The 16 days between 25 November and 10 December don’t particularly stand out for any specific reason. Students will be starting to feel the first twinges of pre-exam panic and Christmas is quite literally around the corner. However, since 1991, these 16 days have served as an activist campaign that aims to highlight awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights issue.
The chosen dates, if you cared to research them, have a certain and potent symbolism about them. 25 November is the UN’s International Day against Violence to Women and 10 December is International Human Rights Day, linking together to emphasize the idea that gender-based violence is linked to the systematic violation of women’s basic human rights.
The theme for the 2014 campaign revolves around militarism, which is particularly apt when we consider that in 2013 there were around 400 conflicts in the world and 20 of them were classified as wars, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mexico. The relevance of this and its relationship to combating gender-based violence against women is clear when we consider the statement made by Patrick Cammaert, former UN Peacekeeping Commander, who stated that “it is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.”
At the moment, 90% of all war casualties are civilians, the majority of whom are women and children. From the available statistics, it seems to be the case that women suffer disproportionately in conflict zones, as sexual violence, amongst other tactics, is now an accepted weapon of warfare. This can been seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape has become frighteningly commonplace, and similar stories have arisen out of Chechnya, Colombia, Burma, Bosnia and Uganda, and as al-Jazeera reported in November, Darfur, where a mass rape was committed against 200 women, including 80 minors by a Sudanese Army garrison in Tabit.
It appears, even though the reasons for conflict can be varied, the tools of conflict don’t seem to be changing from region to region and even though 100 years ago, soldiers were the likely casualties of war, the subsequent development of conflict, how it begins and its practices, have seen women and children become the first victims.
This isn’t to argue that women lack agency in war. In fact, it is not unheard of for women to become active combatants, as they have done in Algeria, El Salvador, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, their experiences in these conflicts are often rendered invisible and their lack of political clout means that when the dust settles and new regimes rise, their perspectives are often ignored.
The 16 Days campaign aims to highlight that state and non-state actors increasingly reject or outright ignore the so called 'responsibility to protect' doctrine with regards to their citizens human rights, with little or no consequences. This is especially true for states lucky enough to possess international power, which affords them high levels of immunity. Meanwhile, the steady process of militarization that has been insidiously developing in society has allowed for the normalisation of the belief that violent measures are an increasingly accepted method of dealing with problems. And while increasing militarization is an issue that negatively impacts men, the effects of this on levels of gender-based violence towards women is a worrying trend.
But then, we know all this, as various UN resolutions and international treaties have shown. This includes the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Beijing Declaration, and the UN Resolution 1325, amongst others. Perhaps most recently, in 2013, the Commission on the Status of Women adopted the (and I’m quoting) “milestone” agreement that the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls” constitutes a "global plan of action." Well great. All our work done then.
But as the theme for 16 Days shows, it’s obviously not. We’re absolutely fantastic as a global nation at making resolutions, laws, treaties, pacts, goals and lists that highlight our commitment to dealing with these issues, but when push comes to shove, our resolutions aren’t as strong as they should be. We would often rather turn a blind eye than ask the hard questions.
Some might assume that this is irrelevant to them, a person lucky enough to be in a country where day-to-day conflict isn't a reality, and really, what can the average person do to help? Well, it might be naive, but I would argue that there is plenty to be done. First and foremost, people need to engage with the issues, actually learn about what’s happening - give a damn, make some bloody noise. When you see discrimination, harassment and abuse, don’t just stand by and let it happen. Recognise what you are witnessing and take the necessary and safe precautions to end it. And perhaps, what might be most effective, would be to start demanding accountability from our elected representatives. This might be idealistic, but I have a feeling that if we were to all show a microcosm of the interest we show in finding out which celebrity has stopped sleeping with who and discussing why Ariana Grande went out in public without her hair in a ponytail, our MPs might just have to listen. Our representatives are lazy because we allow them to be. We in our apathy have stopped caring and instead rejected the political agency that others before us fought for. This must end.
In essence, Melanie Joy said it best, “Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possibly by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well.” So go out, bear witness. Demand others bear witness as well. Be brave enough to change the status quo and don’t accept injustice when you see it or hear about it. It might not work, but it’s sure as hell worth a shot.