Summary Report: Uniting Voices Worldwide to Eliminate Violence Against Women

#UnitingWomenWorldwide for #16Days to eliminate #ViolenceAgainstWomen

November 20, 2017 – U.S. House of Representatives

On November 20, 2017 WFF organized a panel discussion and photo exhibition in the U.S. House of Representatives. This event initiated the 16 days campaign to eliminate violence against women. As part of the UN Campaign to #OrangetheWorld, Women’s Freedom Forum brought awareness and discussed solutions and progress of the women in the Middle East, Africa and the U.S. movement for anti-sex trafficking around the world, while coloring the Foyer Room and Gold room of Rayburn House Office Building in the theme color orange.


The following is a summary of the panelist’s speeches:

Khawla Wakkaf, Syrian attorney and Legal Fellow at Women Enabled International, Inc

The failure to implement the women, peace and security agenda in the Syria has led to placing Syrian women and girls in the danger of daily gender based violence.

During the Syrian conflict, Syrian women and girls have experienced physical, emotional and sexual forms of violence by all sides of the conflict and in particular by the Syrian government. These forms include murder, unlawful killing, torture, rape and mass rape, enforced disappearance, force and early marriage and forced displacement. The UN Secretary General stated that “sexual violence continues to be systematically used as a tactic of warfare, torture and terrorism”

Nevertheless, the majority of rape incidents were perpetrated by the Syrian governments and pro-regime forces…. An eyewitness described the sexual assault of another female detainee which she had witnessed, “He inserted a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: ‘Is this good enough for you?’ They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.”

Forced displacement is another form of violence against women and girls in Syria. Approximately, there are now 5.3 million Syrian Refugees registered by the UNHCR. 48.4 pre-cent of them are women and almost half of them under the age of 18.  While millions of Syrian families have managed to flee the country to the neighboring states, fear of rape and sexual violence is still following them. There has been an increase in the number of rapes and sexual violence toward Syrian women and girls in refugee camps and shelters in the last few years. As a result, more and more Syrian parents are forcing their girls into early marriage in an effort to ensure their protection and to avoid sexual violence and harassment.

Poverty, lack of food, water, medical care in refugee camps in general and especially in makeshift camps have also lead Syrian parents to force their girls to quit schools and marry in order survive. The horrifying conditions the Syrian women and girls live in in these refugee’s camps have actually lead to an increase in suicide attempts among the Syrian refugee children, especially girls.

Education especially for Syrian girls is very important. Without it, they would be forced into early marriage and leave them without any future or hope of being financially independent.

We must reject this notion of blanket categorization that views women and girls as vulnerable category in need for charity but rather view them as equal partners and agents of change. Only then we can reach our goal in achieving gender equality.

Rafif Jouejati, Spokesperson, Syrian Women’s Political Movement; and the Director, Foundation to Restore Education and Equality in Syria    

A few years ago I have the opportunity to go into Syria. I went in to the newly formed, at that time, Atmay refugee camp in northern Syria. And there we met a group of children. One picked me, she came over and took me by the hand. An eight year old girl named Nadim led me by the hand showing me the communal kitchen, where volunteers prepared two meals a day for 17,000 residents. Nadim led me on her tour and she showed me an area where there were 40 toilets for 17,000 residents. She told me that her conditions were far better in Atmay than they lived at home. She explained, she felt some security in Atmay Camp and told me that she would be happy to go back home after “Ashghat al Nezam”, the fall of the regime. That was in 2012.

I haven’t been able to find out where she is now. I have not been able to keep track of her movements. And I can only hope that she is safe, that she’s not being trafficked, that she has not experienced rats, that she is not married to someone 20, 30 or 40 years older than she is for her own security. In the end, this little girl and many others like her, have become my moral compass. And they are what pushed me to keep going in this revolution for freedom, dignity and democracy for all Syrians.

As I look around the U.S. and I see the #Me Too movement taking on global proportions. I wonder if Nadim, my moral compass, is she saying “MeToo”?  Are thousands of others saying “Me Too”? Yes we are!

We have decades of dictatorship to undo as Syrian women. We have centuries of misogyny to overcome. Our sisters in Syria are subjected daily to the brutality of the Assad regime… we are not victims, we are resilient. The women inside Syria are survivors who are committed to changing the social and political narratives in their own communities.

As with our sisters around the world, part of the Me Too movement and other women’s movements, we must have equal representation in Syria and within the Syrian opposition. We must be free to pursue our careers without harassment, without sexual abuse or other forms of violence against women. Syrian women in particular must be free to rebuild their country.

We’ve got to do it! Syrian women who have been fighting the Me Too fight and other like that for a very long time, but last month we took a very bold step.

We created the first ever, Syrian women’s political movement. It’s not a lobby, it’s not an organization, and it’s not as many of our male counterparts in the opposition would say, it’s not a social club.

