Articles by Rebecca Parnell

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JUSTICE FOR SALE (Trailer) from IFproductions on Vimeo.

A newly released documentary by sisters Ilse and Femke van Velzen has put focus on the skewed Congolese justice system. 

Justice for Sale reveals the growing amount of men convicted for crimes they did not commit, as the true perpetrators escape unscathed due to generous pay offs.

The international community has been pressurising the Congolese government to convict more rapists, as sexual violence continues to be widespread. With more and more NGOs getting involved, it would seem that justice is imminent, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the wrong men are being convicted, with minimal or no evidence that they committed the crime. 

The film follows courageous human rights lawyer Claudine as she investigates the case of a rapist convicted without any evidence. The essence of the documentary is mirrored in Women for Women's Men Leadership Programme, which seeks to rehabilitate former rapists and help them understand the worth of women, and the disgrace in using rape as a weapon of war.

Ilse and Femke intend to show the film to policy makers and NGOs, inspiring a debate about the issue and any possible solutions. Women for Women sees a solution in preventing men from committing the crimes to begin with – by educating them about women's rights and gender equality. As the leaders within the countries we are active are traditionally men, we work with the heads of communities, preparing them to leverage their community influence on behalf of women. 

Ilse and Femke have been working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for six years, producing three documentaries about sexual violence, Fighting the Silence, Weapon of War and finally, Justice for Sale. More information on their work can be found here. Information on Women for Women Internationals Mens leadership programmes can be found on our website

The US envoy pioneering efforts to combat sexual violence has welcomed the conviction of a Bosnian-Serb ex-soldier for acts of murder, rape and enslavement during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s.

The war intent on the ethnic cleansing and dividing of Yugoslavia saw the death of hundreds of thousands of people, and the rape and torture of at least 20,000 women. The Serbian military were ordered to rape Bosnian women as part of the mass ethnic cleansing, some in the 16 rape camps constructed for that purpose. Intent on producing a new generation of Serb children, women were confined in these camps and subjected to perpetual sexual abuse until they became pregnant. Children resulting from rape were viewed by Serbs as "clean and purified".

The conviction of ex-soldier Sasa Baricanin to 18 years in prison has been labelled as a sign that justice is being served to the victims of war crimes. The Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, said that the verdict sent a strong signal that justice must ultimately prevail for victims of sexual violence – but she also warned that for tens of thousands of victims of the Balkan conflicts, the pace of justice is painfully slow.

After the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina bravely spoke of their torment during the Balkans conflict, rape was classed as a war crime. Yet for the estimated 50,000 rapes that occurred during the years of the war, there have only been 30 convictions to date. The imprisonment of Baricanin, more than 15 years after the end of the war, serves as an emblem of hope that these convictions will continue.

As acclaimed by Wallstrom, this case is yet another testament to the resilience of Bosnian women who have joined forces in their quest for justice, both within and beyond the courtroom.

           

The Security Council's annual report on women, peace and security has laid bare the urgent need for female involvement when building peace and democracy. 

The UN Secretary-General's annual report analyses progress in implementing peace and security into the lives of disadvantaged women, breaking the agenda into five focal points – prevention, participation, protecting, relief and recovery. The report acknowledges the growing involvement of women in negotiations, but that progress remains slow and uneven. 

As female activists plan to make their voices heard in the Afghanistan peace negotiations in December, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to three female peace advocates remain fresh in our minds, there are big hopes that we may be on the cusp of a great transition. in Rwanda 70 per cent of the population are female, and in the 2008 elections Rwandan women won 56 per cent of parliamentary seats. Due to their courage and willingness to speak of their torment, rape is now being prosecuted as a war crime in the country.  

It is essential that women continue to move towards accurate representation, and away from weaknesses in security, legal and justice institutions which contravene their safety and human rights. As nations such as Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan linger in post-conflict, steps must be taken to ensure that the rebuilding of these countries is not a task predominated by men. 

The report urges that specific steps are taken to open doors to women, supporting women's associations which struggle to compete with stronger groups in moments of transition. When discussing the upcoming negotiations of post-conflict countries, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the global community to use these opportunities to ensure women's voices are heard and their participation secured.

Throughout the next year UN Women will work towards bringing women's voices to the table at international conferences, and conduct training for peacekeeping troops on dealing with sexual violence in conflict.

If you want to take the matter into your own hands, take a look at the No Women, No peace campaign.

Women for Women International have teamed up with OxfamAmnesty InternationalCARE UK and GAPS to ensure that foreign secretary William Hague secures the representation of Afghan women in the impending peace negotiations.

Politicians will travel worldwide in December to discuss the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany. Amidst fears that the Afghan government will collaborate with the Taliban in order to reach a political truce, this coalition of organisations is putting pressure on UK representative William Hague to not pander to the militant group. 

