably settled through a simple exchange of money. UNAMA reports that baad, which it calls "one of the most egregious types of violence against women in Afghanistan", is used regularly throughout the country. Under international humanitarian law, the practice amounts to forced slavery and exploitation. According to one woman interviewed for the UNAMA report, "Instead of the murderer being punished, an innocent girl is punished and she has to spend all her life in slavery and subject to cruel violence."

It is important to note, particularly within Western policy-making circles (which can be squeamish in the face of allegations of so-called "Western imposition" in practices excused as "cultural" or "traditional"), that there is neither legal nor religious basis for baad, nor is there overwhelming popular support for the practice among Afghan people. A UNAMA study found that despite the prevalence of this practice throughout rural Afghanistan, most Afghans opposed the use of baad to settle disputes. In several southern Afghan provinces, both male and female participants told UNAMA that baad puts the woman in a vulnerable position, because her "own relative is responsible for murdering a member of the family into which she has married" and, rather than settling the dispute, revenge is taken out on the girl.

Furthermore, the use of baad to settle disputes is explicitly outlawed in Afghan federal law. Article 25 of the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Afghanistan (EVAW) Law, enacted in 2009, states that,"If a person gives or takes a women for marriage in retribution for a baad, the perpetrator sentenced to long-term imprisonment". The practice is also deemed punishable by the Article 517 of the Afghan Penal Code, which dictates that "A person who gives in marriage a widow or girl... for the purpose of 'Baad dadan'.. shall be sentenced".

The exchange of girls to settle a family or tribal dispute is also contrary to Sharia law and Islamic tradition. The Koran eliminated the pre-Islamic traditional practice of exchanging brides as property by determining that any marriage without bridal consent is invalid. A principle of Sharia law also determines that it is unlawful to "forcibly inherit a woman", through baad or any other means.

Westerners will hence take heart in the measure coming out of the Khost province, which is considered to be conservative (as opposed to Kabul's cosmopolitan oasis of educated women and considerably more relaxed gender relations when compared to its rural cousins). The mountainous province in eastern Afghanistan, which shares a border and many aspects of tribal identity with the Taliban-controlled Waziristan province in western Pakistan, has been a bleak example of the widespread gender inequality that the international community has sought to eliminate since entering Afghanistan in 2001. In a June 2011 report, the World Bank found that the female literacy rate in the Khost province is just 1.2%, a fraction of the already-low national average of 11.4%, and only 2-3 girls are enrolled in school for every 10 boys. Women in the Khost province continue to live in fear of violence, which is promoted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents still present in the region.

So last December's move by Nadir Shah Kot elders to ban the practice of baad was not an inconsequential one. The tribal elders and religious leaders who supported the ban argued that baad had led to an increase in domestic abuse and female suicide in the district, and hence put forward the local-level measure banning the practice. Community members praised the decision, arguing that baad had been an ineffective and unjust payment for a crime because it punished an innocent woman, rather than her guilty relative. "Every day, we heard that the groom and other family members were beating up my sister" recalled Zenikhil, the brother of a girl given away through a baad exchange, "We have always said amongst ourselves that we turned the life of my sister into hell and buried her alive."

Violators of the rule will now face heavy fines of 80,000 Pakistani rupees (equivalent to nearly 1,000 dollars), a high price that Khost leaders hope will prevent future abuses. The policy also takes an important step farther by limiting the amount of money a groom can demand for a dowry to the equivalent of $2,350. In the years before the ruling, the average dowry in the Khost province rose to the equivalent of 10,000 to 25,000 dollars, a price that few families in the rural province could afford. According to UNIFEM, high bridal prices often lead to "dowry murder", the practice of a wife being killed by her husband or in-laws, because her family cannot afford to meet the demands of the requested dowry. The practice also leads to a higher incidence of young men being unable to afford to marry, and wealthier, older men exploiting their wealth by taking younger - and more - brides.