We are here to hold the Syrian opposition responsible for their commitment to have us represented at the level of 30% initially, with the goal of achieving full gender equality. This is not going to be an easy move. And I’ve got to give you a quote from somebody in the opposition, the male dominated opposition who said, “Of course we will include women in the negotiations and the peace talks, but will they have time to negotiate and cook dinner?” So it’s a long road ahead. But I’m very proud to say, now that they have announced the Riyadh 2 conference later this week in Saudi Arabia, and we have 12 representatives from our initiative going. So this is up from zero. So I think the Syrian women’s political movement also needs a little…

I’m going to be brief, because I know we have esteemed experts here ready to speak, but I just want to leave you with this, of why we continue to do this; because it’s “Me Too”! And it’s “You Too”! And it’s all of us too, and together we can stand up and we can exercise our rights as oppose to demanding them. We exercise our rights and we end violence against women together.

Professor Donna M. Hughes, Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair, Rhode Island University, Editor‐in Chief, Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation & Violence 

Sex trafficking is one form of human trafficking, another form is forced labor and it’s a human rights violation and serious crime.

… Based on my earlier experience, I see sex trafficking as a form of violence against women and a form of sexual violence.

I want to talk about the origins of the anti-sex trafficking movement. In the 1980’s feminist groups that had had previously been focused on domestic violence, rape, child sexual abuse, and pornography, added prostitution to the list of forms of violence against women.

Focus at that time was on south East Asia, because in the 1960’s when the US troops where in Southeast Asia there were sexual exploitation of women and girls around US military bases and in centers whether for rest and recreation for the soldiers.

The feminist organizations concerned about the welfare of women and girls originated the anti-sex trafficking movement based on knowledge of what they knew was happening there and to try to find ways to support the women and to stop the exploitation.

The next major event in the anti-sex trafficking movement occurred in the early 1990’s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of eastern bloc countries. That resulted in a large flow of women from the former USSR and Eastern Europe into prostitution. They were taken to destination all over the world and pimps became the new entrepreneurs as they were making money based on the women. It led to an increase of conferences, special committees and discussion of new laws to address the trafficking of women.

And in the United States, the Clinton administration was the first US presidential administration to address the trafficking of women and girls…

In the year 2000 …the United Nations approved the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime which included a protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking of persons, especially women and children. It became more informally known as the “Palermo protocol” based on where it was signed, which was Palermo, Italy, the historical town of the Italian mafia.

A few months later, the US congress passed the trafficking victims protection act and as a result of these two legal instruments being signed at the same time, we have national laws around the world that are fairly harmonized…

Something that started in mid-80’s has been a great deal of research on sex trafficking. And we made progress in 4 major areas based on the research. The first one was to simply recognize the harm to women and girls in the sex industry by interviewing victims of sex trafficking…

The second major thing research has done, is to document the methods by traffickers used in transnational trafficking to see how recruiters deceive victims and how traffickers control victims…

A third major impact we have done through research on the anti-trafficking movement was to transform the perception of women and girls in prostitution…

The fourth area that we have made a lot of progress in and based on a lot of research is something called but the man, and what this vague term means, that it is important to focus and understanding as they emerged from this anti-sex trafficking movement, and that is the role of the sex buyer..

So the proposals to decriminalize the sex industry are a backlash to decades of good work we have done to define the crime and human rights violation of sex trafficking. We have created new laws to protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators. These new approaches are part of the broader movement of violence against women.

Mandy Sanghera, award winning philanthropist, community consultant & global campaigner as well has an international human rights activist from UK supporting victims and survivors of honour based violence and cultural abuse such as FGM and forced marriages.   

When we started the violence against women movement all those years ago, there’s been a lot of great change globally. In the UK where I lived we have a forced marriage unit, you will ask yourselves why do we had such a unit? I live in the west, I live in a country where free speech is allowed, unlike Iran, or Iraq, India or Pakistan. In my country in the UK, where I’m born and raised. Why are people being abused in the name of honor?

I want to be very clear that some of these practices have nothing to do with religion. These are cultural practices and traditions which are out of date. We have no place for them in the UK or anywhere in the world…

There is no place for these forms of violence and discrimination, and oppression of women. When I look at the word honor, it’s a really good word if you look it up in the dictionary it means actually living a life with integrity and being honorable.  So if that word is so positive, then why is it so negative? It’s because actually people use it to oppress women, in places like Iran, Iraq, and India and other countries. The concept of honor is also very different to domestic violence. Domestic violence is normally in an intimate relationship, when you’re in a relationship with an individual.

