“Atrocity is not something that can be ignored,” Stopping gender-based violence in war

WNN Features

Asieh Amini
Iranian human rights defender Asieh Amini. Image: Shahrazad/Asieh Amini

(WNN) Denver, Colorado, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: As WNN – Women News Network works with the Nobel Women’s Initiative to introduce an amazing group of global women rights defenders, following the  16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, WNN asked each of the heroines the same vital question:

As we get close to the new year for 2014, what do you think is the most important way individuals in your region can stop violence against women?

The answers are raw, honest and revealing.

Asieh Amini

‘Atrocity is not something that can be ignored’, is a ongoing motto for Asieh Amini who now lives in exile as an Iranian human rights defender living in Norway. Amini is also a poet, human rights activist and death penalty opponent. She is also a strong opponent against the ancient practice of stoning as it continues even with a blind eye by the government in Iran.

As a journalist growing up and living inside Islamic Republic, Asieh became aware of the the human rights needs for underage children who suffered on death row inside Iran’s prison system. One of these children was Atefeh Sahaaleh who was only 16 years old when she began to count down the days on death row under what rights activists worldwide outlined was an unjust cause for arrest and forced incarceration in 2003. At the age of 18 Atefeh faced her execution day under ‘scurrilous’ charges of sexual ‘misconduct’.

She was considered instead by regional and global human rights advocates to be a child victim of sexual exploitation. In August 2004 Atefeh Sahaaleh was hung until dead in the public square in her hometown of Neka.

“When asked later why the case was rushed, Judge Rezaie was reported to have said that, in his opinion, there was too much ‘immorality’ in Neka,” outlined human rights organization Amnesty International.

“Moral sanction is a matter for the consciences of individuals and the beliefs of religious groups. Criminal sanctions are an entirely different matter and when the threat of execution is involved the state cannot stand idly by and permit the two types of sanctions to be connate in a way that violates international law,” said international law scholar and human rights practitioner and former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston in 2006.

As Amini watched cases of injustice unfold in Iran’s courts, especially under divorce law which too often includes the court charge of ‘immorality’, she became a strong, but debilitated, woman’s advocate working to help women who were on death row. The stress of her advocacy, with the emotion that came with it, caused her to almost lose her eyesight. ‘Judicial violence’ against women continues to be a major concern for Amini.

“We are caught in a cycle. We are surrounded by violence,” said Amini in her statement to WNN. Today Asieh Amini continues to give voice to the human rights situation in Iran:

“How can one expect of a regime to stand up violence against women in the public places, on the streets and at home while the regime practices violence?  How can we expect of those who try to hide domestic violence behind the walls and in the closed rooms to respond to state violence? Violence is supporting violence, and inequality and discrimination continues to lead in supporting both of them.

Let us not forget that dictatorship have risen up and get power from our homes.  For these reasons, dictators attempt to exert their presence even in the most intimate moments and spaces in our lives. If you examine the discriminatory laws in my country, you will come to understand my meaning regarding state violence.  

For us, only one road exists. A road that  begins from our hearts, our hands, and our thoughts. Around the globe, women’s activists began the struggle against violence by first looking to themselves, then to their homes, and streets. Some of women were able to change discriminatory situations, and for others, like us, we are still paving our own path.”             

–  Asieh Amini

Mi Kun Chan Non

Peace advocate and ethnic Mon women’s rights defender Mi Kun Chan Non was one of only two female observers during the Mon peace talks for democracy  in Buirma/Myanmar where conflict between warring factions has brought death, displacement, forced labor, regional violence, sexual attack and destruction, especially for ethnic women living on the border region between Burma and Thailand.

“The suffering of the people has gone on too long,” said the U.S. Congress describing the rape of ethnic minority women in the region in 2003.

“The total number of rape victims documented in these reports from Chin, Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin states totals 1,859 girls and women, with some accounts going back as far as 1995,” said a March 2012 briefing paper by the Swedish Burma Committee with Info Birmanie based in Paris, France.

In talking with WNN, Mi Kun Chan Non emphasized the process of peace-making and women’s political participation above all as a way to help protect the ethic women of Burma/Myanmar:

“I strongly believe that to apply culture and traditions is the right track. Women must be active and understand clearly how to participate to stop violence against women. Women need to know their rights; and government (local and union) must apply their commitment to protect women.

[We] need to build women’s confidence as well as government application on protecting women. [The] policy must be strong and [the] plan need[s] to be clear. This is my belief on how to stop violence against women.

One more important thing, [We] need to build [a] strong network for the group[s] who are working to stop violence against women. Activists are a very important link to speak out in the public as well as [with] a stronger voice.”           

–  Mi Kun Chan Non

Hania Moheeb

Facing fear and severe violence during a protest in Tahrir Square in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo, Hania Moheeb is a strong voice today working to empower women in the region to stop the violence against women that continues in Egypt.

