“A world of hope for adolescent girls” – Olive’s story

This is the fourth and final blog in a series sharing personal family planning stories from around the world – presented by CARE and Girls’ Globe in the lead up to the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Catch up on the whole series with stories from HawaParmila, and Oun Srey Leak.

Rwanda has made significant strides in empowering women and girls and ensuring they have access to affordable healthcare, including access to family planning.

Access to contraception has steadily increased from 17% in 2005 to 53% in 2015.

The government has decentralized and subsidized healthcare to ensure the most remote areas are reached and the most vulnerable communities can access services. However, the biggest unmet need for family planning is predominantly among young and unmarried women. In 2016 alone, 17,000 girls reportedly became pregnant before turning 18!

In 2016, the Government of Rwanda began providing comprehensive sexuality education in schools, however there is still a long way to go to ensure teachers are equipped with the skills and information needed to engage in age-appropriate, open and honest conversations with students.

I work for CARE in Rwanda, where I advocate for increased access to age-appropriate, integrated sexual and reproductive health services, rights, and education for in-school and out-of-school adolescent girls. Although the country has made notable progress in promoting women’s and girls’ rights in recent years, teenage pregnancies have continued to rise, leading to dire socio-economic and health consequences for Rwandan girls.

A few weeks ago, I attended an information session for young women in Kigali where a medical doctor explained available methods of contraception. I realised then that there is a lot young people do not know. But it made me wonder…

If the youth of Kigali don’t know how to prevent pregnancy or to take care of their sexual and reproductive health, what about women and girls who reside in rural areas where access to information and services is still a challenge – even a luxury?

In my time at CARE, I have seen the tremendous work the organisation is doing around the world to increase demand for sexual and reproductive health information and services, including contraception. Much of our work focuses on addressing underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability and helping communities to challenge harmful and negative socio-cultural norms that hinder women and girls from enjoying their rights and reaching their development potential.

Two weeks ago, I met a group of adolescent girls in Karongi District, Western Rwanda, where CARE is implementing the Better Environment for Education (BEE) project to increase chances of girls staying in school. During my visit, the girls talked to me about the various problems that they faced, including unwanted and early pregnancy. As I listened to their stories, I wondered whether we are doing enough to address these issues.

One particular 17-year-old stood out to me. As she narrated her story with teary eyes, she recalled the difficult time she went through when she found out she was pregnant, and described how she was abandoned by her family. She felt she had failed them and failed herself. At some point she was forced to quit school to raise her infant. But when the BEE project began, she decided to join one of the clubs and suddenly found hope. According to her, the clubs have provided a space and a voice for girls to talk and to get accurate and comprehensive sexuality education.

Although the local health centre is just a few metres away from the school and provides condoms and other contraceptive methods, young people in Karongi told me they feel judged and shamed when they go there to seek services that they are entitled to. The BEE project aims to address this as well by giving adolescent girls a platform to dialogue with the school administration and local leaders to express their needs.

Studies have shown adolescents are increasingly becoming sexually active before they turn 18 and this is a reality we should not ignore. Too often, in countries like Rwanda, adolescent girls do not have information regarding their changing bodies or sexuality in general.

Adolescent pregnancy undermines a girl’s ability to exercise her rights to education, health, and autonomy. It’s not only a health issue, but a human rights and development one too. 

I believe that CARE’s integrated approach to empowering adolescent girls, including economic empowerment through savings clubs, sexuality education, addressing gender-based violence and engaging power holders such as parents, boys, school administration officers, and local leaders is powerful in ensuring the problem is addressed from all sides. I have no doubt that this will bring about transformation in the lives of girls and their communities.

We have no more time to lose.

Documentary ‘The Uncondemned’ Shatters Stigma on Sexual Violence

The persistence of rape in conflict, from a moral standpoint, represents a regression. Humanity better stand back up on that front if it wants to survive as a species.” Dr. Justin Kabanga, rape psychologist (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

When Godelieve Mukasarasi first began working with female sexual assault survivors of the Rwandan genocide, she described them as “the living dead.” Beyond shock and grief, they had shut down in order to make it through alive. One woman, Serafina, explained, “[rape] is the wound that you can’t cure among all wounds that you ever had.

As the Founder of Solidarity for the Development of Widows and Orphans to Promote Self-Sufficiency and Livelihoods (SEVOTA), Godeliève works to bring women together to break the silence on the pervasive sexual assaults that occurred with impunity in Rwanda. Nothing would erase the horrific violence inflicted upon them, but anything close to closure was impossible without justice.

After the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, tribunal members reached out to Godeliève in the hopes of connecting with survivors. The testimony they heard allowed them to prosecute Jean-Paul Akayesu, under whose supervision Tutsis were systematically raped and murdered. His trial marked the first time in history that rape was prosecuted as a crime against humanity and also a crime of genocide.

The film The Uncondemned tells this remarkable story, following the international team of lawyers and activists that fought to bring Akayesu to justice and the brave women who came forward to testify against him. In honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, join Peace is Loud’s campaign to bring this film to colleges, universities and communities worldwide to strengthen support for survivors of sexual violence and torture.

