About three months ago, I was reading a CNN article on Malya Villard-Appolon and her work aiding rape survivors in Haiti from my room. Last Monday, as an intern for MADRE’s humanitarian aid campaign Helping Hands, I was sitting amongst Nobel Laureates and international women’s rights activists to learn about an amazing campaign to stop rape and gendered violence in war time. The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict is the first global collaboration of Nobel Peace Laureates, international human rights groups like MADRE and grassroots groups. The panel featured Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams; the Director of the League of Displaced Women, Patricia Guerrero; the Deputy Director at Physicians for Human Rights, Susannah Sirkin; and Dr. Denis Mukwege, an obstetrician at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Congo.
This distinguished group of panelists highlighted the global crisis of sexual violence against women living in conflict zones. The statistics are staggering. According to World Bank data, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, and malaria. The United Nations reports that in the Democratic Republic of Congo approximately 1,100 rapes are reported each month with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day. In warzones, as Jody Williams described, there is a continuum of violence that facilitates rape on a massive scale.
Despite the grim reality these numbers present, when you scour the news, you will seldom find stories about female political dissidents in Iran being raped in prisons, about the young women of the Democratic Republic of Congo being so brutalized by rape they require surgery, or about the women of Colombia being displaced by the constant onslaught of violence. It is this silence that is one the biggest obstacles to ending rape in conflict. How can we band together to solve a problem when so many people do not know it exists? It is not just silence from the media on the subject but from our governments, judicial systems, and the pervasive culture of shaming that silences survivors and rewards their perpetrators.
As Dr. Denis Mukwege emphasized, rape is not just a weapon of war but a strategy of war. It is being used to show the capacity of one’s power by taking advantage of the powerless, but women are not powerless. All around the world, they are speaking out against the horrors they have faced in their countries. Mayla and her work with KOFAVIV is just one example. “We tell people to come out of silence,” she told CNN journalist Allie Torgan. “Do not be afraid to say that you have been victimized.”
While Haiti is not a warzone in the strictest definition of the term, it has experienced years of political instability and violence, including after both the 2004 coup d’état and aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. For the women and children living in displacement camps almost two years after the disaster, they face their own battle–a battle that Malya fights everyday by providing protection for women and seeking justice against their perpetrators.
Prompted by a discussion with our Executive Director Yifat Susskind on MADRE’s partnership with KOFAVIV, Williams encouraged the audience to vote for Malya to win the $250,000 prize as a CNN Hero. Not only will the money directly benefit Haitian women, but publicizing their stories will work to put an end to the silence surrounding rape in conflict.
As the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict seeks to initiate a global discourse to demand urgent and bold leadership to prevent rape and call for effective prosecution, MADRE’s Helping Hands will continue to work in tandem with KOFAVIV to provide them the resources they need to aid and empower the women of Haiti.
To vote for Mayla for CNN Hero of the Year, go here: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/2012.heroes/malya.villard-appolon.html
To support the work of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, go here: www.stoprapeinconflict.com