After ten years of international conflict, the future of Afghanistan is delicate and uncertain. The Taliban fronted assassination of key negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani has thrown December's peace negotiations into a deeper flux, and the planned withdrawal of US troops by 2014 strengthens the likelihood of the Taliban returning to power.

President Obama has joined Afghan politicians in pursuing talks with members of the Taliban in order to reach a peaceful settlement, but what begs to be remembered is that the insurgents are notorious for their inhumane repression of women.

During their reign between 1996 and 2001 the Taliban banned women from leaving their homes unattended, outlawed education and seriously restricted their access to medical care. Rebellion would be met with violence, or even death. 

Women make up half of the population in Afghanistan, and yet last year only one woman was present at the Kabul peace negotiations. The chances of the Taliban turning over a new leaf as an advocate for women's rights is implausible, which is why the accurate representation of women in Bonn is crucial.

To put pressure on William Hague to ensure that Afghan women are represented and their rights protected in any deal that is struck, sign the petition here. For more information on our work with women in Afghanistan, visit our website.

Women in Iraq are amongst the worst affected by the years of armed conflict that has crippled the country. Having been left to provide for their families after their husbands were killed, injured or arrested, the widows of Iraq are fighting an uphill struggle against poverty, malnutrition and archaic attitudes.

Statistics provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) state that an estimated one million women head their households, and subsequently a similar number struggle to feed their families. After conducting interviews with 119 Iraqi women, it came to light that approximately 70 per cent of them spend more than they earn, and 40 per cent of families surveyed by the ICRC had to send children, usually sons as young as 12, out to work.

Becoming the sole breadwinner of a family is not the only obstacle these women have to face. Iraq remains a deeply patriarchal society where finding employment for men is a priority, and few women work outside the home.

For many, salvation can be found in Iraq's welfare system, specifically a benefit payment for widowed women. However many women remain without this payment, due to inaccess to application forms, extenuating circumstances or the limited budget allocated to the benefits. In the ICRC video below, the Iraq government is urged to act with haste to find a system that works for these women, who are unable to feed their families or send their children to school.

Much like the incredible work of the ICRC, Women for Women International work with Iraqi women, helping them build a stable future for themselves and their families. We provide women with direct financial aid, rights awareness classes, jobs skills training and emotional support.  Supporters can help too, by sponsoring an Iraqi woman through our newly launched Sponsor Women programme.

 

As the Afghan peace negotiations draw closer, the situation becomes critical. Feminist organisation Progressive Women have published a guest blog on part of Women for Women, a focus on the No Women, No Peace campaign.

The blog considers the outrage expected of womankind if they were forced to retire their hard earned rights to equal pay, denounce the laws prohibiting marital rape or forfeit their university degrees.

Yet in Afghanistan the women have no choice but to surrender their rights. The majority of human rights violations that occurred under the Taliban rule were aimed at women. Sharia law imposed harsh punishment for adultery, often safeguarding men, and from 1998 women were denied access into general hospitals. Even without overbearing Taliban rule, the legislation surrounding Afghan women seriously contravenes human rights – a family law passed in 1999 states that women can be denied food if they fail to satisfy their husbands sexually.

Now the Taliban have returned and foreign troops, the main force stalling their resurgence, are being gradually withdrawn. In December 2011 vital peace talks will determine the future of Afghanistan. Representatives from 90 countries will meet in Bonn, Germany to discuss transition, international long-term engagement, peace and reconciliation.

Yet the co-ordinators of these meetings seem loath to make women’s perspectives a central theme – last year only one woman was invited to the Kabul conference, an important moment in peace for Afghanistan. As attested by No Women, No Peace, you cannot bring peace to a country by ignoring the voices of half the population.

The full blog post can be found here, and more information on the campaign can be found at No Women, No peace.

Women for Women International are proud to announce the UK launch of our Sponsor Women programme. Already a thriving success in our US office, the programme is now available to supporters from both sides of the pond.

When you choose to become a sponsor, you are paired up with a female survivor of war, with the option to give preference on which countries your sponsored woman will hail from. The sponsorships provide women with direct financial assistance to help them meet their family’s basic needs, and entry into a year-long programme of vocational and technical skills training, rights awareness and leadership education.

By sponsoring a woman, you would be providing her with invaluable emotional support. Many of the women benefiting from the sponsorship programme will have lost nearly everything to conflict. Few could imagine the trauma of witnessing the death of their husbands and children, perpetual sexual abuse, and a constant battle against ill health, malnutrition and poverty. Even more inconceivable is the idea of carrying such burdens while attempting to provide for an entire family.

When receiving financial and emotional support from sponsors, women are given hope for the future. The knowledge that someone cares about them and that they are not alone could be the bolster these women need to restart their lives, and to find comfort in knowing that as well as being a part of the programmes we enrol them in, they are also a part of a worldwide family of proud and compassionate women. 

