Fighting against violence against women - especially rape and sexual abuse - will aid development in countries that need it the most, a conference in Zurich has heard.
The meeting, attended by Swiss president Micheline Calmy-Rey and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, highlighted how thousands of women suffer in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Women are victims of violence all over the world,” Calmy-Rey told reporters ahead of the event. “And in conflict zones, sexual violence and abuse are used as weapons of war to break civilian populations - over generations.”
Up to 50,000 women and girls were raped in the war in the former Yugoslavia, she said. In the DRC it is estimated that several hundred are raped every day.
This is why Calmy-Rey, who is also foreign minister, invited Pillay and others in the field to a special public meeting on violence against women, which took place on Thursday evening.
Pillay said the issue was high on her agenda. “I wish I could come here as high commissioner and say like small pox is eradicated, violence against women is eradicated,” she said.
The adoption in 2000 of UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was an important step, but conflict violence has continued in areas such as Bosnia, Iraq, and the Great Lakes region, which includes the DRC, it was pointed out.
Switzerland, through its Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC), has been working on the issue through peace-building initiatives – for which it has set aside SFr10 million ($13 million).
The SDC says that the physical and psychological consequences of violence often prevents victims from participating in the reconstruction of their countries. Weakened or rejected by their families and communities, they can fall into extreme poverty.
“For the SDC it is crucially important to help victims rebuild their lives, not only because such suffering is unacceptable, but also because violence of this kind hinders development,” it said in a statement.
The SDC has, for example, provided psycho-social support for 6,000 victims in the Great Lakes region.
Asked what more Switzerland could do, Calmy-Rey said the government had taken action for victims at home and that internationally it was implementing resolution 1325 and the SDC programmes.
“There is political will,” she told swissinfo.ch. “Our efforts go into carrying our programmes which are directed at the poorest and most oppressed parts of the population which are women and children.”
For her part, Pillay praised Switzerland and the SDC for taking the lead in seeing the violence as a development issue.
However, she said she was surprised that the country had not yet ratified the Council of Europe convention on domestic violence which was announced in May.
“These are very important initiatives to show immediate support at the political level,” Pillay added.
A firm international stance – also from ordinary people – had helped bring apartheid to an end, added the South African.
“Moral support, awareness and the voice of ordinary people [are needed],” Pillay told swissinfo.ch.
Hope in DRC
Justine Masika Bihamba, coordinator of the Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS) in the DRC, deals with sexual violence on a daily basis.
She confirmed that war – driven by the desire to control rich mineral deposits - was a major cause of abuse. Violence continues in more peaceful times as well, she added, because “women are considered second-class citizens”.
Her network, which brings together 35 organisations – and which received a SFr100,000 grant at the conference - has seen more than 13,000 women since it started in 2003.
Masika said a main challenge was the lack of justice for victims: there had been around 400 judgments since 2003 but no compensation for the women involved.
The international community should set up mobile courts, she said, for better access. She also called on the Swiss to help tackle the causes of sexual violence, including putting pressure on the DRC government to ensure a fair distribution of mineral wealth.
But despite the bleak situation, Masika - whose family has been attacked over her work - remains optimistic.
“Although there hasn’t been enough progress, there has been some and we should continue,” she told swissinfo.ch. “And I have hope, I know the situation will change one day."
Democratic Republic of Congo
Population: 67.8 million
Area: 2.34 million km²
Average life expectancy: 48 years
Main exports: Oil, timber, plywood, sugar, cocoa, coffee, diamonds
GNI per capita: $180
(Source: World Bank, BBC)
Great Lakes aid
Switzerland – through the SDC which celebrates its 50th jubilee this year - runs a regional focus programme in the Great Lakes Region (DRC, Rwanda, Burundi) with an annual budget of a projected SFr28.7 million for 2011.
Switzerland’s commitments since 2000 have involved development assistance, the promotion of peace and human rights and humanitarian aid.
Projects include the human rights organisation VOVOLIB in DRC, which offers 13 advice centres, or “maisons d’écoute”, for victims. The Nturengaho project in Burundi supports young women who become pregnant after rape and are often rejected by their family and community.
Another initiative sees women parliamentarians “godmothering” in Africa, which includes them visiting the Great Lakes region and reporting on their experiences.
(Source: Swiss Foreign Ministry)
By Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich, swissinfo.ch