Rape is a crime that feeds on silence, and it takes a rupture in the status quo to affect change. After the success of the Akayesu case, local Rwandan tribunals ruled that rape was a “category one” crime, in the same grouping as murder. This was a tremendous step forward, setting a lasting precedent for the severity of sexual assault.

The story of rape used as a weapon of war is sadly a universal one—but we’re working to make the story of justice for survivors a universal one too. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, described by UN officials as the “rape capital of the world”, we will be partnering with organizations working on the ground to bring The Uncondemned to safe houses for female survivors of sexual assault; and to mobile court judges and medical, law enforcement and legal experts to demonstrate effective, survivor-centered strategies for documenting and prosecuting rape on a local level. We’re particularly pleased to be working to integrate the film into a mandatory training for Congolese soldiers on gathering evidence in gender-based crimes.

The Uncondemned demonstrates unwaveringly that women feel the devastating impact of conflict the deepest, yet are underrepresented in peace talks. To reverse this trend, we’ll be working with global grassroots organizations who are looking for tools to help implement and localize UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which highlight the urgent need for women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Within the U.S., we’re working with universities and student groups to integrate The Uncondemned into classes and trainings that strengthen support to survivors of sexual violence and torture. We’ve developed film-accompanying discussion guides for law schools and medical schools which address the legal, medical and psychosocial aspects of sexual violence and present scenarios how to best respond to disclosures of sexual violence.

It is our hope that each screening of The Uncondemned will bring us one step closer to bringing justice and support for survivors of sexual assault and torture around the world. These crimes perpetuate as long as they are allowed to; it’s up to each of us to say, “no more”.

As for Godeliève, she’s still hosting her weekly SEVOTA meetings for survivors, including the three women featured in the film. “The fact that rape was taken into consideration in the prosecution of Akayesu [on screen] has had a worldwide impact on the issue of the rape of women”, she says. “In spite of being a rural woman with little means, I helped denounce injustice and fought for humanity”.

Please join us in bringing The Uncondemned to your campus or community. Learn more about the film, host a screening, and be a part of our global community.

 

Women Leading Change

By Solange Ipmanoyimana

Rwanda is ranked among the countries with the fastest growing rate of economic development worldwide – but it hasn’t always been this way.

Looking back at my childhood, I grew up observing gender inequalities in my community. In the rural areas women were the ones to spend more hours working on the farms, doing chores, and preparing food for the family. Men, on the other hand, were expected to work morning hours and spend the afternoon resting and taking local brews. Though it wasn’t exactly the same in the urban areas, the circumstances weren’t that much different because the women still did all the work at home while the men were in bars. Though women were educated, they would follow the norms of gender. We were taught never to speak in the presence of men or question a man’s judgment. Women were totally dependent on men’s ideas and decisions. Even if women worked many hours with barely any time to rest, they weren’t allowed to make any decisions, including the small ones like buying clothes for themselves.

The denial of women’s independence limited their inner potential, which reduced the positive impact they could have on the country’s development. Like the Kinyarwanda saying goes, “umutwe umwe ntiwigira”(two heads are better than one). Rwanda’s development demonstrates the progress that can be made when women are partners in building a country. Twenty years after women were first encouraged to participate more fully in society, Rwanda’s GDP has more than doubled and women occupy 64% of Rwandan lower parliament seats. Before the current regime, women could not serve as mayors but now they are governing the provinces, districts, and sectors, in large part because our leaders acknowledge and welcome women’s contributions.

Yet even though women’s leadership has been achieved in higher-level public institutions, women occupy only 8% of leadership seats at the local level. This gap represents a significant challenge but also an incredible opportunity for the women of Rwanda.

Resonate has recognized this challenge and wants to build leadership among Rwandan women at all levels to close the gender gap. In cooperation with other organizations that support women and girls, Resonate uses a training program that uses personal storytelling to build self-confidence and unlock leadership potential. Every day at work, I am fortunate to serve the younger generation of future mothers and community leaders who will ensure their sons and daughters are educated equally, paving the way for gender equality.

During our Storytelling for Leadership workshops, we work with women to identify times in their lives when they have already been change makers, and help them recognize what they are capable of achieving. After this short training we have seen a 30% increase in our participant’s self-confidence, comfort speaking publicly, and their desire and ability to lead a team, group, or project.

We are currently developing a network of leaders that supports women to set goals and begin working on a community project of their choice. This network will provide critical skills and a group of supportive peers to help guide them through the process so that they can truly demonstrate their potential as leaders and agents of change.

I am working for Resonate because I believe that women’s voices are important. Although the status of women in Rwandan society has begun to change, more remains to be done to achieve gender equality. From my life experience, I have learned to make my own decisions and I have worked hard to get an education. I always aim high and give my best in everything I do. As a mother, I wish to inspire my daughter through my actions to believe that she can achieve her goals. My wish isn’t only for her, but for every child in our community. Every morning, I wake up energized to help women and girls believe in themselves and take on community leadership roles. They are the key to Rwanda’s successful future.

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!