Participants have gone on to become medicinal herb cultivators in Bosnia and Herzegovina, livestock farmers in Afghanistan and textile producers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some have been so successful with their small businesses or cooperatives that they have employed dozens of other graduates from the programme, improving the lives of entire communities.

You can make an immeasurable difference to a woman’s life for less than 80p a day. A one time administrative cost of £25 ensures that your monthly donation efficiently supports your sister throughout her programme, and £22 a month gives your sister the support and encouragement she needs to rebuild her life. For more information on the work that we do, visit our website. To become a sponsor, sign up here.

 

“War isn’t just about bombs and people wounded. That’s not war. War is what you live every day”. These words, spoken by a young Colombian woman fighting for rights over her land, ring true for millions of women throughout the world, for whom war is a far too familiar reality.

In The Other Side of War – Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope, Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi takes readers around the globe on a bold and disturbing revelation of the atrocities of war. We hear stories from the women of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan, women who daily reclaim the lives of their families and communities from the ashes of conflict.
 
A book of many strengths, The Other Side of War could compel even the most disinterested humanitarian. A startling revelation of the extent to which gender inequality is ingrained in each featured nation, this book gives those silenced women a chance to make their struggle known. Thanks to the stunning photographs by Susan Meiselas, Sylvia Plachy and Lekha Singh, we can see the laughing face of a Columbian grandmother, co-founder of a fish farm built entirely by women previously unaware of their rights. We can also understand that the cruelty of soldiers hold no bounds when faced with a photograph of Jeannette, a Congolese woman who had her hands cut off by her rapists, defiantly holding her child.

Amongst the seemingly endless tales of inhumane cruelty and hopelessness, the durability of the human spirit rises. Beatrice, a survivor the Rwandan genocide, bore the child of her rapist and adopted five children orphaned by the massacre. Faced with a past of such intense horrors, she chose to live and move beyond tragedy. Nadia, a young Afghan woman left disfigured after a rocket hit her house as a child, chose to risk brutal punishment by dressing as a man to provide for her family, after Taliban rule prohibited women from any kind of employment. 

This book is a testament to the resilience and bravery of women survivors of war, women who have forced themselves past a grief that could have easily consumed them. An estimated 500,000 girls and women worldwide have been raped as a strategy of war, yet while injured soldiers are considered heroes, victims of rape are more likely to be shunned by their communities. As suggested by Zainab in the books introduction, perhaps it is time to listen to the women’s side of history.

The Other Side of War – Women's Stories of Survival and Hope can be purchased here. More information on Zainab Salbi can be found on our website, and social media enthusiasts can follow her on Twitter.

 

African nations account for nearly half of the world’s internally displaced population, with unresolved conflict in countries such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo being a key catalyst in displacement and refugee trends.

As the Women for Women International mission is to support females in conflict zones, our cause is inextricably linked to the plight of refugees. UNHCR refugee statistics claim that there are 43 million people forcibly displaced around the world, including 27 million internally displaced people, and 15 million refugees.

The data exerts that Afghanistan has produced the largest amount of refugees in the world, over 2.8 million, yet only 1.9% of these refugees have returned since their initial departure. Following suit are conflict zones Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

For many women in these countries, being without a home is not the only repercussion of forced displacement. Female refugees are often especially vulnerable due to the derogatory ways in which women are viewed in certain societies, wherein females are considered second class citizens and women's bodies are treated as a battleground. Without the walls of a house to protect them, women are at even greater risk to the already rife threat of violence, rape, theft and disease.

During Sudan’s 40 year civil war, 4 million have fled from their homes, and 2 million women raped. 200 thousand Conglonese women are rape survivors, and the resurgence of the Taliban has left Afghani women once again deprived of basic human rights. Often widowed and with a great number of children, female refugees are unguarded and susceptible to villainous bouts of violence.

Women for Women International attempt to improve the quality of life for females on the field, creating an atmosphere of safety and therefore lessening the need to relocate, and where possible providing a place of stability for refugees to return to. We understand that these women rarely want to leave the place where they may have spent many years building a life, and through our programmes and support, we strive to provide them with a future within their home country.

Female genital mutilation is internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, yet an estimated 100 to 140 million females are currently living with the consequences of the horrific procedure, which intentionally alters the female sexual organs for non-medical reasons.

While female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in approximately 28 African countries, it is a reality for a vast amount of Nigerian females. According to UNICEF, Nigeria has in the past had the highest absolute number of cases of female genital mutilation in the world, accounting for one quarter of the world's circumcised women. In some of the remoter areas of Nigeria, up to 100% of females have been subjected to FGM, with over a half of the female population having endured the procedure.

UNICEF statistics report that 85% of females were circumcised before their first birthday, with the remaining majority enduring the procedure shortly thereafter. An agonising and potentially fatal operation, FGM causes irreparable harm and an abundance of life long side affects, ranging from blood bourne diseases to infertility.