Clearly the local ownership of this issue is an important factor in the successful adoption of the new anti-violence measures in Khost. In addition to this, the fact that the policy's champions were respected, male leaders is also hugely important. Much of the advocacy surrounding women's rights - within Afghanistan and throughout the world - has been insulated within the women's community. However, men can be powerful allies in the movement to protect women's rights. Afghanistan is no exception - it is men who overwhelmingly constitute political, religious and community leadership, and important efforts to curb violence against women cannot happen without them. In my own work with Women for Women International, we have found that the trainings we have offered male religious, political, military and other community leaders on the importance of women's rights, the detriments of violence, and the value of women's contributions to society have been crucial tools in our work to advance women's rights and participation. By targeting male leaders -- not unlike those in Khost -- we are able to enjoin them to use their positions of influence to spread the word throughout the community. In Afghanistan, we have worked with 400 Afghan mullahs, who have in turn incorporated these messages into their Friday speeches to their congregations.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the Nadir Shah Kot elders' efforts is that it has already been seen to have a ripple effect throughout other districts across the Khost province. Following the encouragement of Abdul Jabar Naeemi, the Governor of Khost, tribal elders in seven other districts in the province, such as Spayrah and Tanayoo, also issued edicts banning the practice. This trend marks an important step in the effort to combat violence and discrimination against women in Afghanistan. The next step will be ensuring that these important policies are put into practice, and that the lives of the women they aim to protect will be ultimately free of violence and exploitation.

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The Other Tahrir Square: Last Week's Violence Against Women in Baghdad, and What It Means for the World

By Lyric Thompson, Originally posted on TrustLaw Women

Last week, a group of twenty-five women who were demonstrating for peace and democracy in Baghdad's Tahrir Square were violently attacked. Gathering as they had every week, the women were greeted this time greeted by a mob of armed men who were reportedly bused in specifically to target the demonstrators. The women were physically and sexually attacked, and a 19-year-old woman's clothes were reportedly torn from her body. News of this horrific exchange in Iraq comes on the heels of an Egyptian general's public admission that his forces deliberately employed so-called "virginity tests" to intimidate women in the more famous, Cairo-based Tahrir Square during March's revolution. Around the world, these kinds of deliberate, organized attacks on peaceful female protesters register a worrying trend of diminishing--and increasingly unsafe--public space for women's political participation.

In the first half of 2011 alone, we have seen evidence of this in practically every region of the world. Take Ivory Coast, where a women's protest of former President Gbagbo's refusal to cede power was targeted for attack by government soldiers. Although the women were unarmed and peaceful, the forces opened fire, killing seven women. Days later, on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, men and women gathered to remember the fallen women and add their voices to the peaceful protest; forces loyal to Gbagbo again attacked, killing three men and one woman

In Libya, the world watched in horror as Iman al-Obeidi burst into a hotel room filled with international press to report her rape by government forces targeting civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Libyan people and maintain Muammar al-Qaddafi's grip on power. Obeidi fled the country only to be deported--against international outcry--and has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life. Widespread reports of use of rape and other human rights abuses have been chronicled throughout the Libyan forces.

Nepal's conflict is more distant in time and memory than those of Ivory Coast and the Arab Spring, but women on the ground there who are still organizing to implement the country's peace process and new constitution continue to be marginalized from national debates, and face physical harm for their efforts. In early May, police attacked and beat 21 women who had gathered to peacefully protest in support of the peace process and a new Constitution outside of the Constituent Assembly.

There are a few cases where women have been able to overcome targeted campaigns of violence against them by their own efforts. Cuba's famous Damas en Blanco--wives and mothers of jailed dissidents who walk the streets of Havana clad in white each Sunday to symbolize peace--were also subject to an Iraq-style campaign of violence by men bused in to taunt and psychically attack them. After suffering repeated attacks, the Damas lobbied the Church to intervene on their behalf, and received assurances that they would continue to be able to march for peace, in peace.

