International: Ending Violence Against Women: Strategies for Strengthening Advocacy

WLUML Networkers
This was the title of the parallel session at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, in which the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women! presented the following talk on 6 March.
The panel was co-sponsored by the Center for Women's Global Leadership, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, CREA, and the World YWCA.
• Charlotte Bunch (CWGL)
• Aisha Lee Shaheed (WLUML)
• Jessica Notwell (World YWCA)
• S. Vinita (CREA)
• With an introduction by UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Professor Yakin Erturk

The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women! ( Presentation: SKSW logo
Hello, good afternoon, my name is Aisha Lee Shaheed and I am with the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women [SKSW Campaign]. This campaign was launched in November 2007 by a group of concerned citizens, who are activists, lawyers, academics, journalists and so forth. We launched the campaign to address the relentless mis-use of culture, religion and tradition to justify violence against women...especially in cases where this violence is a form of punishment for alleged transgressions of sexual and moral norms. We maintain that violence against women is never acceptable, can never be justified, and exists in all cultures and regions. Regardless of the justifications offered, the harming and killing of women must be seen as manifestations of universal discrimination against women and as effects of inequitable power relations and patriarchal systems. We operate under the slogan “Violence is not our culture” and we feel that any woman in any location in the world could and should be able to claim that “violence is not MY culture”.

The SKSW Campaign was launched by women working in some Muslim contexts, who have affiliations with the Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts Research Consortium and the Women Living Under Muslim Laws solidarity network. Given their experiences and areas of expertise, the Campaign grew out of local, national and international initiatives to address culturally-justified violence against women. For example: the Stop Stoning Forever campaign in Iran, the "There is no honour in killing" campaign in Pakistan, local initiatives to overturn stoning sentences in Nigeria, and initiatives to overturn whipping/lashing sentences in Indonesia (where 'zina' - or extramarital sexual relations - is not considered a crime against the state but nonetheless has incurred punishment by local-level community leaders).

In Muslim and non-Muslim contexts alike, patriarchal interpretations of religious texts – especially those that apply to marriage and the family – promote a mindset where women’s bodies and sexuality is not her own, but rather is the prerogative of her male family and community members. Women who allegedly transgress the moral and sexual norms of her community can be ostracized, condemned, and made subject to violent reprisals. The discourses of ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’ can be used by conservative leaders to justify the punishment women receive, whether by State or non-state actors.

Let me give you some examples: In Balochistan, a province in the south of Pakistan, in August/September 2008 a group of teenage women were shot and then buried alive by members of their community, reportedly for seeking to choose their own marriage partners. As if this was not heinous enough a crime, shortly afterwards a Senator from Balochistan defended the murders in the Upper House claiming it was “part of our tribal custom”. Over the following days the women’s movement in Pakistan came out in force proclaiming that “violence is not our culture” and that this was absolutely unacceptable. In Iran, a woman named Mokarrameh Ebrahimi and her partner spent a decade in prison sentenced to be stoned to death for ‘adultery’ – although she and her partner lived together and had a child, they were not formally married. Her partner was stoned to death in July 2007. Mokarrameh was thankfully released last year – due to the ongoing campaigning of the women’s movement and the dedicated human rights lawyers in Iran. Although the remaining stoning sentences has since been commuted, the law remains that stoning for “adultery” can still be carried out, and there is no mechanism to ensure that those awaiting the execution of their sentences will not be killed in some other manner.

Like stoning, female genital mutilation, or FGM, is not mentioned in the Quran. However, it is widely practiced in both Muslim and non-Muslim contexts. In Sudan, on February 6th 2009, the Sudanese Council of Ministers rejected an article in a new proposed Child Act which would in effect criminalize FGM. They argued that some forms of FGM are in fact “Islamic”, despite the fact that Sudan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter. Ironically, the 6th of February is the International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation.

But, violence is pandemic and it is excused and minimized in diverse contexts. Since the launch of our campaign, we are also investigating forms of culturally-justified violence against women in non-Muslim contexts. In April 2007, Dua Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yezidi girl in Kurdistan was stoned to death by members of her community. Why? She had been accused of eloping with a Muslim man, when her religion prohibits marrying outside of the faith. The brutal murder was filmed on mobile telephones as a warning to others, and rapidly circulated around the internet.

In Italy, up until 1981 some forms of murder received a lesser sentence. Men who killed their wives, daughters or sisters for extra-marital sexual relations or other transgressive behaviour could only received a maximum of seven years imprisonment.

And in Israel, some extremist sects have set up self-proclaimed morality-police who are inciting physical violence against women for opting to divorce, refusing to cover their heads, or choosing what to wear. I give you these examples to show that these diverse and extreme manifestations of violence against women, while specific to their local contexts, are universal in scope. In all cases, gender-equitable of interpretations of cultures, customs and laws are ignored and the most narrow and exclusionary interpretations are used to justify these punishments against those women who dare to claim autonomy over their sexual and moral choices.

The strategy of the SKSW Campaign is informed by a bottom-up approach, and we take the lead from our local partners in defining the issues, challenges and strategies in that context. Sometimes international pressure is needed, and sometimes it is detrimental. We seek, at our international level, to offer solidarity when it is requested. I would like to expand briefly on this concept of ‘solidarity’, as distinct from ‘aid’. Marieme Helie-Lucas and Indai Sajor offer a useful framework when they state that: “Aid is a one-way process by which one party ‘gives’ something that it pretends or believes is needed to another party, with or often without the recipient’s expressed request…Solidarity is a two-way process between equals. It implies both complementarity and reciprocity. Solidarity stems from the analysis that we are bound together, that what affects me here will inevitably affect you there, and vice versa. What I gain may help you gain, too.”

Beyond offering our solidarity to local partners and sister campaigns we are committed to exposing and confronting all manifestations of culturally-justified violence against women. These justifications minimize the severity and the universality of VAW. The danger of cultural relativism is that is runs the risk of essentializing certain cultures as inherently violent and/or oppressive to women. Especially for us located in the Global North, it also distracts us from looking at our ‘own’ cultures and our ‘own’ forms of violence.

We aim to provide a space for local, national and regional level initiatives to share and compare their initiatives and strategies.

We call for a repeal of all discriminatory laws at all levels which allow for violence against women – whether perpetrated by the State or by private actors. But of course this is only a first step, in standard-setting. We also are committed, through our local partners, to engage with community and religious leaders especially those who are open to change, that supports women’s human rights.

At the level of the United Nations, we have been inspired by the reports of the current and former UN Special Rapporteurs on violence against women, especially in their attention to violations by non-state actors and violence in the name of culture. We continue to send cases of violence against women to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and – where applicable – to the Special Rapporteurs on Torture; Human Rights Defenders; Extra-Judicial Killings and Executions; and on the Freedom of Religion or Belief.

We welcome the launch of the Secretary General’s campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women. At the launch of his campaign, the Secretary General stated: “There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable”. We are pleased to see this attention placed on the indivisibility of women’s human rights, and we would like to see a zero-tolerance policy in relation to violence against women justified by culture, custom, religion, etc. Although, like the Secretary General’s campaign, we recognize a place for negotiating with ‘cultural gatekeepers’ and community leaders, we maintain that under no circumstances should acts of violence be excused, condoned or minimized. From the UNiTE Campaign we hope that there will be energies and resources put into documenting cases of violence against women in all regions and that this information would be made accessible. But along with this, there would also need to be the analysis of the root causes of gender-based violence, which are both context specific AND universal.

If you would like to know more about our campaign we have some bookmarks and keychains, which also have our website address and contact information on them.

Thank you.