When Does the Violation of Women's Bodies Become a "Red Line"?

A line of female refugees from Syria waits to register with UNHCR in Arsal, Lebanon, November 2013. (Photo: M. Hofer/UNHCR/ Flickr. Some rights reserved.)

When Does the Violation of Women's Bodies Become a "Red Line"?

If people divide their understanding of militarized violence into normal and not normal, acceptable and not acceptable, it makes a terrible kind of sense: violence against women has been "normalized"

Two years ago I was on vacation in Maine when I started getting really, really mad. I'd been working to track sexualized violence in the Syrian war for a long time and had gotten very little response from policy makers despite many meetings with those in our government and the UK's and at the UN. Cases piled up, and response remained nil. And now suddenly President Obama was responding--but not to cases of rape, or torture, but to the possible use of chemical weapons. It was his so-called "red line"--the thing that would make him do something.

Much of the world long ago decided that chemical weapons were an abhorrent thing to unleash in war. More than 160 countries signed a treaty attesting to this. And I am in no way disputing that this is not a massive, massive human rights violation. But it got me thinking--why is that the red line? When does the violation of women's bodies become a "red line"? How many cases does it take? I'm not talking about random acts of violence, I'm talking about sexualized violence being carried out by armed forces under the control of a government or militia.

(To be clear, when I'm talking about Syria, this was all before Islamic State began its mass sexual slavery campaign. And we still don't know whether the Assad-related rapes in Syria have been systematic and organized from above. But we do know that the Syrian government has been made aware of them, and hence they have a legal obligation to investigate. Guess where that has gone.)

So, in those angry days, I spoke on the phone with Eve Ensler, the author of the Vagina Monologueswho has been advocating for women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo for many years. She told me something interesting:

She said that the Congolese she'd spoken to felt great empathy for the Syrians, but they were confused by the United States' immediate and overwhelming reaction when--after 16 years and 8 million people dead in their country--they are still waiting and demanding that the U.S. stop aiding Rwanda, which has long supported the M23 and other rebel groups that have destabilized Congo.

"For how many years," Ensler asked me, "have we been banging on the doors of the White House, saying thousands and thousands of women have been raped?"

Ensler, like many I spoke to, were not and are not advocating for a military intervention in places like the DRC where women bear the brunt of the fallout of war. They are asking for political intervention based on human rights violations. But still, no one seems to be listening.


For one thing, world leaders, like representatives in Congress, have turned a blind eye to the violence in a place like the DRC for a simple reason: "It does not disturb their preconceived notions about where violence is normal." That's something Yifat Susskind, the executive director of a women's human rights organization called MADRE told me. And I tend to agree.

If people divide their understanding of militarized violence into normal and not normal, acceptable and not acceptable, it makes a terrible kind of sense: violence against women has been "normalized," especially in Africa.

In an interesting parallel, I would say our national attention has not truly been ignited about the ongoing world refugee crisis, in which 4 million Syrians alone have been registered, and 13 million overall globally (not to mention 38 million people internally displaced). Mainly, these refugees have landed in surrounding countries--Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. But now that the crisis has hit European shores (and a particularly affecting dead child's image has been plastered across the news) everyone is suddenly (sort of) stepping up, pledging to take in a few more refugees, and asking, How do I donate?

The example of the refugee crisis and the lack of action to stop violence against women in a place like Congo can be explained perhaps with one particularly damning question: Do the people at risk matter to the people in power? And the answer, it would seem, is no.

So from here, I want to imagine a world in which these people would matter. What would that look like?

Because I am a journalist, and I get to travel to actually meet the women who are so affected by this lack of foreign policy attention, I'd like to describe a few of them for you and explain how their situations could be changed by international response.

I'll start in the desert of Jordan, where a 23-year-old woman attached herself to me on a sun-blasted day at Zaatari, the refugee camp there holding approximately 150,000 Syrians. Her name was Abeer and she was the less obviously beautiful, older sister to a 16-year-old girl who had just been sold off by her parents in marriage to a much-older Libyan food distributor. He gave the girl, Reem, a watch, perfume, and water when they first met. They then married in front of a couple hundred guests at a wedding hall in the nearby town of Irbid, staying there together for a month before Reem returned to Zaatari.

When I met her she'd waiting for him to come back to her; he was busy in Tripoli securing her a passport, she said. That he called every couple of days may have indicated he actually planned to return, but I'd been told that many men pass through Zaatari taking on brides for just days or a month or two.

Wearing only a dented gold wedding band for jewelry and with her hair covered by a pink leopard-print hijab, Reem shyly smiled when I asked her if she wants to go to Libya. Yes, she said--because her husband told her it's like Syria: "green, with lots of water." Will she miss her family when she moves to Libya? "Definitely," she said.

Abeer, however, had no such out. Swathed in a sweltering polyester abaya, she said she used to be a hairdresser in Syria. She can't do that here though. There's no equipment. No scissors, no styling products, no hairdryer. And no money to buy any. Instead, Abeer sat, day after day, sweating in a caravan in the desert not knowing when she'll ever leave, how she'll ever make money, and what she'll ever do every day that is worth more than this. The Syrian war left her nothing, like millions of her fellow refugees. Nothing is the present, nothing is the future, and the past, the past is too painful to think about. Instead, Abeer sat.

