In Solidarity with Syria: The Power of Global Action

The conflict in Syria has continued for five years. Nearly 300,000 people have lost their lives, millions have had to leave their homes and flee as refugees to other parts of Syria or across borders, and parts of the country, like the capital Aleppo, are in ruins. Not long ago, a picture of a dust- and blood covered 5-year old boy Omran sitting in the back of an ambulance was seared into our brains as a symbol of a war that seems to have no end. We are viewers, through our TV and computer screens, many of us paralyzed and not knowing what, if anything, we should – or can – do.

But there is always something. Some action each and every one of us can take to somehow help the people trapped in this conflict. But what we cannot keep doing any longer is be silent. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, described the situation in Syria in these words:

“Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”

 

savesyria2So what can our support look like? It can take many shapes and forms – and one of those is creating a civil movement around this issue. This is what is happening in Helsinki, capital of Finland. In this small remote Nordic country, local activists, human rights defenders, organizers and other stakeholders came together as private citizens with one shared goal: to do something to help people in Syria. Soon, there were 200 of us, putting our heads, minds and talents together to come up with something concrete we could do – and out of this, came a plan for a peace march and support concert for 24 October – UN Day.

200 private citizens, ranging from communications people and journalists to musicians and radio hosts, NGO and civil society workers to people in the private sector, have volunteered their time around the clock for the past week to put everything together. To create the event, to write press releases, to come up with demands we can present to our own government, to get artists to perform in the benefit concert, to design materials. In a matter of a day, several private Facebook groups were formed for different parts of the planning: communications, marketing, mobilization, concert. People who had never met each other or worked together found a common goal, and came together around that.

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The result? A peace march planned for Monday, with over 2,000 people signed up to participate as of Friday, and a benefit concert with several well known and successful Finnish and international musicians, artists, singers and performers lined up to perform for free – with all proceeds going to NGOs who have a formal partnership with the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and are working in Syria to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. The group behind it all is also doing their best to make this into a global movement, and use #Helsinki4Syria as a catalyst for similar action not only across Europe but around the world. No action is too small or meaningless – one person can organize a fundraiser in a local bar, put together a panel discussion to raise awareness, create a social media campaign, write a letter to a political representative, initiate a petition. We can all find a way to help, to do something, to do anything – just not stand by silently.

#Helsinki4Syria is becoming a national movement – but with your help, we can make it a global one. There is no more time to waste – Aleppo, referred to as a “slaughter house” by a UN Chief, is being torn apart by air strikes and bombs, and those suffering the most are, as always, women and children. Stopping this is our global, shared responsibility.

So here is what you can do:

  • If you are in Helsinki, come to the peace march and concert and spread the word about them on social media
  • If you live somewhere else, organize an event of your own – a march, a rally, a concert. It can be anything!
  • Spread the word on social media with #SaveSyria, #Helsinki4Syria, and create your own #YOURCITY4Syria movement
  • Make the peace symbol, take a picture and share it on social media with #SaveSyria. You can draw it on your skin, on paper, in the sand, make it with pebbles – any way you want!

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Many people will say: this is not our responsibility. Our countries have nothing to do with this. But that is wrong – it is our shared responsibility. Because what is happening in Syria is not only a tragedy and travesty, it constitutes a war crime and a grave violation of the basic human rights of the Syrian people. And raising our voices to stand up against those violations is, absolutely, our responsibility.

Featured image and in-text illustration by Elina Tuomi.

Sexual Violence in Conflict

Strong Women
Photo: Courtney Wenduki (Creative Commons licensing)

Violence against women is a global issue and constitutes various human rights violations. Annually, the 25th of November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and this special day also marks the beginning of the global campaign – 16 Days of Activism. The theme for this year’s campaign, “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women” highlights the impact of militarization and sexual violence during conflict. During armed conflict it is now said that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier, due to the strategy of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Rwandan genocide memorial notes that 500,000 women were raped during 100 days of conflict (IPU, 2008).

The consequences of sexual violence are devastating and destroy whole communities, ripping through the fabric of humanity.

As we witnessed, World AIDS Day, December 1st, also served as a reminder of the millions of women and girls who have been infected through rape in conflict. Many women and girls are subjected to rape including gang rape, forced marriages with enemy soldiers, sexual slavery, and other forms of violence (being forced to witness others being raped, mutilations, etc.). Many have fled their homes, have lost their families and livelihoods, and may have little or no access to health care. All these factors create conditions in which women’s and girls’ vulnerability to HIV is disproportionately increased.

Sexual violence is a security, public health and human rights issue and the horrific physical, emotional and psychological damage and suffering of sexual violence in each country is unique.

In Syria for instance, the threat of sexual violence was a major contributor to displacement as families fled in an attempt to get girls and women safe. As I wrote previously in a blog about Syria women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Unfortunately, this had the unintended consequence of early and forced marriages as parents married their daughters off to older men in an attempt to keep them safe.

Over the course of 2013, various global commitments have been made to eradicate sexual violence in all circumstances with a strong focus on sexual violence in conflict. The G8 Foreign Ministers’ pledged to work to eradicate sexual violence in conflict and develop an international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. Furthermore, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2106 to strengthen efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and during the 68th UN General Assembly 137 countries endorsed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, proposed by the UK government.

But is this enough, what’s next? How do these Declarations and Resolutions translate to the women and girls, men and boys on the ground?

In the Congo alone, tens of thousands of women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence. Militias use rape as a weapon of war, destroying communities and in many cases even the police and security forces who are supposed to protect civilians are perpetrators themselves. This is a global scenario as testimonies of rape and sexual assault by protectors such as police and aid workers particularly in refugee camps are tragically common.  As many as 64,000 women and children were raped and sexually assaulted in Sierra Leone, over 40,000 during the Bosnia and Herzegovina war, 4,500 in a single province in the Congo in just six months and everyday hundreds of women and children are raped in Darfur.

These are not just the acts of individual soldiers, but organised military operations.

Fortunately, there are organisations working in partnership with governments, local communities, legislators, victims/survivors and perpetrators to eradicate sexual violence and bring about healing and justice. For example, Raise Hope For Congo– a campaign of the Enough Project organisation which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity- is addressing sexual violence in conflict at the root cause. The campaign supported by the US Government has four key objectives:

  1. Increase prevention of and protection against Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGVB) for vulnerable populations.
  2. Reduce impunity for perpetrators of SGBV.
  3. Improve the capacity of the security sector to address SGBV.
  4. Increase access to quality services for survivors of SGBV.

Although, there are mountains to climb to achieve peace with real justice in this world, we can each start by raising our voices for the voiceless. Sexual violence in conflict is a crime against humanity that for too long the world has been silent about and neglected the millions of women, girls, men and boys who have been victims.

Now is the time to act.

Take Action!