FGM represents a fundamental violation of human rights, as the patients are rarely old enough to vocalise consent, as well as stifling a women's right to equal life opportunities, health at the highest possible standard, and the right to be free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

These statistics reflect on a country where 10 out of 36 states have laws allowing men to use physical force on their wives, including maritial rape. The gender imbalance is evident in the perpetual mistreatment and discrimination of women, with females frequently married very young, sold to prospective husbands, and in some cases used to pay off debts – as exhibited in a recent documentary about Nigerian women smuggled to Campania, Italy, and forced to become sex slaves.

Women for Women International believe that to begin rectifying such gender imbalances, focus must be put on the education of both sexes, such as through implementing programmes such as our Men's Leadership Training, where 30 men from ten different Nigerian communities attended a workshop on gender mainstreaming, sex education and human rights.

Similarly, our Poultry Marketing Initiative helps self-employed women profit from their poultry farming, providing them with a stable income and gaining them respect as providers within their communities, and gradually eradicating the archaic and discriminatory attitudes that has led to brutal practices such as FGM becoming the norm.

Children living in South Sudan are more likely to meet death than attend school, Save the Children reports as newly independent South Sudan struggles with high levels of violence, poverty and child mortality.

 

Although the world's newest country has finally gained independence after 40 years of civil war, the state is far from a vision of peace and unity. According to Save the Children, half of the population are likely to go hungry in 2011, with teenage girls more likely to die in child birth than complete their schooling.

 

Three quarters of South Sudanese, including three million children, receive no healthcare, resulting in an inconceivable number of preventable deaths. Maternal mortality is the highest in the world, with only 150 registered midwives in the entire region, and one in every sixth child dies before their first birthday.

 

The Sudanese civil war was the longest in Africa's history, with two million dead and four million misplaced. Women for Women International work with the victims of this prolonged war, helping women rebuild their lives after losing their homes, careers, families and friends.

 

Labelled as the hungriest place on earth by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding, South South remains far from a secure and contented country, and it is vital that its newly established independence is not mistaken for an emblem of peace.

 

More information on WFWI's work in South Sudan can be found here.

Part of the Women for Women mission is achieved through various collaborations, campaigning with organisations and coalitions to advocate women's rights and the need for change.

 

One of Women for Women Internationals predominant collaboration partners is UK Feminista. A feminist campaigning organisation with a mission to end gender inequality, they facilitate links between groups and activists and provide campaign resources and training.

 

UK Feminista has provided vital coverage of our Join Me On The Bridge campaign and Run for Congo Women. It also provides links for students keen to get involved with WFWI through their university.

 

A sense of unity amongst women is an predominant factor within our organisation, and through uniting with UK Feminista, an organisation that holds the rights of women with the same relentless regard, we have been able to reach an abundance of invaluable supporters and donors.

 

Our vision is a world where members of communities have full and equal participation in the processes that ensure their health, well-being and economic independence. Working with female survivors of war, we attempt to provide the tools and resources with which these women can move on from crisis and poverty.

 

We thank UK Feminista for helping us spread this vision and for their exposure, collaboration and support.


An update on Women for Women programmes reports that more than 39,000 women have enrolled in programmes across our seven countries since June this year.

 

Positive progress includes a new grant for a programme for 1,000 women in Afghanistan to specialise in poultry and vegetable production and goat rearing. In Kosovo the first Women's opportunity centre has been open since June, with bee keeping co-ops aiding women with vocational and business skills.

 

One especially inspirational tale of progress is that of Noella, a married mother of five living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A leg amputee, she was prevented from participating in the family's small business of fruit and vegetable cultivation due to her physical disability. After enrolling in the WfWI DRC programme, she began to come to terms with her physical limitations and gaining new skills from the Sustaining an Income module of the Life Skills training curriculum. Noella is now managing her household finances more effectively, creating a sustainable income through raising poultry and making handicrafts, enabling her to provide for her five children and unemployed husband.

 

The Women for Women year long programmes are segregated into four different modules, from educating women on income and asset management, to awareness, protection and prevention, family and community decision making. The predominant incentives of the module are to ensure that the participants sustain an income, are well and protected, are decision makers and have safety nets.

 

Women enrolled in our programmes receive monthly financial contributions, which act as small stipends to help women afford their every day necessities. Letters from sponsors provide a different type of support, providing women living in post-conflict zones with a lifeline and emotional encouragement to persevere with their training. Sponsors provide women both with financial support and a friend. Information on how to become a sponsor can be found here.

The former Chilean president and Executive Director of UN Women has made a case for the advancement of female rights, which could lead to progress in areas of poverty, hunger and violence.

 

In her opening statement to the annual session of the Executive Board of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Michelle Bachelet pinpointed the irrefutable opportunity of enlisting female empowerment in the fight against poverty.