The courageous acts of women everywhere who put themselves at risk in the name of peace and justice are foundational to the democratic process, yet often place them at risk by the states they seek to improve. The act of targeting women for violence is neither geographically, ethnically, religiously or racially unique. Rather, it is a consistent, political tool indicative of a calculated effort to quash the democratic process and maintain hold of power through force.

It is also indisputably illegal. International human rights standards expressly protect not only women's bodies from men's arms, but also their rights to participate within their countries' (generally male-dominated) political debates. Yet as 2011 unfolds, we are seeing more and more evidence that our promises that women should be able to help shape the future direction of their societies ring increasingly hollow.

Women should not be martyred for peace, as they were in Ivory Coast; neither should they be responsible for their own security, as in Cuba. How many more Tahrir Squares must we witness before we take action to stop the violence? How many more women will continue to have to fight... for peace?

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Tackling the 'Elephant in the Room'

Part of the CSW 55 Blog Series

By Su Chuen Foo

New York, March 2, 2011 - Last year, when over 300 women, men, and children were viciously attacked by armed rebel groups in the mining town of Walikale in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world gathered along side the Congolese and vowed never again. The UN launched an investigation on the ground, and new protection measures such as increased patrolling and gender mobile teams to bring justice to victims were put in place. Yet now months later, we are hearing again of another series of attacks which involved torture and rape of civilians in the eastern town of Fizi in January and February. Since the beginning of this year, more than 150 women and children have been beaten and raped by armed rebel groups and government forces in five separate attacks.

Sexual and gender-based violence is no stranger to the DRC and to the world. One in three women globally will be abused in her lifetime. In Afghanistan, despite ten years since the defeat of the Taliban government, women are still subjected to harmful traditional practices such as forced or early marriages and honor killings. According to a UN report, close to 60% of Afghan marriages are child marriages, where at least one of the partners is under 16.

Torture, physical abuse and the denial of basic human rights are common themes interwoven across many stories of women victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Like the story of Rose Mopendo, told through the documentary “Pushing the Elephant,” which was screened today at the Hungarian Mission sponsored by UN’s Say NO - UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign. In 1998, Rose and her children were captured and imprisoned in a death camp by government forces for 16 long months without food and water. After her husband was killed, she was forced to make an unimaginable decision as a mother; she gave her daughter to their captors in order to save her eldest son from being murdered. Soon after, her daughter became pregnant and eventually gave birth to the child of their captor.

Like the story of Rohana from Bangladesh who was married off to a distant relation in the US in the hopes for a better future. Although Rohana was promised education and freedom to pursue her own interests, once in America she soon realized how empty those promises were. Rohana was denied schooling and was forced to serve her husband and his family’s every needs. She had to ask permission to do anything, even to eat and to speak to her parents. Her husband would punch, beat, and strangle her if she displeased him. One day, when her mother-in-law found her cooking without permission, she flung a knife at Rohana in fury.

Last but not least, there are stories like the one of Lucienne, one of Women for Women International’s women survivors of war from the DRC. Lucienne was dragged into the bushes and raped in front of her brother. For three long months, Lucienne was a sex slave to the militias. Soon after, she became pregnant with one of her attackers’ child. Upon return to her village, rather than taking her back and caring for her, her husband and community shunned her.

Without personally knowing who these women are, their tales of heartbreak, fear, pain, and isolation resonate deeply and hopefully move many of us to action. Beyond telling these stories however, we hold a moral responsibility to delve deeper into the question of the root causes of prevalent and persistent sexual and gender-based violence against women. The use of rape as a weapon of war has been ongoing in the DRC for too long. Yet, we are still no nearer than we were before in understanding the political dynamics, land conflict, and tribal clashes that drive this war. As Jason Stearns from the Christian Science Monitor put it, “It’s not all about rape and minerals.” The same thing can be said about Afghanistan, India, Rwanda, and many more countries where sexual and gender-based violence are prevalent. It requires more than just reporting about the cases of violence, more than just attributing it to traditional societal norms and gender roles to understand and solve the problem.