“Only ten months have passed since I was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square — it was the worst experience of my life,” Moheeb said recently on November 29, 2013 in Huffington Post following her harrowing experience.

“Recently, in September, Egypt — along with 112 other countries — signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence,” she continued.

“This declaration commits countries to ensuring that sexual violence prevention and response efforts are prioritized and well financed, providing timely and comprehensive care for survivors, giving full human rights to women and guaranteeing their active participation in the political, social and economic spheres, and ensuring the national military and police doctrine are in line with international law,” added Moheeb.

But the law in Egypt is not something that most women trust.

The changing tide of politics in the region offers little protection for women who continue to be attacked on a daily basis on the streets of Cairo. “On paper, this all looks good. However, I’m not confident that our present government in Egypt will follow through on these commitments. Successive governments in Egypt’s history have signed most of the important international agreements pertaining to women’s rights, but in practice, have done little to advance these rights,” added Hania:

“Violence against women in the Arab region can stop when the voices calling for changing the negative cultural norms and stereotypes get louder, when men see the ‘human’ behind the ‘physique’ of the women and when women refuse to take the blame for it.”           

–   Hania Moheeb

Jasna Bastic

As a print journalist in Sarejevo, the capital city of Bosnia during the days leading up to civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Jasna Bastic learned much about the desperate need for peace in the region.

Suffering under an extended siege that began in 1992, that lasted 43 months in Sarajevo, 11,541 people were killed as hundreds of children also died under endless mortar attacks that barraged buildings and streets throughout the city .

Jasna Bastic lecturing
In May 2011 peace advocate Jasna Bastic points to a map during her lecture as she shares personal experiences during “Traces of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.” Bastic experienced firsthand the war in the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik which had a devastating impact during the 9 months of siege in the region. Image: Peace Boat

During the siege approximately 380,000 people in Sarejevo were left without life-saving necessities as electricity, water, food and petrol became virtually non-existent, and Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats became separate ‘religiously-divided enemies’ and the treasure of Bosnia’s National Library was destroyed in flames.

As conflict in the region increased rape and gender-based atrocities hit every age level. Girl children, as well as grown women and men, became targets. Those who survived have worked to climb their way out from under a heavy personl weight after facing genocide during the darkest days of humanity.

Legal cases at The Hague in Geneva, Switzerland that are not expected to be complete until 2017 at the ICTY – UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. They are expected to bring justice for crimes against humanity committed under war in the Balkans in the 1990s. The preliminary findings in early discussions during the Tribunal’s process of justice was the first time the concept of ‘rape as a weapon of war’ was publicly supported. This gave women around the globe a new opportunity to plead their own case of sexual violence under war crimes in international court for the very first time.

“As of May 2013, 69 individuals have been convicted and currently 25 people are in different stages of proceedings before the Tribunal,” says the ICTY.

The act and responsibility we have to protect women is clear. We must speak out to stop the continued suffering of women and girls in Bosnia-Herzegovina, outlines Jasna Bastic:

“[We must] Expose the violence against women! Talk about it!  Write about it and ask your local politicians to stop it!

It is illegal, immoral, dangerous and horrible, and has to be stopped! Women feel ashamed to talk about home violence, sexual harassment and paedophilia, but violence can be stopped only if women talk about it and say loudly together – NO!

You have to say NO to fear!

Otherwise the example will be set up for our daughters and other young women to be silent and accept obedience to violence. Women activists and lawyers need to support victims and help them to raise their voices and ask for justice at the court. Men have to talk as well and say how violence against women is criminal and unacceptable for men too.

The longest crime in history, present in all societies and all centuries continuously going on by this date, is crime against women. Men have to talk too!

Call your husbands, fathers, brothers and male friends to join your voices and protests! Talk and point your finger on perpetrators – you are not alone and you are right!”         

–  Jasna Bastic

Visaka Dharmadasa

Sri Lankan expert on women and war and founder and chair of the AWAW – Association of War Affected Women and Association of Families of Service Men Missing in Action, Visaka Dharmadasa has worked hard to cut through the struggles of armed conflict and civil war in her region. Her goal has been to bring those involved back toward peace.

Peace is no stranger to Visaka. She was one of the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize when ‘1,000 Peace Women Across the Globe’ nominated 1,000 women together for one Peace Prize in 2005.

During the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka 12,473 cases of disappearance were reported to Sri Lankan government officials. Approximately 5,576 of these cases still remain unresolved today.

A sustainable movement toward peace can be found within the ranks of women, says Visaka.

She should know. The body of her son is still missing after he joined the Sri Lankan military and fought in a battle with Tamil fighters where 600 Sri Lankan servicemen were never found or identified. Later mass graves were reported as families grieved the loss of their father, son, uncle, cousin, friend or brother.

