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Voice of a Woman

Posted: 24/11/11 23:00

Today we celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Two weeks ago on Armistice Day we remembered those who died in the wars of last century and this.

In just over two weeks' time the Nobel Peace Prize will be presented in Oslo to three women.

The connection is this;

A century ago 80% of the casualties in war were soldiers, 20% were civilians; today that ratio is reversed. In war zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the death toll has reached more than 5 million - the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II - where one of the main weapons of war is rape.

The majority of those raped are adolescent girls aged 12 to 14 years old. The United Nations Development Programme reports: "Whether crisis is triggered by armed conflict or natural disaster, women bear the brunt of it. The staggering rates of sexual violence targeting women and girls in conflict zones reflects the heavy price women have to pay in times of conflict and instability."

These casualties are not recognised; dead civilians, like dead soldiers, have no voice. And those casualties who remain alive - raped and maimed - do not have a voice either. Only 3% of mediators, 5.5% of witnesses and 7.6% of negotiators in peace talks have been women.

95% of defence policy makers, negotiators and senior military are still male - this has not brought peace. So the Nobel laureates this year were chosen because, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

The first woman chosen was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female president. Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development and to strengthening the position of women.

Leymah Gbowee mobilised and organised women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections. She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in West Africa during and after war.

In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women's rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.

The women who go to Oslo will become familiar faces in the media next month. And they represent literally thousands more, as courageous, yet invisible - the 'hidden heroes' on the ground and at the sharp end. These women are leading some of the most courageous peace building in the world today.

In the UK we still have a long way to go. As many as 3 million women and girls experience rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, trafficking or other violence each year.

As many as 60,000 women are raped every year in the UK, a hard figure to pin down because women tend not to report the crime. Why? "In no other crime is the victim subject to so much scrutiny during an investigation or at trial; nor is the potential for victims to be re-traumatised during these processes as high in any other crime."

Of the rapes that were reported from 2007 to 2008, only 6.5% resulted in a conviction on the charge of rape.

Violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation, suttee and forced marriage, is part of many cultures. The Elders - an independent group of global leaders whom I helped to shape - believe that ending child marriage can accelerate progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals and say we can end this harmful practice in one generation.

Indian Elder Ela Bhatt says, "We cannot hope to reduce maternal deaths when brides as young as 11 or 12 give birth before their young bodies are ready. Nor can we hope to reduce HIV/AIDS when child brides are unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands. Above all, we cannot hope to end poverty and hunger when young brides are forced to drop out of school, denying them the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them and their children out of poverty...The productive work of women is the thread that weaves a society together."

The Nobel Prize judges have sensed the mood of the time - that women are the most undervalued and untapped resource in stabilising fragile nations.

Voice of a Woman launches on 25 November 2011, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, giving voice to the experiences of women in the most populated cities to the remotest regions of our world.

As with the award of the Nobel Prize this year, Voice of a Woman will support the global campaign to end the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and realise the great potential for democracy and peace that women represent.