 

Acknowledging that the promotion of gender equality is not solely a plea for justice for fulfilment of human rights commitments, Ms Bachelet stated: “Where we fail to capitalize on the potential and talents of one half of the population, we also squander the potential to reduce poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and violence”.

 

She noted that a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report estimates that closing the gender productivity gap arising from unequal access of women to productive resources would reduce the number of undernourished people by up to 17 per cent – which equates to 100 to 150 million fewer people living in hunger.

 

The incentives for UN Women's first strategic plan include ending violence against women, ensuring their full participation in conflict resolution and enhancing their economic empowerment. Ms Bachelet continued:“Our overarching vision is that every country in the world, at whatever level of development, has access to the technical expertise and support needed to advance gender equality in line with their national priorities.”

 

While gender equity is the third Millennium Development Goal, it is also integral to achieving all eight of the MDGs. This holistic approach to pressing international development issues is akin to that of Women for Women International. WFWI ensure that our projects go further than the primary improvements made to the lives of female survivors of war. Our micro-finance and small business projects make a case for women re-entering communties as wage earners and respected equals, educate men in the importance of a balanced society and help small enterprises and struggling economies to bloom. 

UN Women will play a key role in gender rights in post-conflict situations, and will work closely with UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

In a recent interview with Women News Network, founder of Women for Women International Zainab Salbi discusses how she herself endured the Iraq war, and spreads a message of hope to her fellow survivors.

 

Referring to her book, The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope, she exclaims that the world needs to recognise that peace is not just the absence of war but the revival of life where women are keeping children in school, caring for the sick and injured, and daily negotiating space for the continuation of critical life processes of this nature.

 

“Women are not just victims”, she says. “They are survivors and leaders on the community-level backlines of peace and stability. That’s the story we need to tell the world”. When discussing what progress women have made in the last 50 years, Zainab recognises that women have increased their political participation to18% worldwide, and more women are running for president in recent years than ever before.

 

However she makes it clear that the case for gender equity and peace for women is far from complete, saying: “Only 8 percent of all peace talks have included women at any level, and only 3% of peace agreements are signed by women. Women are still underpaid for doing the same work as men – they do two-thirds of the world’s work, grow 50% of the world’s food and are yet earning 10% of the income and own less than 2% of the property. One out of four women worldwide still face violence.”

 

The interview has a particular focus on Afghanistan, the country currently on everyone's lips as a Taliban resurgence threatens and the international community ponders the future of it's relationship with Afghanistan. The country has recently been named as the most deadly place to be a woman by news organisation Trustlaw, and the  headlines were dominated recently, as the Taliban allegedly murdered the head teacher of a girls school near Kabul for continuing to teach despite threats of violence.

 

The full interview with Zainab can be read here.

 

In less than a month, hundreds will show their support and empathy for the women of the Congo through a 10k run, curated by Women for Women.

The Run for Congo Women will take place on Sunday 3rd July, and so far our fantastic supporters have raised over £77,000 – enough to provide 516 women with Life Skills Training. However there is always room for more! If you’re interested in helping the women of the Congo rebuild their lives and support themselves and their families, it’s not too late to get involved.

100% of the money our supporters have raised will go directly to our programmes in the Congo, which provide emotional and physical support for rape and abuse victims, and assist vulnerable women in creating sustainable futures for themselves and their children.

The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict has named the DRC as the ‘rape capital of the world’, and a recent study found that over a 12 month period in 2006 and 2007, 400,000 females aged beween 15 and 49 were raped, which equates to 48 attacks on women every hour – one woman raped nearly every second.

The video below delves more into the work Women for Women International does in the Congo, and provides an example of the sort of amazing women the funds from Run for Congo Women will be helping.

Whether you're already participating, are keen to get involved or are simply coming along to support those in the race, we hope to see you on Sunday 3rd July, helping us restore the women of the Congo with their voice and future.

Two new reports have arisen that illustrate the extent to which the Millennium Development Goals are failing.

The 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development states that no low-income fragile state has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal, and that poverty rates are more than 20% higher in conflict affected countries.

Meanwhile the Christian Aid 2011 Report: Hungry for Justice: Fighting Starvation in an Age of Plenty acknowledges the analogous links between conflict zones and a malnourished population, explaining how fighting disrupts harvests, displaces rural populations and severes trade routes.

In the World Development Report, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick claimed that children living in fragile states are twice as likely to be undernourished, while the Christian Aid report estimates that such malnourishment is unlikely to be rectified when the world population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by the middle of the century.

The first and main goal of the MDGs is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and the target is to halve the number of those afflicted by 2015. Yet 3.5 million children under the age of five are still dying from malnutrition related causes each year. Of the 6.8 billion people who currently exist, 850 million suffer from severe malnourishment – roughly equating to one in every seven humans.