Working closely with the Sri Lanka International Committee of the Red Cross through the AWAW – Association of War Affected Women in Burma/Myanmar, Dharmadasa was integral as an advocate to help 3,000 families who wanted to know what happened to their own ‘disappeared’ family members. She also helped win a groundbreaking legal case in the country that petitioned Sri Lanka’s military to start using DNA tracking to identify bodies that were unrecognizable found buried in mass graves.

“What individuals  should do to stop violence against women in my region and the world is to firstly understand that the world cannot move forward if half the population is not happy,” outlined Dharmadasa as she shared the long struggle in Sri Lanka for families where minority ethnic Hindu Tamils have clashed with Buddhist or Christian majority Sinhalese people in the region for decades:

“Individually and collectively we all have a duty and responsibility. And we can make that difference by doing our bit. No matter where we come from or what  and who we are,  we can stop violence against women for good,  if we make a promise to ourselves.”         

–  Visaka Dharmadasa

Annie Nushann

As a strong independent woman activist Annie Nushann is one of the great women heroes working at the grassroots level for women inside Liberia.

Suffering under what international relations experts say have been decades of conflict on and off in the region, the people of Liberia faced atrocity that has been recognized publicly today as ‘crimes against humanity’. Amnesty International called the acts of severe violence “serious violations of international law” as approximately 250,000 people perished.

The violence has not come without terrible negative impacts, especially for women and girls.

“Prominent among those crimes has been the recruitment and use of tens of thousands of girls and boys as child soldiers,” said Amnesty International in May 2004 document.

As a mother of ten, Nushann knows the dream of peace that all mothers have for their children who too often learn to accept violence at an early age.

Unfortunately, like many other regions in Africa, Liberia is a region where rape under war became commonplace. In spite of this, sexual violence is not part of anything Annie Nushann has chosen to accept.

Called ‘Ma Annie’ by those who respect and love her, Annie worked with WIPNET – Women in Peacebuilding Network to open up a ‘peace hut’ in the north central region of Liberia. Her peace hut helped organize meetings with women that focused on community mediation, peace and resolution in the small villages of Tatota and Walea.

“Annie is a fearless women’s rights activist,” said one of her biggest advocates, The Nobel Women’s Initiative. But how can the continuing violence against women be stopped in Liberia? Violence must not be condoned, outlines Nushann. “Violence against women and girls: when we don’t condemn it; we condone it,” said Annie in a recent personal statement. She added more:

“When we don’t denounce it; we reinforce it. Men and women, boys and girls, we all are in this together. Let’s start  preventing, educating, condemning and denouncing it in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our playgrounds and leisure gatherings, in our churches and temples and in our political parties.”          

–  Annie Nushann

Rebecca Chiao

Rebecca Chiao came to Cairo, Egypt as an American on a mission.

She went to work for the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in 2004. Faced with the undeniable problem of sexual harassment of women throughout the streets of Cairo, Chiao worked to help find a solution that might slow the incidence of violence through harassment that faced a majority of women who dared to go outside on the streets of Cairo.

In 2010 Chiao co-founded HarassMap, with the International Development Research Centre in Canada.  HarassMap is an up-to-the-minute online interactive digital map that enables women to tip-off other other women by showing locations where sexual harassers congregate.

“Just avoiding harassment takes energy,” said Rebecca in a phone interview with the Toronto Star in 2011.

Chiao should know. She, like countless women, has suffered personally from the degradation, fear, anxiety and sexual harassment violence on the streets in Cairo.

“You’re always on the lookout for being grabbed by men. When you walk near groups, you have to make a big loop around them to avoid it,” she continued. “The most important way men and women can stop violence against women is to join together in creating a new social norm that rejects violence and gender based discrimination,” outlined Chiao:

“All of us as members of a whole society must stop putting the blame on victims and instead speak up when we see violence happen and tell perpetrators that their behavior is unacceptable, illegal, and won’t be tolerated.”         

–  Rebecca Chiao


For many women who suffered under the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina the trauma of sexual violence lives on, but a window into healing is happening. Acknowledging the experience of those who have suffered during the war in Bosnia the 11 month UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), came to its final conclusion in February 2001, as it called the actions of rape made against women during war and conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the very first time ‘crimes against humanity’ under violence that was used as an  ‘instrument of terror’ for those women who continue today to work to move forward toward a new life years after the war is over. “I will not stumble. As long as I can walk I will persevere. I will find the strength within me,” said one special woman hero who is today a survivor of atrocity. ________________________________________________

Additional material for this story has been provided by Amnesty International, UN Women, United States Congress, Swedish Burma Committee, ICTY – UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, HarassMap, WIPNET – Women in Peacebuilding Network and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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