Women’s bodies: A quick way to ascendancy?

Posted on January 18, 2010.

I’ve been dreading this point at which I have to post my first blog for the Gender Masala. It’s a tough job trying to fill the shoes of Mercedes Sayagues who started the blog and, together with a band of other contributors, kept it an inspired, lively and engaging space for readers to return to again and again and also make their contributions. But the fact is that sooner or later I would have to jump right in and this is it. I’m excited about this blog and I hope that we will be able to keep it engaging. By we, I mean myself, Kudzai Makombe in Harare, Tess Bacalla in Manila, Estrella Gutierrez in Caracas and Diana Cariboni in Montevideo. Mercedes is not completely off the hook. She will still be contributing from her new home in Maputo. There will also be posts from other contributors.

Its not a great way to start the new year, but my head has been puzzling over the growing militarization around the world and its catastrophic impact on women in particular. What got me going is a book I’m reading by journalist Christina Lamb called ‘The Sewing Circles of Herat’. The book, which traces the war in Afghanistan and its particular effect on women, came highly recommended by my husband, a prolific and speed reader, who picked it up as the only remaining piece of literature in English abandoned by previous tenants at a lodge where we stayed in Namibia late last year. The remainder of the reading material was in German.

Its taking me a long time finish the book not only because I’m a slow reader but as I go through it I become deeply disturbed by the complete and utter impunity with which men with guns can and do commit atrocities and their particular desire to strip women of all human rights. I have to put it aside and move on to another of the books my bedside table.

Over the holidays I caught up with one of the BBC World Service’s best documentaries of 2009, ‘Chechnya’s Missing Women’ which traces the kidnapping of women and girls by bands of armed young men in Chechnya’s capital Grozny. The women are forced into cars at gunpoint and some are forced to marry their captors while others simply disappear to possibly turn up dead in a vacant field. Their families are helpless to stop it.

What is troubling me most is that like many others, I read the news and perceive what is happening to women in Afghanistan and Chechnya as remote occurrences in distant lands that have little to do with me. But when I look closer I see it happening at my doorstep.

Naively perhaps, I would never have thought that the systemic rapes, beatings and killings of women and girls that took place in Kenya post the December 2007 elections and in Zimbabwe ahead of the Presidential run-off elections in 2008 were possible. Then there were the women who were brutally raped and some killed in Guinea in September last year. And who doesn’t know about the thousands of women who are raped and killed regularly by both government and rebel troops in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

In all cases government has been somehow complicit and impunity has been the order of the day. The affected women and their families have had little recourse and are generally expected to shut up about it for “the greater good”. The argument being that progress and peace processes will be derailed if these issues are dredged up. And so women are silenced and violence against women in normalized.

As a follow-up to United Nations Resolution 1325 (2000), which obliges groups in armed conflict to protect women and girls from violence, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1888 on 30 September 2009. UNSCR 1888 establishes a UN Special Representative to deal specifically with sexual violence in armed conflict and enables the Security Council’s sanctions committee to take into account rape and sexual violence as criteria when considering sanctions against nations and individuals. Personally, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic that this latest resolution will make much more of a difference for women faced with guns and impunity. After all, there is also UNSCR 1820, which affirms the Security Council’s intention to consider targeted sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict. As with many of the other UN Resolutions – and there are so many – the laudable words are taking time to translate into action. In the meantime it seems as though groups struggling for power and resources are actually learning from each other that its okay to battle on the bodies of women and that this can be a quick and sure way to ascendancy.