Across geographical boundaries, the one thing that policy and field experts repeatedly speak about is more emphasis on prevention. However, prevention is routinely not given adequate attention or resources. It is even more pressing now to shift from being constantly reactive to being proactive in tackling the problem at its roots. Prevention means changing the attitudes and norms that restrict women’s status to mere property. Prevention means ending the widespread impunity that characterizes perpetrators of violence against women. As Attorney Leidholt from Santuary for Families said in yesterday’s Gender Violence in South Asia session, we can do this by partnering with men, village leaders, and tribal elders to educate them about the rights of women. We can do this by advocating for training among police and peacekeeping forces on women’s rights and on responding to victims of violence. We can do this by garnering political will to convict commanders of rebel and government forces who commit and condone these barbaric acts. The recent sentencing of Lieutenant Colonel Mutware Kibibi to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity during the attacks in Fizi is a laudable progress and one that needs to continue. When a leader of the group is punished, it speaks volume to his or her followers about the consequences of committing those crimes.

Preventing sexual and gender-based violence is no easy feat. As Margot Wallstrom, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict shared in a recent briefing to US NGOs, changing the attitudes and prevailing traditional norms is one of the hardest thing to do in her job, but is also one of the most critical to ending violence against women. We need everyone from grassroots to grasstops to put aside differences and converge on these actionable steps. For those with the opportunity to influence the masses with their words, taking action means telling the stories of survivors and champions and not just focusing on their victimization. So here is mine.

Did you know that despite being victimized in the death camp, Rose Mapendo rose above challenges and went on the win the 2009 UNHCR Humanitarian Award? She is the Co-Founder of Mapendo New Horizons, a humanitarian organization that advocates for access to health care and protection of vulnerable women and children in Rwanda and the DRC. Did you know that with the help of a women’s shelter, Rohana managed to divorce her husband and is now living free as an economically independent woman in the US? As for Lucienne, after going through Women for Women International’s year-long sponsorship program, she has regained confidence and is now leading a healthy life with her children.

To learn more about the 55th Commission on the Status of Women, go here.

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Zainab Salbi Speaks on U.S. Foreign Policy's Treatment of Violence Against Women at UNIFEM and NCRW Conference

June 12, 2010—Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi was a guest speaker at a major UNIFEM and NCRW conference entitled “Strategic Imperatives for Ending Violence Against Women.” The purpose of the conference was to bring together leaders in business, academia, research, not-for-profits, advocacy and philanthropy to forge partnerships and provide opportunities to share information and resources. As a panelist in a Keynote Plenary on “U.S. Foreign Policy Addressing Violence Against Women,” Ms Salbi discussed three key policy instruments, IVAWA, CEDAW and UN Security Council Resolution 1325, that have the potential to make a significant impact if given the right support.

The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA — H.R. 4594, S. 2982)

The International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) (currently introduced on both sides of U.S. Congress, S.2982, HR. 4594) is an important effort by the U.S. to decrease violence against women and girls globally. This bill takes a holistic view of violence--from prevention to response--as a multi-sectoral problem with multi-sectoral solutions.  It seeks to help support survivors, hold perpetrators accountable and prevent violence against women.

  • If passed, I-VAWA would use U.S. foreign policy as a tool to address violence against women and girls and make prevention of violence against women a greater U.S. diplomatic priority.
  • I-VAWA incorporates solutions across sectors, such as promoting women’s economic opportunities, changing public attitudes and protecting girls in schools. The fact that I-VAWA takes into consideration women’s socioeconomic and cultural standing makes it a remarkable bill.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. Countries that ratify CEDAW commit to incorporate the principles of equality of men and women in their legal system and to abolish all discriminatory laws in their countries. 

  • Over 185 countries have ratified CEDAW, but the U.S. is one of the only countries (with Iran, Sudan and Qatar) that has not yet done so.
  • American failure to ratify CEDAW at home presents a severe challenge to its credibility in any efforts to promote women’s human rights abroad.
  • The U.S. is the only country in the Western Hemisphere and the only industrialized country that has not ratified CEDAW.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325

UNSCR 1325 calls for international attention to and action on women and girls in conflict. Specifically, it recognizes the need for women’s participation in decision-making and peace processes; underscores the importance of the protection of women and girls in conflict; and emphasizes the inclusion of gender perspectives and training in peacekeeping efforts.