Experts claim that if our food consumption is not re-evaluated rapidly, by 2050 the world’s food production would need to literally double in order to sufficiently feed every member of the human race. The UN World Population Prospects report states that almost all population growth will occur in the lesser developed regions, a classic example of this poverty quagmire being Africa. The continent already accounts for 15% of the world’s population, yet nine out of 10 of the world’s poorest countries are African.

The need for a sustainable food industry has never been more urgent, but it is also undoubtedly achievable. The WFWI local farming initatives have begun integrating women back into society and advocating the growing and trading of local produce, a positive exemplar for the rest of the developing world. Through accepting that women are integral to society, restoring power to local farmers and easing the pressures of international trade, striving countries could have the oppertunity to develop their own sustainable business economies – and signify an end to living with hunger.

kate spade/Women for Women International products on display in Sarajevo, Bosnia

Women for Women International are to co-host a conference on micro-finance and women-based economic development. Banking on Women: Finance and Beyond will bring together leading researchers, financial institutions and NGOs to discuss the economic future of women from unstable backgrounds.

The day long conference will focus on recent progressive research  that has begun to uncover the impact that micro-finance and training programmes have had on women’s ability to participate in economic life. Bankers, policy makers and practitioners will discuss what works for women in emerging markets.

Topics to be discussed include the ability of micro-credit to change women’s lives and the need for additional services such as saving and training programmes. The focus will also lean towards the way that political institutions and infrastructure investments can improve female empowerment in the household and wider community.

Women for Women country director for Bosnia, Seida Saric, will feature in the programme, speaking about micro-credit and how access to small loans can be integral in stimulating local business development. After the war, 32.9% of Bosnian women were unemployed, making them easy targets for prositution or traffickers, but since WFWI was founded Seida has overseen programs in that have helped over 29,000 Bosnian women in 60 communities. These included giving women access to micro-credit loans, showing women how to grow, cultivate and earn through vegetable sales, and capitalising on their knitting and embroidery skills through a partnership with kate spade new york – a project which promotes micro-enterprises for women and in the last year has created 400 jobs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Rwanda.

Women for Women International will host the conference alongside the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), an international financial institution that supports projects in 29 countries from Europe to Asia, and J-PAL Europe, an organisation that works to improve the effectiveness of social programs worldwide by supporting researchers and disseminating their results.

Women for Women are dedicated to empowering women afflicted by war with the knowledge and tools required to rebuild their lives.  A number of our projects focus on providing women with job skills and business training, enabling them to begin their own small businesses and be economically self-sufficient.

The conference will take place in the ERBD headquarters in London on Friday June 3rd.

Of the 10 countries in the world where it is hardest to be a mother, three are countries in which Women for Women are active.

A new report released by Save the Children names Sudan as the second worst place to be a mother in the world, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo in fifth place, and Afghanistan in tenth. Eight of the countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, with the worst place to be a mother being Central African Republic.

The report puts a specific focus on Afghanistan, a country still occupied by foreign troops. The report claims that expecting mothers in the country are at least 200 times more likely to die during childbirth than from bombs or bullets. One in 11 Afghan women will die from pregnancy or childbirth complications and only 14 percent of mothers in the country give birth with assistance from a trained health professional.

Similarly, Afghanistan is the most dangerous place in the world to be born, with one on five children expected to die before their fifth birthday. At this rate, almost every mother in Afghanistan is likely to suffer the loss of a child.

The treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule went beyond oppression. With one of the strictest interpretations of the Sharia law seen in the Muslim world, the Taliban inflicted incomprehensible violence against females – such as Aisha, an 18-year-old who was punished for running away from her abusive husband by having her nose and ears sliced off, an image that was dramatised on the cover of the USA’s Time magazine.

The UK government has been pushing for an early withdrawal from the war torn country, but there is a pressing need for a plausible exit strategy – fuelled by fears that removal of UK and US troops will allow the Taliban to return with full force.

Aisha courageously posed for the Time cover with hopes to show the world the affect a Taliban resurgence would have on Afghan women.  Such a revival would amount to inhumane and widespread suffering, and a colossal step backwards for women’s rights. One in 11 maternal deaths is a unacceptably vast statistic, and such atrocities would be certain to worsen under an elevated Taliban rule.

Recent eruptions of violence in Sudan last week have left many injured and hundreds displaced, including workers at the Women for Women International communally run farm.

Three Women for Women staff bravely made the decision to stay behind when the rest were evacuated, putting themselves at risk in order to safeguard the farm. This draws attention to the harsh realities many women enrolled in our programmes face, as sources from the farm report that the security risks are acute. Violence and disruption is expected in the run up to South Sudan’s official declaration of independence, scheduled for July 9, 2011.