The media talks about the radicalization of bored young men in the Middle East. But is it crazy to worry not only about Abeer's mental health, but to realize that there will be many young women like her, drawn as a number of women are these days, into radical groups like Islamic State by the lure of a so-called better life? Putting aside for now that girls like her sister are being sold off into marriage, let's think about what happens to the others. Could it make actual foreign policy sense to address what happens to this lost generation of young women and for once stop thinking about the young men only? And if not for worry of them being radicalized, then for the basic reason that educating and employing young women makes economic and social sense?

And now to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year I met a girl named Mireille. She held a small baby in her arms and cried. At 16, a group of militants under the leadership of a man named Morgan--who was famous for mutilating women, cutting off their vaginas and marking circles around their mouths--took Mireille. They held her for eight months in the bush, where, she said, she was raped by so many men she didn't know who the father of her baby was. "What will I do when he asks who his father is?" she said. Through tears that became choking, she described how she owned nothing more than the clothes on her back. "Who will help me now?" she sobbed.

A psychologist treating Mireille told me that her future is dire. There is no hopeful ending to her situation. There is no miraculous money about to float out of the sky to feed and clothe herself and her son and provide her with long-term mental health care.

And, just a few weeks after I met her, Morgan--her torturer--would be captured and killed by government forces. This, as everything else done by the military in the DRC to stop its war, does nothing to help Mireille now.

These are just a couple of the hundreds of girls and women I've met living the reality of war around the world. Their existence tells me that war is not what the media makes it out to be--it is not bombs, or not just bombs, be they barrel bombs, cluster bombs, bombs dropped by drones or lobbed over walls. War is Abeer. War is Mireille. War is what happens to the people caught in the warzone, and those people are mainly civilians, often refugees, who are thought to make up nearly 90 percent of casualties in conflict now, according to researchers.

War is trauma. And it is the lack of mental health care that accompanies it.

War is rape. And the silence and suffering that surrounds this stigmatized act.

War is the acknowledgement that soldiers are worthy of reparations when they're injured but that civilians who have been sexually violated or born children out of these acts--such as a whole generation of kids now living in Rwanda--are not. It took 20 years to bring reparations to any victims of wartime rape in Bosnia, and it's worth noting that the men who've been ordered to pay say they can't afford the $15,000.

And, because I work in media, I ask myself why it is that what happens to women and children are considered "soft" stories. "Soft" or "pink" stories are traditionally left off the front page. Is it because a media run by men reflects and prioritizes male experience? In the policy realm, are these "soft" issues not hard enough because women are not at the highest levels of government in equal numbers? Is it because they are not at negotiating tables when it comes to creating peace in their countries? Or is that just a symptom? An NGO leader who pushed for the inclusion of Syrian women at the Geneva peace talks last year named Hibaaq Osman said: "When we talk about women at the table, the men see them as the tablecloth." She also said, "The future of Syria should not exclusively be decided by those who carry guns."

What if we, instead, conceived of what I think of as a "soft war"--the one that includes civilians--as the predominant feature of fighting in the 21th century? Maybe we would think about, and address, the plight of refugees differently--we would think of what to do for girls like Reem and Abeer but also how to stop a sharp uptick in cases of domestic violence, which occurs as men become frustrated at a lack of jobs and food and take it out on their wives. This is certainly the case in Jordan, UN workers told me. Could we not somehow prevent this, knowing full well already that it happens in just about every refugee situation?

So it's not just about what happens to women and children when you consider women in foreign policy and national security. We also have to talk about what happens to former soldiers in places like Congo, where it has been shown that men not given counseling and properly reintegrated into civilian life after demobilization will go on to commit rape. Researchers actually found that when fighting ended in parts of the country, rape increased 17-fold. So why does our coverage of war end when the bullets stop flying and the bombs stop falling?

The reality is that these kinds of disconnects exist all over the world. From South Sudan to Afghanistan, we hear about only a slice of what makes up the experiences of conflict. And, importantly, from my journalist perspective I can't help but point out that media attention shapes diplomatic and military response. So when the media gives its airtime or column inches to something like chemical weapon use in Syria rather than rape as a weapon of war, that is what will draw a possible intervention or even medical aid. So again, one is a red line; the other is not.

Recently I saw that Angelina Jolie is speaking out about the Islamic State's use of rape as a policy. It was all over the media. I couldn't help though scratching my head and wondering why it's taken a year or so of these mass atrocities against women--and a celebrity--to blow up the papers like this. Now I'm watching and wondering if her finger-pointing will lead to any concrete help being put in place for the women returning from captivity traumatized and pregnant. We'll see.

I have met too many women in my reporting who have never seen or even considered justice in their lives for the crimes they've suffered. Next to nobody is prosecuting their crimes; next to nobody is handing them money or assistance. The fact is that justice is utterly unobtainable for women in many parts of the world. It is knocked aside by the larger issues of conflict, aka the male issues. There are still major problems in tribunals and with witness protection that prevent women from wanting to come forward. At a more local level, there is the problem of police--who are usually men: They laugh, bribe, or re-rape women seeking an arrest.

The unceasing cycle of violence, in part, depends on how we prioritize it. If we pay attention to all facets of conflict, as a select few are doing, if we can gain the attention of policy makers, can the world become a more peaceful place in which both women and men's lives are valued equally?

I, for one, am glad there are so many people out there pushing that boulder up the hill.

This article stems from a presentation given at the conference "National Security and Women's Insecurity: Why Women Matter in Foreign Policy," which took place 11 September 2015 at The Bush School for Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Full video of the conference.

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