  • Traditionally, U.S. policy has approached international issues such as women’s conflict experience separately from international legal mechanisms such as UNSCR 1325.  It is time for the U.S. to join with the rest of the world in incorporating solid policy tools such as 1325 in its foreign policy toolkit in order to present a more collaborative and effective response to shared international priorities such as women’s experience of war and peace processes.
  • The United States can start by emphasizing the importance of adherence to the tenets of 1325 in its diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts with other countries and by developing a National Action Plan for the implementation of 1325 at home.
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Women for Women International Testimony for the Congressional Record: International Violence Against Women and U.S. Response

Submitted to the U.S. Congress on October 21, 2009

Women for Women International, an international development and humanitarian organization helping women survivors of war, congratulates the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee for its attention to the important issue of violence against women internationally.

Although a majority of households in the DR Congo depend on agriculture as main sustenance and income, only a minority of women are engaged in agricultural activities as a result of the conflict.

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.

Among the many ways the U.S. can take lead in ending violence against women is to invest in women and girls' equal access to education across all levels and ages.


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.

Mothers are increasingly keeping their daughters away from school following a toxic mix of violence, increasing conservatism and decreasing emphasis on education.


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 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.

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Women for Women International Congratulates Secretary Clinton for Amplifying the Voices of Women Rape Survivors

Washington, D.C. — Women for Women International congratulates U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for prioritizing violence against women and girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  "I am glad to see Secretary Clinton is taking action to stop the epidemic of violence against women in my country," said Christine Karumba, Country Director for Women for Women International's Democratic Republic of Congo chapter, "I welcome American support to protect and empower Congolese women."

In her 2009 visit to the DR Congo, Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton pledged $17 million to help improve the lives of Congolese women and girls.

Last week, Secretary Clinton visited the town of Goma in Eastern DRC to listen to accounts of women rape survivors who are speaking out and demanding justice.  The more than decade-long conflict in the DRC has claimed the lives of over 5.4 million people and played host to a gruesome and strategic rape campaign that has decimated the lives of hundreds of thousands of women.  "The visit of the Secretary of State is very important" said Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi in an interview with NewsHour's Jim Lehrer. "Her message and the U.S. message towards Congo, that "we do care about you," [and] her announcement about $17 million for investment in women and children... is significant for Congo, and it's the first time that Congo gets this level of attention from the U.S."

Secretary Clinton's unprecedented move to hold conference not only with President Joseph Kabila but also with displaced women living in the squalor of a camp nearly a thousand miles from the capital—in the heart of a conflict zone—sets a valuable precedent affirming our own proven philosophy that the stability of a nation is inextricably linked with the status of its women. Stronger women do build stronger nations.

"I told President Kabila we want to help end the violence," Clinton told a group of displaced women living in Mugunga camp.  Clinton condemned the widespread use of rape in the conflict, which she termed as "unspeakable violence against women and girls" and "evil in its basest form."

We applaud Secretary Clinton's condemnation of the violence and her efforts to match diplomatic rhetoric with development assistance.  In talks with Kabila, Clinton emphasized the need to end impunity for those who perpetrate sexual violence. Additionally, Clinton committed $17 million in new funds to help victims of sexual violence, enabling crucial medical services to reach victims, documenting the violence and increase the protection and security of women and girls.

Secretary Clinton's attention represents hope for the hundreds of thousands of women, who have been raped, tortured, and often rejected by their families and communities. Together, we can bring a lasting peace to Congo.

*** For more information on Women for Women International's work in DRC, contact Lyric Thompson at  You can sponsor a Congolese woman through our program, donate online, or run for Congo Women.

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Engaging men to protect and empower women

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