Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

Women's Day blog photo (00000002)

Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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Conflict-related Sexual Violence: Room for Nuance?

Violence against women has been at the forefront recently, with International Women’s Day 2013 coming hand in hand with a reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and following Eve Ensler’s latest V-Day campaign, OneBillionRising, in February.

Brownmiller's Classic, 1975

Brownmiller’s Classic, 1975

The first International Women’s Day was thirty-eight years ago, in 1975. That year, Angola and Lebanon saw the beginning of civil war. Indonesia invaded East Timor. The newly formed Democratic Kampuchea invaded the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Susan Brownmiller published her controversial book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, challenging definitions of rape and sparking debate about sexual violence perpetrated against women.

Our understanding about violence against women has matured since 1975. It is no longer revolutionary to discuss how different forms of violence are perpetrated against women’s bodies and minds, or how there are countless contexts and geographies in which those violations take place. Our understanding about sexual violence related to armed conflict, though, is still quite young.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Credit: Reuters)

Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Credit: Reuters)

The need for a more nuanced, cross-disciplinary dialogue about conflict-related sexual violence was the focus of the historic Missing Peace Symposium that took place in Washington, DC, from February 14-16, 2013. Together with the United States Institute of Peace, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law gathered over 200 academics, civil society members, policymakers, and military officials working to end conflict-related sexual violence.  We were joined by key figures such as UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence In Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, former Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, and the ICC Prosecutor’s Special Adviser on International Criminal Law Prosecution Strategies, Patricia Viseur Sellers.

Our goals for the Symposium were three-fold: a.) to share what we know about conflict-related sexual and violence – and how we actually know it, b.) to identify what we still need to learn in order to improve protection, prevention, and accountability, and c.) to connect the dots between researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders to promote effective communication, transfer of knowledge, and coherent response.

One of the primary messages from the conference was that, like violence against women generally, conflict-related sexual violence is not a monolith. Eradication requires first understanding its nuance.

For example, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there were 28 interstate and intrastate armed conflicts in 2011. While not all of those conflicts were marked by sexual violence, there are increasing reports documenting its occurrence.

However, as Dara Cohen,  Amelia Hoover Green, and Elisabeth Jean Wood note in a special report published for the Symposium, there is wide variation when it comes to who perpetrates sexual violence in armed conflict, when it occurs, and why. Wood’s research in particular illuminates the fact that not all fighting groups engage in “widespread, systematic” sexual violence, as would constitute a crime against humanity. Her research also notes examples of asymmetry between opposing groups’ perpetration in a single conflict, as well as occasional fluctuation within a single group’s conduct over time.

We need to understand why some groups do and others do not engage in sexual violence during conflict in order to a.) counter some commanders’ claims that control over their troops was impossible, and b.) develop strategies to prevent perpetration of sexual violence by other fighting groups. Continue reading