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Shelters Without Walls: Women Building Protective Infrastructures Against Rape

Women from Colombia, Syria, Nicaragua and Iraq are implementing multi-layered prevention strategies in their communities against rape being used as a weapon of war, offering immediate protection and countering stigma.

“Once a woman is raped, she loses her name.” When Rose Cunningham, an Indigenous women’s human rights defender from Nicaragua spoke those words, she paused for a moment. “People just call her ‘la violada’: the raped one.”

This is the stark, dehumanizing power of sexual violence, wherein a person’s identity is erased, pushing her outside the safety and solidarity of community bonds. When these community ties are frayed, the dangers multiply, both to the survivor who is deprived of the caring she deserves and to the community as a whole.

This is also what gives rape as a weapon of war its destructive power. Perpetrators know that it can traumatize, and even destroy a person, and that the impacts do not stop there. The trauma of rape reverberates through families and communities. When people ostracize, reject or, as is all-too-common, kill survivors because of the stigma attached to rape, it tears apart the ties that bind families and communities. Resilience resides in these bonds of support vital to people’s ability to sustain each other through armed conflict. Armed groups in war will eagerly use a weapon that attacks those bonds, rendering a community even more vulnerable to domination and control.

Rose Cunningham, director of the Indigenous women’s organization Wangki Tangni, shared her troubling observation at a gathering of women’s human rights defenders at the recent United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women. At a public event, she joined colleagues from Colombia, Iraq and Syria, who exchanged their direct experience working to prevent sexual violence in their war-torn and "post-conflict" communities.

Prevention of rape as a weapon of war is an elusive concept, often more difficult to conceive than the concrete notions of protecting survivors and prosecuting perpetrators. The challenge lies in measuring and portraying that which was prevented and never happened. Yet, prevention is obviously a vital strategy, one that should be inextricably linked to protection and prosecution. In the vibrant conversation between these four women, they quickly identified core commonalities in their hard-earned experience to create and implement multilayered prevention strategies.

Prevention strategy: providing immediate and long-term protection to prevent sexual violence

Grassroots women facing the threat of rape as a weapon of war will mobilize to create or expand secure spaces where women and girls are protected. For instance, Yanar Mohammed, director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), explained how they have built crucial infrastructure, such as shelters and safe houses, and set up escape routes maintained by networks of women human rights defenders. These avenues provide an essential conduit for at-risk women to escape the northern part of Iraq, occupied by the extremist group ISIS, as well as for women facing sectarian violence in the government-controlled parts of the country. They also offer sanctuary from heightened levels of violence against women that predate the 2014 incursion of ISIS and that are born of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

OWFI has also advocated for changes in policies that undermine women’s rights. In particular, the government has refused to officially recognize women’s shelters run by non-governmental organizations. This grey area in the law leaves women’s shelters vulnerable to police raids and other harassment, forcing human rights organizations like OWFI that provide vital services to vulnerable women to run their shelters clandestinely.

Similarly, Nawal Yazeji of the Syrian Women’s League presented a case of a woman who transformed her own home in Damascus into a shelter for women escaping violence. In another example, she told of young women who organized their own self-defense classes, if only to strengthen their personal sense of agency.

“These are just a few small but important examples. There may be many more women like this, but this war makes it difficult for us to communicate and share our stories,” Nawal explained. “But we Syrian women are active, trying to protect each other and to create peace.”

This protective infrastructure is not only a refuge for survivors of rape as a weapon of war. It is also a preventative barrier against future violations.

Prevention strategy: awareness-raising to transform stigma, rigid gender norms and violent masculinities

Stigma is what gives rape the power to control and manipulate communities, making it an appealing weapon for armed groups and violent extremists. Each of the four experts identified attacking stigma as a key priority to prevent sexual violence. Nawal highlighted a popular mobilization campaign by Syrian women’s rights activists with one resounding message: “Rape is never the fault of the survivor.”

Grassroots women activists can also model what acceptance and solidarity with a survivor looks like. Yanar shared OWFI’s practice of visiting refugee camps in northern Iraq to listen to and validate the stories of rape survivors.

“Everyone in the community knew what had happened to these women, yet no one spoke of it,” Yanar said. She described the subtle but important shifts in people’s perceptions of blame and accountability when they listened directly to the women who, supported by Yanar, wanted to tell their own stories.

Using artistic expression and creative performance is an innovative way to heal individual trauma and to shift community perspectives on sexual violence. Stella Duque, the Director of Taller de Vida (Spanish for “Workshop of Life”) in Colombia, emphasized the need to end the silence and shame that fuel stigma, giving the example of a photography exhibit.

“We created the Take My Body Out of War photo project to show the impact of war on young survivors,” Stella said. This project allowed former child soldiers, many survivors of sexual abuse, to transmit their testimonies through photography and to build a constituency of support for national policies that protect the rights of ex-combatants and vulnerable communities.

Like stigma, another harmful social norm that spurs sexual violence is the prevalence of violent masculinities. These learned attitudes and behaviors cause men and boys to define themselves and, in particular, their manhood through aggression. For men caught in this mindset, real or perceived affronts to their safety, well-being or identity are supposedly remedied by violence. Extremist and armed groups can appeal to potential recruits by offering them the opportunity to re-assert themselves through violence.

Human rights defenders provide an antidote to this mindset by promoting positive ideals of manhood rooted in gender equality and in opposition to sexual violence. For example, in Colombia, Taller de Vida mobilizes a mixed gender constituency in their community outreach programs, bringing boys and girls together with men and women mentors to teach them about developing healthy, collaborative relationships and to diminish the allure for young boys of joining an armed group. Nawal shared examples of Syrian women meeting for tea and using this informal social gathering to talk frankly about how to prevent their sons from joining ISIS.

In Nicaragua, Rose tracked the violence that persists long after a conflict has officially ended. She gave the example of a woman who was raped over 30 years ago during a campaign of sexual violence by US-backed Contra militias. This woman lives in the same community as her rapist and who still faces his taunts. Rose linked the enduring abuse that women face, in their homes and at the hands of traffickers, to the high rate of violence against women that became normalized during that war.

Explaining her strategy to prevent future violence, Rose said, “We are creating a shelter without walls.” Together with other grassroots women activists, she envisions a community where each woman can move freely without fear of violence. To create this condition, they are engaging with local leadership who hold powerful influence over community perspectives and practices. For instance, women successfully secured a commitment from local traditional judges called Wihtas, often men, to uphold national laws prohibiting the trafficking and sale of young girls.

These prevention strategies - offering immediate protection and countering stigma and other harmful social norms - provided a connecting thread in the conversation between the women leaders from the Middle East and Latin America. These and other women human rights defenders have critical expertise and vital local experience. Given governments’ frequently-stated aim to combat sexual violence in conflict, they must turn to these women for solutions to the scourge of rape as a weapon of war.

This op-ed by Yifat Susskind, MADRE's Executive Director originally appeared on openDemocracy