Your parents might be involved, your siblings may be involved, the community may be involved; society will turn a blind eye to this and we don’t want to be involved in this. I have been a very outspoken campaigner for 28 years…

I know that sometimes violence against women isn’t taken that seriously across the globe, and sometimes women will not come forward and ask for help. That could be a white British woman, a self-Asian woman, a Chinese woman, a black woman, it could be any woman. She will stay in an abusive relationship for at least 30 times before she asks for help…

I had a Muslim friend, of Pakistani origin, who suffered violence on a regular base. She was raped and emotionally scarred so much that it was unbelievable what she had gone through. She went to her Mosque in her area and asked for a divorce. And when she got there, there was a woman who was sitting at the Shariah Council in the Mosque and said to her, are you being a good wife? Are you meeting your husband’s needs? She was like, yes of course I have. But he’s been beating me and he’s raping me. He’s oppressing me and I have no rights.

Are you being a good wife?

This lady walked away so distressed, so upset. I was actually shocked when I bumped into her in that city so it wasn’t even planned. So I said, well, “What’s going on? Do you want to grab a coffee? Let’s see what’s going on.”

And she told me and I thought, are you for real? Because I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I then said to her, I need to meet this woman at the Mosque. She’s like, “you’re not allowed there. You’re not a Muslim.”

I said, listen, “I’ve got connections with the Muslim Council in Britain. I work with everybody. I’m very well respected. I’m not here to cause trouble, but I’m coming whether you like it or not. Let’s go.”

The husband had 3 wives, she wasn’t the legal wife, and at the end she could get divorce but not custody of her children.

It is very difficult. And I thought, no, we have a duty to stand up. We need to stop this form of violence, this oppression of women. There is no place for that. It is so important that actually, we empower women. We educate women… As a society, we have the right to stand up. We need to campaign. We need to challenge and say we’re not going to tolerate any forms of violence.

It’s so important we look at violence against women and recognize there is nothing honorable about abusing or killing somebody in the name of honor. Your children have rights to marry who they want to…. There’s no way I could do this without some of the amazing people I have. Men are part of the solution and not always part of the problems… We have a duty to stand up and unite, and end violence against women and all forms of violence against women.

Frances J Belisle, JD PhD Candidate, Diplomacy and International Affairs, EUCLID University, United Nations. Former United States Foreign Service Officer in Algeria, Turkey and Canada. 

Believe me the irony of speaking against violence against women today in the halls of the US Congress is not lost on any of us. No country has involved to a point of total equality. We are still fighting the fight, whether it’s in the halls of Washington, or whether it’s in Syria or Maghreb, my area of interest which I will be speaking about today…  As a lawyer I concentrate on the legal aspect of the progress being made. So from the last two years, Maghreb has made a lot of progress in their laws…

Finally Algeria passed a law in 2015 and it became enforced in 2016. It criminalized domestic violence, which was a huge step in that particular culture to get to that point…

The penalties have become severe. We are talking about jail time, it’s not just you beat your wife, there’s a fine. There’s severe penalties for incapacitation, if the wife has been incapacitated for 15 days or more it is a 2-5 years in prison sentence. If there’s any type of permanent damage, loss of limb or eyesight, it’s a 10-20 years in prison sentence. Again a progress in that part of the world.

There is a problem: Convictions can be dropped, or sentences can be reduced if victims pardon their abusers. The problem with that; there is immense amount of social and economic pressure to pardon your husband, because how are you going to live after he goes to jail. There’s no public support set up for you to support your family…

Also there is no immediate protection order (TRO). Women will have to wait for the trial to get the protection order. So if I go make a claim of abuse against my husband, I have to go home to my husband and wait for the trial to pan out…

If I go from worst to best, Morocco would be second on this scale of mine. After 10 years of discussion, the new laws were passed in 2016. However it mainly just increases penalties for existing laws. There are no real new laws coming into effect.  Morocco’s penal code increases penalties where physical abuse or incapacitation are present, which is good. However in Morocco, marital rape is not criminalized. That is a big problem.

TRO (Protection Order) can only be issued by police officers. And again a lot of pressure from the police officers to not press charges and to calm the situation down…

Tunisia has passed in 2017, one of the most comprehensive domestic laws in the world, not just in the Maghreb region. It’s actually quite incredible. It’s the first domestic law they have had, but they did it right. For 48% of women who suffered domestic violence in Tunisia, but the law defines violence against women very differently than your classic domestic violence law. It’s classified as “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression against women based on discrimination between the two sexes and resulting in damage or physical, sexual, psychological or economic suffering to the woman, including threats of such aggression, pressure or deprivation of rights and freedoms, both in public and private life.”

So it’s one of the most comprehensive violence against women laws in the books.

It includes the key elements of the definition of domestic violence recommended in the United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women.

Tamila Kianfard, Communicators Director of WFF

Tamila spoke about her work and experience with women and girls in South Africa. She spoke to them about their dreams and what they wanted to be in the future. The women and girls responses were only about daily life chores. It was then that Tamila realized how low their understanding and level of education was. In 2017 she spent time working with South African women and girls educating them. She was faced with a lot of work to teach them to dream big and set higher goals to achieve.

The event continued with a lively Q&A Session.


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