Voices that break the silence – Women’s rights organisations on the frontline against gender-based violence

SoME Gavobevis 2023

20 October 2023

The number of conflicts in the world is at a historically high level. Gender-based violence in wars and conflicts is increasing. Impunity for perpetrators is almost total. What is the role of women’s rights organisations in this – fifteen years after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820?

Fifteen years after the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, aimed to eliminate violence against women and girls in conflict zones, we are witnessing several setbacks. Sexual violence continues to increase in wars and conflicts, and the perpetrators continue to go unpunished. At the same time, we are now facing a major increase in conflicts globally. What role do women’s rights organisations play in addressing and countering these challenges?

During the parliamentary seminar attended by Operation 1325, organised by Kvinna till Kvinna, Linnéa Wickman (S) and Katarina Tolgfors (M), these issues were addressed through panel discussions with women’s rights activists from several countries. The participants were Lejla Gacanica (Programme Officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina), Evelyne Ndipondjou (Head of Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo), Sibar Khaleel (Programme Officer in Iraq), and Mariia Kozubska (Programme Officer in Ukraine).

The report “They came together not to be silenced” was presented, highlighting that, despite many differences between these countries, there are also striking similarities in the experiences of survivors and the obstacles faced by women’s rights organisations. On the one hand, stigma and discrimination are obstacles in all countries in the report. The role of women’s rights organisations has, on the other hand, proven to be very important. However, working against gender-based violence is often dangerous in countries with limited rights for women, the report shows, which means an increased risk of violence and threats of violence. The work of these organisations is seen as a direct threat to powerful men in some cases, and in others as a challenge to traditional values. The issue of men’s violence against women continues to be de-prioritised by governments around the world, despite being one of our biggest societal problems.

During the parliamentary seminar, several key challenges were identified by the panellists. Lejla Gacanica from Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, mentioned that women’s bodies are used as weapons of war and that there is often a lack of trust in the institutions designed to protect their rights. Sexual violence, she said, has far-reaching consequences that are visible long after a war has ended. The violence is thus not an isolated event, but rather an irreversible offence that has long-lasting consequences – in the bodies of survivors and in communities.

Moreover, survivors often lack adequate support, and stigmatisation and enforced silence prevent them from testifying about the abuse they have suffered. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a deep taboo around sexual violence persists, that also affects children born as a result of rape, creating difficulties in addressing these issues. In Iraq, survivors often must go through long legal processes and travel long distances to receive the necessary support, and women from different parts of the country and from different ethnic groups have different rights. Survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still affected by the consequences of the war thirty years ago, and Ukraine is in an ongoing conflict that will characterise the country for a long time to come.

But this is often swept under the carpet by governments, the panellists said. Violence against women and girls is considered a private matter. It is accepted as part of the patriarchal system, whether in war, in the home or in communities.

In the light of these challenges, the role of women’s rights organisations is central and vital. Women’s rights organisations are actively working to hold decision-makers accountable, supporting survivors to rebuild their lives and leading the way to break the widespread normalisation and stigmatisation of gender-based violence. When the Ukrainian state has not been able to cover the needs, Mariia Kozubska mentioned, women’s rights organisations have intervened to support survivors of gender-based violence. In addition to providing support to survivors in the form of protection, medical and psychosocial support and legal assistance, these organisations have successfully influenced the political discourse on gender-based violence.

So, while the future may seem bleak, it is important to note the progress that has been achieved. In Ukraine, the report shows, the government has been relatively quick to recognise the prevalence of gender-based violence and seemingly firm in its commitment to holding perpetrators to account. Many women around the world have collectively managed to break the silence, providing an opportunity for changed norms around gender-based violence, as well as an opportunity to strengthen the laws aimed at protecting the rights of women and girls.

Turning commitments into action at a national level requires strong international pressure, the panellists stated. It is therefore important that governments intensify their cooperation with the civil society, including organisations such as Operation 1325, and that we continue to work to turn nice-looking words on paper into reality through structural changes. Sexual violence in conflicts keep escalating globally, requiring greater accountability from governments – before, during and after wars – and a clearer focus on long-term support efforts.

Finally, the fight against gender-based violence is not only a fight for women’s rights – it is also a necessary component of working towards global peace and gender equality. Peace and security can never be fully achieved if women are still restricted in their freedom of movement and exposed to violence. As women’s rights organisations continue to support survivors and advocate for government accountability, they can be a strong force for the realisation of Resolution 1820.


Text by Nanna Thydén.

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