As said in a recent Women for Women blog post on Sudan and South Sudan independence, most recently South Sudan included Abyei as part of its territory in a draft of its new constitution. Abyei is home to much of the country’s oil wealth, and there are ongoing disputes about the ownership of the territory. Sudan has stated that it will not recognize South Sudan’s independence unless South Sudan removes Abyei from its constitution, leading to nationwide tensions, violence and political unrest.

Reports claim that 13 people were killed and many injured, with 5 people killed very near the farm. There is said to be a heavy presence of military and police near the area, yet workers were still advised to seek advice before continuing with their every day routines, as it was not known whether it would be safe. A handful of women braved the danger and visited the farm to water their plots, exhibiting incredible bravery and dedication to the project.

The Women for Women curated Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (or CIFI farm) is a communal farm that allows women to plot and grow their own produce, providing them with a steady income to provide for themselves and their families. When it first began in 2008, it promised to train 3,000 women over the course of its first three years, and it has been incredibly successful in teaching participants sustainable farming practices, and how to grow crops to be sold on local markets. On average the CIFI particpants are making twice the average per capita income in Sudan, an overwhelming statistic, especially in a society where female breadwinners are a rarity.

However the recent bouts of violence reiterate that Sudan is still an unstable country – one that could have episodes of turbulence at any time. Recent events show the true realities of Women for Women workers and participants, where danger can always be just around the corner. Yet these women continue to fearlessly rebuild their lives and acquire new skills, proceeding about their lives with bravery and determination worthy of worldwide admiration.

For more than a decade, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was subject to the deadliest war since World War II. Over four million people died and tens of thousands of women were systematically raped and abused. This use of sex as a weapon is revealing not only of the brutalities of war, but of the barbaric attitudes towards women in Congolese culture.

Yet it would seem that little of this war against women has been documented in western news, or at least to the scale expected from such a devastating conflict. The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo is a ground breaking documentary that captures the acute suffering of the Congo’s women, giving the victims of rape a personality and a voice.

Emmy Award winning producer and director Lisa F. Jackson spent 2006 in the war zones of eastern DRC, documenting the plight of women and girls caught in the middle of the Congo’s sexual crossfire. Jackson interviews numerous women who have been subjected to rape, revealing the extent of the damage caused and making it clear that the injustice does not stop at the violation of a woman’s rights.

Part of the documentary takes place in a clinic devoted to treating women with traumatic injury due to sexual violence. Many rape victims are left physically impaired for life, mutilated by the offending soldiers and left to be outcast from their communities. The harrowing stories that are retold are punctuated with the knowledge that these women were considered lucky to have been brought to the clinic, and that there are thousands more women throughout the country that are left to suffer alone and without any medical help.

Jackson also interviews the rapists themselves, soldiers who claim that if a woman says no they must “take her by force”. Some soldiers even believe that rape brings them good luck, and are told that they have to do it in order to beat the enemy. During the documentary Jackson reveals that UN peacekeepers themselves have been implemented in sexual exploitation, with 19 UN peacekeepers in the eastern city of Bakavu having been accused of trading milk and eggs for sexual relations with girls as young as 10-years-old.

In the midst of a documentary that is truly shocking, there are two revelations that are especially significant. The first is the extent of the devastation felt by so many women, and to such a great scale. The camera follows the excruciating plights of many women, from an 11-year-old girl raising the child of the man who raped her, to a mother left to take care of seven children alone after her husband was murdered in front of her.

The second is the infectious spirit of the women that are telling their stories. Some may find it easy to disregard something that is happening in a country so far away, but The Greatest Silence reminds us that it is an indescribable injustice that any woman should be left to endure such deep suffering. As Jackson films the women offering each other support and sharing their horrific stories, it is touching how much life and character still shines from within them, despite the inexorable situations that they have been exposed to.

Despite the severe discomfort that would ensue, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo is a documentary that should be viewed by anyone who is unaware of the atrocities that continue to occur in the Democractic Republic of the Congo. Lisa Jackson bravely delves into topics that have been avoided and bypassed for years, in a compassionate bid to make the rest of the world acknowledge the scale of what is happening.

An exposé of the most overwhelming degree, this documentary not only reaffirms the widely held sentiment that the Congo is the most dangerous place to be a woman on earth, but it also insists that this is an inhumane situation that simply cannot go on in silence.

The devastating effects of forced evictions are being felt throughout Nigeria and other African nations as human rights are violated and millions are denied adequate housing.

Hundreds of thousands of residents in Nigeria’s Port Harcourt are at risk of being made homeless, while thousands have already been made homeless to make way for a eight-screen cinema complex. Throughout Africa hundreds of thousands of people are displaced or living in unexceptionable conditions.

The Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog has pinned specific focus on the housing crisis, wherein hundreds of thousands are forced to live in slums or on the streets. Labelling it a humanitarian emergency that receives little to no international attention, Poverty Matters paints a harrowing picture of life living in a slum, where residents have no access to essential services such as sanitation, clean water and healthcare, while their children cannot access primary education.

More alarmingly, women and children are regularly exposed to abuses, and the state provides little security. In a country like Nigeria, where martial rape is not considered a crime, women and children need all the protection they can get – yet for those living in a slum, or a home that they could be forced out of at any time, a feeling of protection is not a likely reality.

Women all over Nigeria endure astounding miseries, from legalised domestic abuse to high rates of genital cutting – 60% of Nigerian women have undergone this horrific treatment. Ten out of the country’s 36 states have laws allowing husbands to use physical force against their wives, and the average life expectancy of a Nigerian woman is 49-years-old.

Nigeria’s recent legislative elections and presidential polls have given Nigerian citizens hope that the injustices that have been rife in the country for years will soon come to a halt. However the country will have a long way to go before becoming a democratic and equal society, and women’s rights should stand at the forefront of this perilous journey – beginning with the right to a safe and healthy home.

A new TV show has been launched in Afghanistan which allows women speak out about the violence they are suffering from behind the safety of a mask. The Mask – a chilling look at the abuse of Afghan girls and women provides females with a safe environment in which to discuss their torment, allowing them to anonymously speak about the injustices they have suffered on a national scale.

The revolutionary concept is the brainchild of director Sami Mahdi, who names his mother as his inspiration. The studio audience is made up of a panel of religious and legal experts, as well as human rights campaigners, who offer their opinions and advice. The masks which conceal the women’s identities are symbolic in themselves – painted half pale blue, the color of the ‘chaudari’ or burka, symbolizing the oppression of women, and the other half white, representing innocence.

The programme reveals the plight of numerous women, including Saraya, who was forcibly married off to a known rapist at the age of 15, and eventually fled their home for fear that he would eventually harm their daughter. The camera documents Saraya being told by a religious expert that her marriage to such an older man – he was 58 at the time of the marriage – was on his part a violation against Islam and the law. Her story highlights the challenges women still face in Afghanistan, where women who run away from domestic violence face imprisonment, and few risk telling the police of their ordeals, unsurprising in a country where 99% of the police force are male.

A recent survey conducted by an Afghan NGO, Women and Children Legal Research Foundation, revealed that at least 59% of marriages were considered forced marriages. Of these, 30% were ‘badal’ or ‘exchange’ marriages in which men trade their daughters or other female relatives for women from other families for the purpose of marriage. Another 17% involved a female given in marriage as compensation for a crime or other act of aggression committed against a man in another family.

Although he cannot forsee the future of the victims, Sami does hope that the revelations of his project would shock others into action and raise awareness about what some women in Afghanistan have to endure, saying: “I am sure we can make some changes in the life of the women. And I am sure we can change in the minds of men in Afghanistan.”

Sudan

On 7th February, the Sudanese referendum commission announced that 98.83% of Sudan’s inhabitants voted in favour of southern Sudan’s independence from the north. Although this may seem like a positive step towards peaceful negotiations for the country, and similar African countries torn by civil war, UN officials have said that some 70,000 refugees have fled fighting in western Sudan’s Darfur region since the referendum. UN officials estimate that as many as 300,000 people have died in Sudan since 2003 due to the humanitarian crisis. A series of ceasefires and foreign backed talks have failed to put an end to fighting in the area, which has escalated since December and has seen numbers in refugee camps rise by a third.

Despite hopes that the referendum would put a stop to the violence and displacement of thousands, the war-torn country still appears under threat from government-backed militias and extermination campaigns. North Sudan reportedly dropped bombs on the southern region last month, mirroring last years bombing of Darfur rebels that were claimed to be supporting the semi-autonomous southern government. A continuation of the complex conflict, spurred on by contrasts in ethnicity, religion, citizenship and oil, would prove extremely detrimental to citizens of the north and south, and add additional pressures on to the struggle for female empowerment.

The struggles faced by women living in a country that has been at war for 40 years cannot be overstated, especially when sexual violence is frequently used as a weapon of war. Two million Sudanese women have been raped, four million uprooted and hundreds of thousands live in refugee camps – without necessary protection, nutrition or sanitation. With little access to education, only 3.5% of Women for Women’s Sudanese programme participants can read more than their name, and one in six southern Sudanese women die in childbirth.

However it is difficult – if not impossible – to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring without access to information on what is happening on the ground. Jehanne Henry, a Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, claims that the situation in Darfur is rapidly worsening, but the international community is failing to monitor and properly respond to what is happening there. The southern Sudan referendum is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but Sudan is still a world away from being a conflict-free zone. To be a woman in Sudan today would most likely mean living in a refugee camp, fleeing and fearing physical and sexual violence. A harmonious separation may be on the cards for the north and the southern regions, but for Sudanese women, peace is not so easily found.

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