The world is once again at a stage where a single dramatic event might be the impetus for revolutionary change on a global level.
Something fundamental was altered in the global mindset after a 23-year-old woman was raped and murdered on a bus in Delhi last month. Although rape is an everyday event which has affected millions of women worldwide, this case was somehow different. It connected with both the Indian public and a wider audience on a deeper emotional level. It left us shocked but even more determined to continue the fight.
Could the world have reached a point where it refuses to tolerate the continued sexual violence against women and girls?
The incredible brutality of the perpetrators, whose use of an iron rod to gang rape and subsequently remove her intestines, was particularly shocking and illustrates their complete disregard for the value of her human life. Sexual violence is perpetrated around the world on girls and women of all ages and all backgrounds. It exists in many forms, but is always a manifestation of power, control and violence. The extreme violence used in the Indian woman's case is a shocking reminder of the heartbreaking real-life consequences of gender inequality.
Breaking the silence on gender inequality, and sexual violence in particular, has meant that grassroots activists and advocates for the urgent elimination of all violence against women and girls are being connected around the world. In Morocco, protesters are demanding that the legal exemption for rapists who marry their victims is removed. In Armenia, "Society Without Violence" and supporters are calling for the urgent enactment of legislation which protects victims of domestic violence. In the UK, the culture of objectifying women in the media and blaming victims of sexual assault is being challenged with increasing success. Each example is local in origin, but reflects a wider global issue. It has taken centuries of indescribable suffering to get this far, but the world is increasingly demanding, with a more unified voice, that systems are put in place immediately to end sexual violence through robust investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. The clear and consistent aim is to create a respectful environment, which supports gender equality, which eliminates violence and which provides universal access to justice for everyone.
Equality Now has been working to end sexual violence against women and girls for over twenty years. Although we need to continue to ensure that the new momentum for change is sustained and translated into action, we are also heartened by recent successes. In the US, approximately 19,000 sexual assaults take place in the military each year. At the age of 18, Ruth Moore survived two of them. Ruth enlisted in the US navy during her senior year of high school in search of a better life. In 1987, after boot camp and service school, she was posted overseas in the Azores. After arriving, her direct supervisor raped her on two occasions and infected her with a sexually transmitted disease. Without any way to access help, Ruth became depressed and attempted suicide. She survived, but went to the chaplain again seeking assistance. Instead of receiving support, she was sent back to the US, placed in a psychiatric unit and was discharged from the navy. It was easier for the military to get rid of her than to admit that she’d been raped. Ruth’s rapist was never charged or disciplined. However, in 2010, over 20 years after her assault, it was finally acknowledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs that she had been raped and was entitled to disability benefits. Ruth now actively advocates for the rights of the many military sexual assault survivors in the US.
Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, we continue to work with partners on the ground to ensure that the law to prevent bride kidnapping is implemented. Bride kidnapping is an extreme form of violence against women. It violates the basic rights of women to bodily integrity, freedom of movement and freedom from violence. It leads to forced marriage, rape, servitude and denial of educational and other opportunities. Research carried out by Public Foundation Open Line in 2010 found that almost three quarters of kidnapped Kyrgyz brides experienced threats and other forms of violence from the kidnapper and his family. The stigma attached to an unmarried girl spending a night with a man (whether or not there is rape) is too much for both victims of bride kidnapping and their parents, so many reluctantly agree to the marriage. For some victims, the kidnapping and subsequent forced marriage is too much to bear. In 2010, two young women tragically committed suicide in the Issyk-Kul Province after being kidnapped and forced into marriage. We helped campaign for a new, stronger law, which has now successfully passed through parliament and is waiting to be signed into law by President Atambayev.
In Uganda, Sanyu, a 13-year-old blind, deaf and mute girl, was raped and became pregnant as a result. The lack of a thorough investigation and subsequent delay in justice for Sanyu was extremely disturbing, but funds were successfully raised for essential DNA testing and, alongside sustained pressure on Ugandan authorities by LAPD, we had her case reopened. As is the case in most of the world, while sexual violence is widespread, disabled women and girls can be particularly vulnerable. Even with the intervention of local and international groups, the Ugandan government has been slow to act, enabling impunity for Sanyu’s rapist. To ensure that Sanyu and other girls in similar situations get justice, we have been urging the government of Uganda to live up to its domestic and international obligations and take additional steps to improve the investigation process and prosecution rate in sexual violence cases involving disabled victims. As momentum builds, it is hoped that further progress will take place in the near future.
We have also been calling on the Government of Yemen to prevent child marriages for several years. A draft child marriage bill was introduced in Yemen’s parliament in 2009, but was effectively blocked in 2010 by the parliament’s Shariah (Islamic law) Committee. In 2010, along with our partner, Yemeni Women Union (YWU), we became involved in the case of “Wafa”, who, at the age of 11, was sold by her father into marriage to a violent 40-year-old man. While we were ultimately successful in getting her a divorce, Wafa had to be moved into a shelter to escape a relative who tried to further sexually abuse and marry her. Wafa has been able to resume her education, but the shelter is only a temporary solution.
The critical adolescent years of many girls like Sanyu and Wafa are often shaped by harmful experiences that have irreversible, irreparable and often lifelong consequences. Equality Now’s Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF) was created to help rectify the unique and devastating human rights abuses suffered by girls in early adolescence that harm their self-esteem, strip them of their human rights and deny them present and future access to legal protection, social entitlements and economic opportunities. We are increasingly optimistic that this generation of girls can benefit most from the sea-change in thinking, which now seems to be taking place at a global level. We owe it to them to continue our protest.