Monday, February 25, 2013

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo

After a long flight from Libya that landed in in a major Toronto snowstorm, Alaa Murabit, the 23-year-old co-founder of the grassroots Voice of Libyan Women movement, gave the keynote address at the Sexual  Violence in Libya and Syria Conference held on February 8, 2013 at the Faculty of Law.

The Canadian-born women’s rights activist and current medical student spoke about and honoured the many Libyan women who risked their own lives in support of the revolution. Based in in Zawiya, about 40 minutes away from the capital, Tripoli, Murabit visited remote areas of Libya to hear stories of sexual violence directly from women. They supported the freedom fighters, cared for them, and ensured the men could move from stakeouts to hideouts and back again safely, she recounted. But it came at a high cost.

“Women put themselves in harm’s way, repeatedly, in support of the revolution,” she said. Many were targeted for sexual attacks, identified as supporters of the revolution or as related to a male family member who was a supporter. “By April 2011, I was put on the most wanted list.” Her town Zawiya, said Murabit, has one of the highest rates of sexual violence, and so she chose to stay in the safety of her home. A friend of hers did not, however, and was raped more than once, the audience heard. Even though she had a supportive family, her friend committed suicide after the death of her brother, despondent his death may have been linked to her actions.

“How can you create laws that support women?” she asked. “People need to understand that you can write laws, but in most countries, they are not implemented, particularly when it comes to women.” Murabit advocated for women’s economic empowerment to help with the Libyan transition to democracy. “Get them to create their own businesses. Give them the confidence that they are then capable of running for office. How do we convince women to vote for women? With education—political and economic.”

“Sexual Violence in the Recent Conflicts in Libya and Syria,” was hosted jointly by the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program and the U of T Munk Centre of Global Affairs. It drew international legal experts, human rights advocates and scholars to discuss the challenges of documenting cases of sexual violence against both women and men, supporting survivors, pursuing accountability in international criminal law, and the role of the international community in responding to these unfolding human rights abuses.

Sexual violence in our international community is not just a health concern, not just a social issue, and not just a criminal justice issue. It is an attack against human dignity.--Ambassador Patricia Haslach

Attendees heard about the crucial role of documenting cases of sexualized violence. An innovative project called “Women Under Siege” lists how sexualized violence has been used in conflict from the time of the Holocaust onward: in India, the Congo, and in recent conflict zones. Run out of the Women’s Media Center in New York, it includes the site, explained the project’s director, Lauren Wolfe.  This is a live, crowd-sourced map of sexual violence in Syria. The center receives reports from Human Rights Watch, from United Nations news reports, from media such as the BBC and ABC, and more recently from crowd mapping (“Rare, but picking up speed”) and from Twitter, with the hashtag #rapeinSyria. But she cautioned “Everything is marked as unverified,” given propaganda from the government side and confusing information circulating from conflict areas. The data were broken down in early February, said Wolfe, and showed that 80 percent of the victims were women, the remainder were men, and more than 75 percent of the attacks were perpetrated by the government side or the government militia.  But while the mapped reports help show where survivor services may be required, in and outside detention areas and homes etc., “We are losing evidence quickly,” Wolfe stressed, as 18 percent of victims are killed either during or after the sexual attack.

Allison Cole, Open Society Justice Initiative legal officer for international justice, said the global community needs to move quickly. “This [situation] seem to be getting worse day by day. Now is really a critical time to see how things on the ground relate to the legal approaches to addressing the issue.” She added that the increase in documenting cases of sexual violence will have a positive impact in pursuing justice.

But to document cases you need victims to talk about their assault, not an easy thing to do for any victim but particularly so for those caught in violent conflict, living in refugee camps with little to no privacy, fearful of family and local community reaction and cultural stigma as well. “All around the world we know it is very difficult to get people to talk about rape—it takes time and sensitivity, and training—and even then, it is still incredibly difficult,” said Cole.

Dr. Henia Dakkak, an MD with the humanitarian response branch of the United Natons Population Fund, spoke of horrific conditions in the refugee camps, growing larger each day. “There are no words to describe how bad the situation is in the refugee camps, in Egypt, Lebananon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and moving into Europe. The numbers continue to increase—now at more than 787,000 people,” said Dakkak.  “The medical and health challenges include not enough adequately trained healthcare professionals to identify and treat survivors of sexual violence. There is overcrowding. And the lack of privacy makes it very difficult for survivors to come forward.”

Dakkak spoke of the medical staff who are overwhelmed with treating refugees, and in addition, they have to give victims treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, preventative contraceptives, and HIV/AIDS post-treatment. Sadly, many of these treatments may be too late by the time victims arrive at the refugee camps, and so the camps also have to deal with unwanted pregnancies, and unwanted children born of these assaults.

“Sexual violence in our international community is not just a health concern, not just a social issue, and not just a criminal justice issue. It is an attack against human dignity that undermines transitioning states,” said Ambassador Patricia Haslach, principle deputy assistant secretary in the US department of state’s bureau of conflict and stabilization operations. As the closing speaker, she stressed that women had instrumental roles to play in the transition of their own communities, and that if women are excluded from the political transition, they will be excluded from the resulting structure governance, and the importance of sexualized violence will be underplayed.

Haslach quoted figures of more than 9000 rape cases reported during the Syrian conflict, “but that number is probably much higher.” She spoke of the US aim of providing direct assistance to survivors, such as funding an NGO in Jordan to support women’s health needs in humanitarian programs, and supporting the UN Commission of Inquiry to press for war crimes accountability.

Said Haslach: “Frequently, we hear that women primarily speak about incidents of sexual violence solely with other women, if at all. They fear that speaking out about sexual violence will be perceived as a distraction from the political progress, when in fact, it is precisely through support for survivors that these nations can work through recent events and begin a process of recovery, reconciliation and.”

View the webcast of the entire conference here.

Read the conference agenda and speaker bios here.