Ahead of the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, Human Rights Watch and the Frontline Club held a panel talk on women’s rights around the world. “Women’s Rights from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe” brought together a panel of women’s rights experts from the Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division and the deputy editor for the Guardian’s global development website, Liz Ford. Liz chaired the discussion which was followed by a Q&A session.
On a rainy Tuesday night in London last month, people from all professional backgrounds crammed into the Frontline Club to find out about the issues affecting women’s human rights around the world. The packed room and the quality of the questions asked demonstrated a true interest in the topics raised and a tangible concern for the infringement of women’s rights, whether by conflict, political and social structures or poverty. It was no surprise that the room was dominated by women, but as women’s rights are human rights the discussion of them is something that both men and women need to take an interest in.
The news that around 200 Nigerian girls had been abducted by Boko Haram militants weeks earlier may have been a focus point of many in the room, but as the panellists spoke of their work and the issues confronting women in various regions, including Europe, it was clear once again that these issues are not confined to faraway countries. Speaking about Yemen, Rothna Begum who has worked in the country for a number of years said: “Girls as young as eight could be married to men as old as 35.” A life of sex slavery, often referred to as child marriage, is also a matter of concern for the Nigerian girls who are still in captivity. Director of HRW’s Women’s Rights Division Liesl Gerntholtz said: “We need to keep an eye on the women who are invisible the women who are vulnerable.” A statement which could easily be applied to the world’s reaction to the media coverage of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls. The world’s media took their time in highlighting the story and now (more than a month later) the story seems to be edging out of the spotlight even though the girls still haven’t been rescued.
In the wake of the news of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls the online community showed their support by using the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. But apart from a show of online solidarity and protests outside government buildings, there was really very little that anyone outside Nigeria could do to help. During the Q&A section of the talk a young woman in the audience posed the question of what people could do to help women suffering human rights violations abroad. Liesl answered: “Change is local. The best thing we can do is work in our own communities.” She added that this sort of work is what adds richness to one’s ability to advocate. Something which may have come as a shock to many was Liesl’s revelation that the HRW produce more reports on the US than any other country. The idea that advocacy begins at home was echoed by Gauri van Gulik, global advocate in the women’s rights division at HRW, who spoke of the need for people in the UK to hold the government to account when it comes to ratifying treaties on human rights. Guari spoke of the UK government’s failure to commit to binding treaties in relation to the prevention of forced labour and encouraged those seeking to do something to raise the issue with their MPs.
Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie co-chaired the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict last week and it’s undeniable that Ms Jolie’s presence made the summit (and sexual violence in conflict) a front page issue.
Speaking of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, Agnes Odhiambo, researcher for women’s rights in Africa, said: “Summits are important. They give issues visibility but advocacy on a national level is important too.” Without national led advocacy it’s almost impossible for women’s rights gains. Samer Muscati, emergencies researcher for HRW women’s rights division, spoke about navigating existing social and political constructs when working to make gains in places where women’s rights are infringed. Charities and NGOs who took part in last week’s Global Summit will hope that it’s a step to the world coming together to act for the many women, girls, men and boys for whom war means sexual violence.
Photo credit: Frontline Club