Say No: Unite to End Violence Against Women

Photo Courtesy: DFID
Photo Courtesy: DFID, Creative Commons

Today is the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women. All over the world, women, men and children are taking a stand to declare that women deserve to live free from all forms of violence. As the world comes together to show support for women, the harsh reality is that one in three will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. This happens in all communities, both rural and urban. Violence against women occurs in schools, in homes, churches, and on street corners across the globe. No woman is immune to the threat of violence.

This must STOP.

In 2009, UN Women launched the Say NO-Unite campaign. The campaign engages people from all walks of life to focus on raising awareness and making public declarations to end violence against women. The growing global coalition unites individuals, governments, organizations and the private sector with the common goal to fight violence against women and girls. Say NO-Unite utilizes both on the ground engagement as well as new media to rally communities and nations. To date, over 5 million people have signed a petition to make ending violence against women a global priority.

Beginning today until December 10th, in coordination with 16 days of Activism, people in villages, towns and cities across the world will be displaying the color orange as a symbol  to end violence against women and girls.

In Egypt, campaigns calling for an end to violence have begun to engage students at universities. Recently, girls took part in a bike ride to raise awareness about sexual violence. Other students have created human chains and bumper sticker campaigns to raise awareness about sexual harassment. In Rwanda, a group of men started an organization called the Rwandan Men’s Resource Center (RWAMREC). RWAMREC initiated a campaign to train men to change negative and violent behavior. The campaign participants meet people at the local level to discuss gender-based violence. To date, over 3,000 local leaders have been trained.

As a young woman with a passion for fighting injustice and empowering women, these stories inspire me. Over the past several years, I have had incredible opportunities to sit, listen and learn from many courageous women. As I have had the opportunity to work with women and girls in the United States, Africa and India, I think about stories like Xian who was trafficked from China to New York City or Rasha in India who suffered extreme abuse at the hands of family and strangers. Marble floors, rural villages, mud huts, comfortable couches, airplanes, offices—it is within these varied scenes that stories of rape, exploitation, and extreme abuse take place.

It is their stories that propel me to action.

Today I stand up and say NO for Xian and Rasha. I say NO for mothers, friends, daughters and women all over the world who suffer and have suffered from violence. I say NO because I am a woman who believes that all women should be free to live without fear.

Today I wear orange because…

“Women and girls deserve to live free from violence.”

Why will you wear orange?

Tweet Us @GirlsGlobe

Follow the campaign on Twitter @SayNO_UNiTE and 16 Days of Activism.

Cover Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim, Creative Commons

Why equal representation?

rosemukantabana

In 2011, the global average of women in parliament stood at 19, 5 %. That means not even one out of five is a woman. Only 9 of the world’s 194 states in the world have more than 40 % female parliamentarians. Today’s representation in parliament is a clear sign that the work for a more gender balanced world is still being neglected. And with few women in the legislative bodies the situation is likely to persist since these are the institutions where policy directions are set. Policy directions that will shape the economic, social and political future.

Without a balanced representation between the sexes, the concerns and interests that come from women’s experiences will not be given equal attention in a parliament. Studies have shown that when the presence of women increases, both substance and shape of politics change.

Rwanda, known for the horrific genocide that took place between April and May 1994 has today’s biggest representation of women in the whole world – 56, 3 %.

This started as a consequence of the genocide, where approximately 800 000 Tutsi Rwandans were killed by Hutu militias and government forces. Right after the horrific event the population consisted of about 70 % women. Girls and women were not at all protected from the brutal violence, but it was mostly men and boys who were the primary targets for extermination.

The result of this situation was that women took on new traditionally “male” roles in society to fill the gaps, including the political work in the country. Even though the male population has recovered today – the women have kept their prominent role in politics.

After the entry of the women, the social climate has changed in the political bodies, and gender issues have started to be prominent on the political agenda. Many laws of great significance to women have been passed, for example laws on gender-based violence and on rights for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers in the workplace.

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Including more women in the parliament would increase the possibilities to make the whole society more equal and just. If politicians, who throughout history have been expected to function as role models for people, are not working for gender equality at their own work place, it is not possible to expect that this is something that will be done anywhere else either. The underrepresentation of women leads to a preservation of the way various categories of people are constructed in our minds. If all power positions in society are occupied by men this is something that will be reproduced by future generations as well. If people continue to only see photos of men in suits in newspapers when they are writing about politics, our minds will unconsciously tell us that this is not an area for women. With more women in parliament the political woman would be a normal concept just as the political man.

States with the highest rate of female representation in their legislative assemblies:
Rwanda (56,3%)
Andorra (50 %)
Cuba (45,2%)
Sweden (44,7%)
Seychelles (43,8%)
Senegal (42,7%)
Finland (42,5%)
South Africa (42,3 %)
Nicaragua (40,2%)
Source: Interparliamentary Union

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Photo sources:
The photo Rose Mukantabana: Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda is copyright (c) 2010 Third World Conference of Speakers of Parliament and
made available by a Creative Commons license.
The photo The importance of the girl child is copyright (c) 2012 UN Women Asia & The Pacific /Gaganjit Singh Chandok and made available by a creative commons license