by Jacqueline Douniama; translation by Claudia Bragman
On 7 March 2013, the “International Women’s Day; Protection & Promoting Women’s Rights” conference was held in the Palais des Nations. This was a taster session before the International Women’s Day taking place the next day. If anyone thought that this event only catered for radical feminists, they were wrong. On the contrary, the conference was led by a variety of key figures (although, one must admit that men were in the minority). These individuals came from various regions and most of them were lecturers, directors or representatives of international organisations that aim to develop women’s rights in specific contexts.
Women’s rights are equal to men’s rights
The plenary meeting began with the presentation of a video that was created by the Romanian centre of action for equality and human rights (“Do you speak women’s rights?”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lhjii606RRo). This video clearly demonstrates how men and women are committed to women’s rights on a global scale. Many individuals promote the active involvement of women in political parties and international organisations, equal access to education, the fight against prostitution and any other type of violence. The topic of women’s rights covers a significant range of topics that pertain to various fields. The meeting at the Palais des Nations reflected the diversity of the subject to perfection, thanks to a high number of speakers who all had different experiences. This article will keep to some of the topics that were dealt with on the day throughout this productive exchange.
Rape as a weapon of war: a reality in Kashmir
Professor Fozia Nazir Lone from the University of Hong Kong is an expert in international law. She spoke about the precarious situation for women in the Kashmir region. In actual fact, the Kashmir conflict cannot be defined as a traditional conflict. The conflict between India and Pakistan, who are both claiming the same region, has been going on since 1947. Both parties are in possession of nuclear weapons. This indirectly led to crises and large-scale wars. As the area is mainly dominated by men, the situation has become dangerous for women, who are regularly subject to sexual abuse. The concept of “rape as a weapon of war” tends to be quite common during wars and internal conflicts, as we saw in the DRC or in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. According to Professor Lone, rape is clearly a weapon of war. During the conference, many other speakers mentioned the issue of systematic mass rape and the lack of punishment for soldiers who carry out these atrocities was also discussed at length.
The power of images: woman-body-imagination
A second very important issue was put forward by Professor Veerle Draulans from the University of Leuven in Belgium: the representation of women in the media. The media focuses on the female body and creates an “ideal” through images that influence our imagination. When we meet other people, the first thing that we notice is their body. When meeting “the other”, people are directly confronted with differences in identity through the medium of the body. To illustrate this concept, Mr Drulans showed the famous photo of the Vietnam War where we see a naked girl. Nudity makes this photo stand out and shocks us.
Professor Draulans also expressed a concern regarding the behaviour of men who film acts of sexual violence on their mobile phones. Lara Logan, a South-African journalist, was raped in such circumstances in Egypt two years ago. All too many women are subject to this kind of humiliating violence on a daily basis – both in public and in private. According to Mr Draulans, there is a need to develop a global approach in order to avoid this type of sexual violence.
Strategies to achieve gender equality
Gender equality is far from being achieved, even in Western countries that still have issues such as unequal salaries, to name one of them. So what must be done in order to move towards equality? Several speakers broached this third crucial topic and put forward several possible solutions.
Princess Micheline Djouma, President and main representative of OCAPROCE, suggested that preventative strategies should be developed on a national level. These should target principal players and make society more conscious of the situation through awareness-raising policies. It is also important for women to have access to political institutions. Ms Djouma reminded that gender equality is one of the UN’s Millennium Goals.
Several speakers also insisted on the need to think beyond the categories and perceptions that have been pre-established by men and women. Professor Frances Heidensohn from LSE was very clear on this point: we should not copy the Western media, which represents women as stereotypical sexual objects and not as individuals. This second strategy visibly shows that society’s perceptions are not only influenced by politics and international organisations but also by our own behaviour towards fellow Mankind.
No world peace without peace for women.
In conclusion, this conference showcased many ideas and truths on challenges faced by women across the world. Respecting women’s rights is not only important in times of conflict but also in times of peace, both in the North and in the South. There is a tangible link between the situation for women and the development of a country. The permanent representative of the WILPF stated this in simple terms: “To give women freedom and independence is to give countries the chance of being free and independent.”