This week, we mark the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign. 16 Days, an international campaign launched in 1991 by Rutgers University’s Center for Women's Global Leadership, mobilizes people and organizations to take a stand against gender-based violence. The campaign begins on November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, reminding us this is an issue that affects women around the world. The very name “16 days of activism” calls on us to do whatever it takes to stop the violence. Twenty years after the initial launch of the campaign, our collective efforts and commitment are more vital and needed than ever.
In the humanitarian settings in which the Women’s Refugee Commission works, the pernicious effects of gender violence have devastating consequences for survivors, their families and communities. We have seen how such violence may leave women physically harmed or traumatized. They are also often stigmatized or ostracized by their communities. As a result, many women and girls struggle to participate in education, care for their children and other relatives or be active in local affairs. And because women are the linchpin of families and communities, particularly during conflict and postconflict periods, gender violence can be a major barrier to future stability, reconstruction and development in war-torn areas.
We need to fight this plague in the same way that we would any global epidemic that affects millions of people. For many of us, the assaults on women and girls during the Bosnian, Rwandan and Liberian conflicts are still very much in our minds, even as we struggle to stop more recent horrors suffered by Congolese and Somali women and girls, and so many others. In developing solutions, we must also remember that even when conflict and crises abate, gender violence can remain high for months or even years as societies struggle to rebuild and heal.
Over the past decade, the international community has begun to more consistently address the prevalence of gender-based violence during periods of conflict. The United Nations’ Security Council has passed a number of resolutions aimed at protecting women and girls and calling for an end to the systemic targeting of women and girls for sexual violence during conflict. These resolutions represent important first steps in combating a widespread and horrific practice, but they will only have lasting impact if they are fully realized.
Since its founding in 1989, the Women’s Refugee Commission has advocated for policies and programs that will prevent gender-based violence in crises and improve care for survivors. For example, we helped develop and continue to push for implementation of the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations right at the start of an emergency. A key component of the MISP relates to sexual assault in crisis settings. The WRC leads an inter-agency effort to implement short- and long-term strategies that will make it safer for women and girls to collect fuel and firewood, which they need to provide meals for their families. The WRC is also currently training organizations around the world on how to implement effective programs that generate income for women and help lessen their risks of sexual violence and abuse. In recognition of the tragic fact that the almost half of survivors of sexual assault are under 18 years of age, we have recently launched a new initiative aimed at identifying better strategies for building girls’ self-confidence and social networks and equipping them with skills that will decrease their vulnerability to violence.
The challenges may seem daunting but they can be overcome if governments, UN agencies and individuals make ending gender-based violence a top priority and commit the necessary resources to the fight. Each of us can, and must, do our part.
You can help us advocate for an end to the violence and for the implementation of programs that allow women and girls to realize their full potential by: