Category Archives: Yifat’s Take

Ending Rape in War

Earlier this month, MADRE joined our sisters and survivors worldwide for the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the largest convening ever on this issue. 

The success of this summit relies on activists holding governments accountable to their pledges. Last year, 122 countries signed a declaration to end sexual violence in conflict, and this conference grew out of that stated commitment.

However, unless governments seize the opportunity to learn and change, we will not see the policy changes we need to protect women. And unless we confront sexual violence in conflict – by gathering evidence, providing services to survivors, and prosecuting offenders – the echoes of war will live on long after any peace agreement is signed.

Even with war raging, we can still challenge rape. Syria is a key example. Women’s rights activists there are working to prevent and document sexual violence, provide peer counseling and outreach, train and sensitize doctors to recognize rape and respond effectively, and more. They are passing out information cards and leaflets to checkpoint military guards warning them that sexual abuse, from forced prostitution to rape, is a crime under international law. This strategy works because assailants are not afraid of domestic prosecution. But they know what has happened to military who commit these crimes in other countries after conflict ends.

Women’s Issues Are Not A “Niche”

On August 22, “A Question of How Women’s Issues Will Fare, in Washington and Overseas” was published in The New York Times. The article framed “women’s issues” as separate from the challenges facing the world as a whole, including the problems we face now in Syria:

Others see women’s issues as a marginal focus when there are so many violent conflicts around the world.

“Certainly the problems specifically affecting women in Syria are not unimportant,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former staff member of the National Security Council who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. But in such a humanitarian catastrophe, he said, “until you have an answer to the military problem in Syria, you can’t solve any other problem.”

This framework diminishes the human rights of women and the essential solutions they bring to bear on every issue and conflict we face around the globe.  MADRE submitted this response to the editors:

To the Editor:
Re: “A Question of How Women’s Issues Will Fare, in Washington and Overseas” (Aug. 22):
One of the biggest challenges facing Catherine M. Russell as the new ambassador at large for global women’s issues will be people’s failure to understand her job title.
Women’s issues are not a niche. These are the issues that confront half of the world’s population, and they are integral to every single one of the State Department’s agenda items.
For instance, it is nonsensical for anyone to assert that women’s issues should be “a marginal focus when there are so many violent conflicts around the world,” while violence against women is rampantly used as a weapon of war. This is a wrongheaded and harmful perspective that Ms. Russell must confront head on.
As we seek to address climate change, solve poverty, forge peace, promote democracy and more, there are no solutions without women.
Yifat Susskind

Speak Out: Peace, Not War, In Syria

Our friends at CODEPINK have created this letter to give you the chance to speak out against US airstrikes in Syria. Read what they have to say – and go here to sign the petition and make your voice heard.

To President Obama,

As concerned citizens of the United States and as firm believers in a peaceful world, we urge you to reconsider military intervention in Syria. Not only is the American public opposed to embarking upon yet another war, intervention is counterproductive to ending the conflict in the region by further instigating a cycle of violence, retaliation and bloodshed. There are already 100,000 dead Syrians, and we cannot have any more. We oppose the violence inflicted upon the Syrians by the Assad regime, but do not believe that military intervention is the key to peace.

Instead, we urge you to take the following steps:

1) Broker an immediate ceasefire and hold regional talks: The goal of any intervention should be to protect the lives of civilians. With much of the ground fighting in Syria taking place in densely populated areas, bombing by the U.S. and coalition forces will inevitably lead to the deaths of innocent Syrians and civilian bystanders. Additionally, the obvious brutality by the Assad regime towards innocent civilians will not stop with bombs; instead, the regime will retaliate against innocent Syrians.

That’s why the U.S. should broker regional peace talks with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It should call upon the United Nations to demand an immediate ceasefire and consider the option of peacekeeping forces in Syria.

2) Prioritize humanitarian aid: Over 2 million Syrian refugees are flooding into the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The United States must redirect military dollars to help the hungry and homeless civilians fleeing violence. We need to pay particular attention to the over 1 million children who are refugees, and the systematic sexual assault of women and girls by combatants, who use rape as “a weapon of war”.

3) Uplift the voices of the peaceful, non-violent resistance by including them in negotiations. We must highlight and honor the peaceful forms of civil resistance by Syrians who are opposed to all forms of violence. We must make the peace process inclusive by inviting these voices into the conversation, and give financial support to spread their efforts.

4) Halt immediate arms sales to regimes throughout the Middle East: The United States must stop engaging in weapons trades with regimes in the area that only bolster violent conflict and oppress their populations. While Assad’s apparent chemical attack is abhorrent and a gross violation of international law, the United States must also stop engaging in the trade of dangerous and illegal weapons such as cluster bombs.

We hope you will resist the calls for military intervention and instead help bring an end to the violence that is plaguing the Syrian people.

Go to CODEPINK to sign the petition and speak out against military action in Syria. 

The G8’s PR Strategy on Rape in Conflict

This post originally appeared on Women Under Siege.

On the same day in April that I listened to the harrowing stories of Syrian women over endless glasses of tea in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, leaders of the world’s eight richest countries promised to take action against rape as a weapon of war.

During the bumpy drive out of Zaatari, I read with interest that G8 leaders had just passed a “Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,” committing more forcefully than ever before to “address these ongoing crimes.” It was welcome news after hours spent talking with women who had fled their homes and braved bombs, snipers, militias, bandits, and exile to escape the threat of rape.

My interest was even further piqued by the specifics of the G8 declaration. The summit attendees endorsed international protocols for investigating and documenting rape in conflict. They called for support and protection of women human rights activists and women’s organizations doing vital work on the ground. And, best of all, they called on the international community, and the G8 itself, to provide critical funding for access to psychosocial and medical services for those targeted with sexualized violence.

These were some of the very demands that wartime rape survivors and human rights advocates had been making for years. In that sense, the declaration could be seen as promising. But the high-profile statement failed to offer a deadline, measurable metric, or concrete plan for a single recommendation it put forward.

This week’s G8 summit in Fermanagh, Ireland, is a chance for leaders to redeem themselves. But will the group—comprised of the world’s biggest arms dealers, most powerful donor states, and four out of five of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council—offer more than lip service on conflict-related rape?

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Hope and Happy Anniversaries in the West Bank

“As an Israeli midwife, I always wanted to talk to Palestinian midwives, to see their experience and exchange stories—that’s how we learn. We are neighbors, and with neighbors, you should talk. It’s unnatural that we don’t talk. So I came to the first meeting of this group. That was five years ago. Now we are more than neighbors. We are friends.”

Gomer, the Israeli coordinator of our sister organization Midwives for Peace, told me this on my recent visit to the West Bank. I was there to celebrate the group’s five year anniversary, a truly remarkable milestone.

Israel and Palestine are at a political standstill. The level of despondency in the region is as strong as I’ve ever seen it. And the lack of confidence in progress is widespread. As you can imagine, under these difficult circumstances, collaboration can seem impossible. Yet the commitment of our sister organization of Israeli and Palestinian midwives remains strong. Through it all, they continue to work together to learn from each other and to safely deliver babies in the West Bank, despite the conflict that surrounds them. What an inspiration!

The anniversary meeting gave the midwives a chance to celebrate, reflect and share their plans for the future. In 2014, the group hopes to send representatives to the International Conference of Midwives in Prague.

And this August, they are planning a group trip to the beach. You might be wondering what a day at the beach has to do with breaking down barriers between Palestinians and Israelis, but consider this: some of the Palestinian midwives are refugees whose families came from coastal villages, yet they themselves have never seen the ocean. As Aisha, the group’s Palestinian coordinator, said to me, “the friendships we are building as midwives, as women, are opening doors in our lives and in our hearts that the conflict had tried to nail shut.”

I’m always so moved to see the collaboration and friendship between our Israeli and Palestinian sisters. Our partnership with Midwives for Peace is something I am proud of every day. I was so grateful to be able to attend their anniversary event, and I look forward to celebrating their next five years.

Mothers Fight Back

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and like many of you, I will spend it at home with my family. I’m looking forward to the home-made cards and presents from my kids, and maybe the great gift of sleeping in an extra hour. As I enjoy this time, I’ll also be thinking of the Syrian mothers I just met in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Like mothers everywhere, their first priority is to ensure their children’s safety. That’s why many of them fled their homes in the first place. Now, as their families grow destitute as refugees, many mothers feel that the only way they can provide for their teenaged daughters is to marry them off. “I would rather see her married than hungry,” said Leila of her young daughter. “I just pray that this man will be kind to her.”

A young activist in a local Jordanian women’s organization told me, “This was supposed to be a revolution for freedom in Syria. But for the girls there is no freedom. Instead there are men from the Gulf countries lurking around the refugee camp looking for child brides.”

In my work with women around the world, I see mothers face choices like Leila’s every day.

After an earthquake devastated Haiti, millions of families were displaced from their homes. Mothers put up makeshift tents in huge public encampments with no running water, no security, and no lights at night. When an epidemic of rape swept through the camps, mother were their children’s only line of defense. “I stayed awake through the nights,” Louise  told me. “I had to choose between sleeping or keeping watch over my two daughters. I held a broken bottle for protection and positioned it to dig into my arm if I fell asleep.”

The mothers I met in Kenya were also forced to make decisions no parent should have to face. Severe drought over recent years has decimated herding communities in East Africa. As animals died off and water for even basic survival grew scarce, more and more families resorted to trading daughters for dowries, in some cases to ensure the survival of the rest of the family.

War, natural disaster, environmental crisis. No matter the threat to their children, mothers fight back.

In Jordan, Syrian mothers who are refugees are working with local women’s groups to protect the health and well-being of their daughters and provide safety and shelter for their families.

In Haiti, mothers organized community watch groups in the tent camps and reached out to rape survivors with healthcare and counseling through the women’s rights organization, KOFAVIV. A bill they put before the Haitian parliament would create Haiti’s first age of consent and criminalize marital rape for the first time, protecting their daughters now and throughout their futures.

In Kenya, mothers helped create a network of shelters as a place for their daughters to receive an education and enjoy their childhood, protecting them from female genital mutilation and forced early marriages. They call these shelters the Nanyori Network. In Swahili, Nanyori means “You are loved.”

This Mother’s Day, I’ll be thinking of these women, mothers just like me, facing unimaginable hardships. I’ll be thinking of their strength and their dignity, of their dedication and unfailing love. As the poet Alexis De Veaux has written, “Motherhood is more than the biological act of giving birth. It’s an understanding of the needs of the world.” Fighting to meet those needs, all around the globe, is what mothers do.

(This post originally appeared on RH Reality Check.)

“It’s like you are living without your life.”

I’ve been in refugee camps where people are listless, resigned; where everyone seems suspended in a state of traumatized limbo. But Za’atari camp in the north of Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees now reside, is different. Za’atari is seething.

People here give off a manic, restless energy. Some seem ready to snap from the sheer, relentless boredom. There are people who have been here now for more than two years, with literally nothing to do. “It’s like you are living without your life,” was how one young man described being a refugee. He was quiet, with a sad smile. But other men here exude pure anger.

Shortly after we left the camp, Jordanian police fired rounds of tear gas at a crowd of refugees. It’s become a common occurrence, rioting that’s often spontaneous; despair ignited by frustration.

An aid worker in the camp told us that “aggressive injury,” is the most commonly treated ailment in the camp’s clinics. Fights between the men break out almost every day. Given what everyone here has been through, it’s not surprising. But the fights are not just a reaction to life in the camp. The political rifts that are tearing Syria apart are palpable in the refugee camp as well. Za’atari is home to Assad backers as well as supporters of the opposition. People say that since the nearby border to Syria is open, fighters from the Free Syrian Army battling Assad’s government deliver their families to the relative safety of the camp, rest a bit, and then cross back into Syria to continue the war. Others stay in the camp to recover from injuries.

As we leave the camp, low-flying planes roar overhead in the direction of Syria. “More Saudi weapons for the opposition,” our driver says knowingly. “I don’t know how this war will ever end, with everyone throwing gasoline on the fire.”

Finding Light in a Refugee Camp

When I visited Za’atari camp, where Syrian refugees have fled by the thousands, I spoke to a woman named Hanan. She said the biggest problem in the camp is the toilets. They are far away from the tents and very dark at night. No woman or girl goes there after nightfall. And in the daytime, the women go in groups for safety. There is no way to lock the door, and they don’t feel safe.

One part of camp has lighting, but it’s only a small part, and the electricity is intermittent. “We need light,” the women told us. “It is too dangerous for us here in the dark.”

The camp is so big that some women have to walk an hour and 15 minutes to reach the area of the camp where there are services — clinics, feeding centers and schools. But services can’t keep pace with the exploding population, so people don’t have access to care or basic supplies.

We talked to Rima who is helping to distribute basic needs like diapers in the camp. She told us how the women help each other, even just by talking together. “This fills a huge need that we have — to share our pain and our strength,” she said. “That’s the support that women give each other here. We have no money, clothes or food to give, but we can give our ear to listen and our shoulder to cry on. I never cry when my children are watching. They have seen enough tears.”

We also talked with some NGO workers who told us that sanitation is a big concern. Because the toilets are so far, many families dig holes by their tents as toilets. In the winter, torrential rain spreads the contents of these toilet pits throughout the camp. Water is easily contaminated. And now that it’s dry, the dust that’s everywhere in the camp carries fecal particles that are also a health hazard, causing respiratory illnesses and other diseases.

Menstrual health and hygiene are also a challenge. Women don’t have access to sanitary napkins and have no appropriate places to change or dispose of their pads.

We did see one happy sight: a group of girls playing soccer and laughing together. “In Syria, we would never have this chance,” they told us. “Girls don’t play soccer at home. Everyone knows it is terrible here, but this is our one good thing.”

Somehow, these women and girls find opportunity in crisis. I’m so glad that through MADRE, and with your support, we can help give them the resources they need.

We’ve heard from many women like Hanan, and we’re determined to act. That’s why we’re bringing solar lanterns to provide light for women and girls at night. You can be part of this effort. Click here to donate.

Voices of Syrian Mothers in Za’atari Camp

As I enter Za’atari refugee camp, just over 30 miles south of the Syrian border, it’s like a sprawling city in the desert, all behind barbed wire. Over 100,000 people live here now, after fleeing the violence of Syria’s civil war.

The camp is clearly still under construction, with many new tents and metal caravans waiting for more refugees. It’s a sign that no one believes the war will end soon. In fact, UNICEF estimates that the refugee population in Jordan alone will reach more than 1.2 million by the end of the year. Amina, one of our local partners, is shocked by how much the camp has expanded since her last visit.

(c) Meena Lenn

Down the main market strip of the camp, people are selling everything: vegetables, chickens, cotton candy, cigarettes, pasta, cooking utensils, cheap plastic toys. The lane is choked with people of all ages, shopping and selling. Little boys, laughing and covered in dust, give each other rides in wheelbarrows. People are picking through a tremendous pile of old, worn shoes for sale. Everything is covered in dust, even the olive trees at the edge of the camp.

(c) Meena Lenn
Yifat with children living as refugees in Za'atari camp.

The metal caravans, freezing cold in winter and sweltering all summer, are 10 by 16 feet. That’s barely enough room for a family to sleep, and many of the refugee families are large.

The trauma of the war follows women even in the relative safety of Jordan. You can see it most clearly in their eyes: the hollow stares, the sudden tears, the inability to maintain eye contact in conversations. Among the refugees, even those who appear physically unharmed are wounded.

We talked to Meena who came across the border from her home in Homs after Assad’s forces burned down her house and killed her 27-year-old sister. Meena is 39 years old, the mother of 12 children and a grandmother of four. One of her older daughters was married here in the camp. “It is better,” she said, “for protection.” For Meena, married at 15, her daughter’s wedding was a blessing. But other women say that girls in the camp suffer the most.

We spoke with Sabeen, whose 13-year-old daughter was married shortly after arriving in the camp. “We had no money when we arrived in Jordan,” Sabeen told us. “Marriage was the only option to give my daughter protection and security.” Her daughter is now pregnant. Sabeen worries that her young body cannot properly handle the stress of pregnancy. And reproductive health services are scarce in the camp.

Hanan has two children, a boy and a girl. She divorced her husband long ago and came here from Daraa with her children when she heard the army was coming and that they had raped girls in the village nearby. “We left everything and came here, but my only dream is to go home.” She said she will not marry for protection in the camp. She looked away when I asked her why. “There is more than one kind of danger,” she said.

I will be posting more blog entries in the coming days, with information about my visit to Za’atari camp and my conversations with women there.

I know that stories of such hardship can be difficult to hear. We’re doing everything we can to bring vital humanitarian aid. You can be part of this effort. Click here to donate.