On September 28 of this year, the world awoke to fresh reports of unspeakable violence against women. In Guinea, the “berets rouges,” the Presidential guard, raped women of all ages – in groups, with weapons, and with such brutality that many who weren’t immediately killed died soon afterwards of their injuries.
Neither the scale nor the scope of this violence are new. For the past fifteen years, in parts of Central Africa, women have been raped and mutilated as part of a deliberate and coordinated strategy to destroy civilian communities.
And gender-based violence is not limited to war zones or regions in conflict. Girls and women are targeted because of their sex at every point in their lives, from female feticide, to inadequate healthcare and nutrition given to girls, to child marriage, trafficking, so-called “honor” killings, dowry -related murder, and the neglect and ostracism of widows – and this is not an exhaustive list.
This violence is a global pandemic. It cuts across ethnicity, race, class, religion, educational level, and international borders: the only common element is that the victims are selected because they are women.
Since 1991, the world has set aside the 16 days that link November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, with December 10, International Human Rights Day, to underscore the idea that violence committed against women because of their sex is a fundamental violation of human rights.
This violence is not “cultural”; it is criminal. It is every nation’s problem, and it needs a response that is commensurate with the seriousness of these crimes.
The assaults on women cannot be blamed on a few aberrant perpetrators. Rather, these diverse forms of violence stem from the entrenched and enduring low status of women and girls around the world.
Ending the violence – treating the causes as well as the symptoms – requires not only that we increase prosecutions of perpetrators but also that we work towards women’s complete equality in every sphere of life.
Gender-based violence is not solely a women’s issue; it is a global challenge to human rights and security. As an international problem, it requires international solutions.
And the United States is committed to working with governments, multilateral institutions, and a wide range of private partners – from activists and advocates, to survivors and civil society leaders – to end impunity for those who perpetrate these crimes, and to ensure that laws that recognize women’s equality and right to be free from violence are implemented fully.
We’re working to promote men’s engagement in ending the violence. We’re asking religious leaders to incorporate these messages, so consistent with all faiths, into their activities and outreach.
And we’re helping to ensure that boys and girls in all nations have safe and equal access to high-quality education that teaches the intrinsic worth of each person.
Secretary Clinton has made this issue a top priority for American foreign policy. And the Obama Administration is also committed to ending violence against women in the United States, where too many women are still mistreated and abused.
Violence against women touches Rwanda just as it does every other nation. That said, this country has come an extraordinarily long way since rape was used as a tool of genocide in 1994.
Rwandan women have gone from being victims to being powerful, positive agents of change. There is more that needs to be done, of course, but much has been achieved.
As we commemorate these “Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence,” worldwide, it is useful to recognize the progress Rwanda has already made.
Today, Rwanda plays a meaningful role at home and as a regional leader in promoting gender equality and in the prevention of gender-based violence (GBV).
Its 2008 law on prevention and punishment of GBV includes tough penalties and substantive enforcement mechanisms to empower police action against GBV.
Also, the Government of Rwanda has created a national Gender Monitoring Office and there are GBV desks at all levels of police, military, and judicial institutions.
The Rwandan National Police established a “Gender Based Violence desk” in police stations for quick response and prevention of GBV and violence against children.
The Ministry of Defense set up a “Gender Desk” that has provided training on women’s rights and GBV to 5000 military personnel and civilians. There are also GBV desks in all courts and prosecutors offices.
The Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) produced a National Gender Strategic Plan and MIGEPROF is currently working on recommendations for a more holistic approach to stopping GBV.
Rwandan civil society has been very active on this issue too: there are many programs aimed at combating violence against women and children and also programs to empower women by helping them to develop skills and businesses so they can be economically independent.
HAGURUKA, which built the first temporary shelters for victims of violence, is one of many notable organizations that are fighting violence against women and children in Rwanda.
Women are the key to progress and prosperity in the 21st century. When they are marginalized and mistreated, humanity cannot progress.
When they are accorded their rights and afforded equal opportunities in education, health care, employment, and political participation, they lift up their families, their communities, and their nations.
It is time that ending violence against women became a priority for us all.
W. Stuart Symington is the US Ambassador to Rwanda