Sexual Violence and Motherhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Amy Holmes

Resilience and solidarity, hope and renewed health. Image by Platon, for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Foundations. © 2016

The aftermath of decades of civil war and instability across the African continent is still profoundly felt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the thousands of women and girls for whom sexual violence is an everyday reality.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is situated in a crucible of conflict, and not only shares its borders with countries affected by conflict such as Angola, Sudan and Uganda, but also bears the legacy of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, from which thousands of the Tutsi ethnic minority fled persecution by the Hutu majority.

The fraught relations between ethnic groups, alongside the routine perpetration of sexual violence by state officials, militants and even by locals, ensure that torture and rape remain endemic in the region.

It is estimated that 48 women and girls are raped per hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Susan Lloyd-Roberts, 2016; 248). Such is the scale of the problem that the 1998 Rome Statute ratified Gender Based Sexual Violence (GBSV) as an act of genocide due to  widespread devastation it has on communities, often lasting for generations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are at risk, not only from their physical wounds but from the social and cultural consequences of sexual violence.

Photographer: Paolo Patruno for the Social Documentary Network

CULTURAL CRISES

Although it is important to acknowledge that sexual violence has both male and female victims, the study of conflict-based sexual assault demonstrates that violence against women has specific consequences.

To illustrate the cultural ramifications of this type of violence, I refer to the work of American philosopher, Judith Butler.

Butler is notable for her vast contributions to the field of gender theory, and she argues that cultural attitudes in the context of war play a key role in particular defining what experience defines someone as a victim.

She addresses the consequences of sexual violence in her book, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and puts forward the notion that sexual violence is not usually considered to be directly resulting from war time activity, as sexual violence is something of a normative, even during peacetime.

For Butler, sexual violence inflicted on women demonstrates existing inequalities that are exacerbated during conflict, leading to her assertion that war is perhaps the most extreme expression of inequality between men and women (Judith Butler, 2009).

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, strict moral codes such as those pertaining to honour and chastity are imposed upon women, as if their body’s honour are a direct belonging of the community, and as such, are instrumental to the strategic domination of communities by oppressive forces.

The stigma that is attached to sexual assault survivors, serves to fracture social cohesion within the groups that are targeted, and thus, displaces thousands of survivors from their communities; as they become estranged by the shame imposed upon them.

VIOLATION

Many gender theorists argue that the work of the social anthropologist, Mary Douglas provides an accurate explanation of the stigma and shame associated with sexual violence. In her book, Purity and Danger, Douglas brings forward the notion of ‘the abject’ a person who embodies disorder, dirt and disruption or contamination of everyday life.

The idea that rape violates communal, marital and personal boundaries means that those who survive it, come to carry the symbolic, as well as the physical and emotional, injuries of their ordeal.

Women who survive sexual violence are frequently condemned by patriarchal society, and are labelled abject, because the boundary between the community and its enemies has been broken, thus allowing disorder and a ‘contamination’ by outside forces.

SYMBOLS OF CULTURE

This is especially the case where a woman becomes pregnant from rape by outsiders; the baby that she carries comes to represent a blurring of ethnic boundaries, and presents a cultural crisis that threatens the potency of established traditions and social bonds.

Significantly, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are seen to be symbols and repositories of their native culture, and through child-rearing and education, propagate the continuation of tradition. Therefore, the notion of motherhood represents a symbolic actualisation of cultural identity, not only within the sphere of the family, but within the broader local and ethnic community.

Esther, 17, with her son Josue. Image by Platon for The People’s Portfolio and Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundations USA and DRC. © 2017

LONG-TERM INEQUALITIES

As stated by Blay-Tofey and Lee in their study of Cote d’Ivoire, “Violence represents a serious public health problem, that is an important cause of many physical and psychological illnesses, and can cause social disruptions that impede reconstruction efforts for generations.” (Blay-Tofey and Lee, 2015;341).

Although post-conflict strategies in Africa aim to improve the structural conditions across the continent, very little is often done to tackle the long-term inequalities that arise from the pervasive sexual violation and trauma experienced in the region.

Alongside the short-term damage and psychological trauma caused by sexual violence, women are at risk of myriad additional complications from their physical injuries, such as incontinence, miscarriage, permanent damage to the reproductive organs, fistula, sexually transmitted infections as well as infertility.

The brutality of these injuries is poignantly captured in a statement by Dr Denis Mukegwe, the director and chief surgeon of the Panzi Foundation, who said: “If you destroy enough wombs, there will be no children.” (Mukegwe, in Cannon, P, 2012; 483)

VIOLATING A COLLECTIVE IDENTITY

This statement recognises the strategic dimensions of GBSV in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and demonstrates the intention of rape as a way of violating a collective identity through the intrinsic link between the body of the mother and the lifeblood of the community.

The destruction of the womb becomes a symbol by which the vitality of the community is threatened; if there are no wombs to create children, there are no children to continue traditions and thus preserve the community itself.

The work of the Panzi Foundation and its contemporaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide hope, by rehabilitating mothers and restoring a sense of community cohesion through education and communication.

Rhythm exercises during music therapy at Maison Dorcas. Photo credit: Naama Haviv for Panzi Hospital and Foundations, September 2016

REHABILITATION

The Panzi Foundation provides health services to women who have suffered reproductive damage and related issues as a result of sexual violence, but also plays an important role in enabling these women to secure work and support their families (Cannon, 2012; 480).

Through access to healthcare and education, service users are also empowered to subvert the stigma that was once attached to their injuries by restoring their worth as caregivers and mothers.

Although Trenholm et al assert that a focus on motherhood “ignores the fundamental individual humanity” (Trenholm et al, 2015; 494-495) of women who have survived sexual violence, I argue in this final discussion that motherhood provides a strategic means of rebuilding a displaced identity in the aftermath of assault.

EMPOWERMENT

The formation of a community of survivors demonstrates the potential for motherhood as an innovative means of recovery and empowerment “the community of women creates unity- one life” (Mama Jeanne, in Kumar, 2015).

This is a vital insight into the way in which motherhood can reassert itself against the perceived stigma of sexual violence, where the mother was once rendered incapable of acting as “guardian of moral and ethical values” (Meger, 2010; 127). Instead, the role of mother, or ‘Mama’ becomes vital to the destabilisation of normalised assumptions about sexual violence.

The high prevalence of sexual assault means that rape has become a normalised behaviour amongst Congolese men, that is enacted on women as a form of punishment or dominance. From a young age, those who see rape as a corrective or coercive practice are likely to take on board the idea that it is an acceptable form of social interaction thus creating a cycle of sexually violent behaviour.

Rebecca ‘Mama’ Masika Katsuva, a prominent sexual assault campaigner and activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Foundations such as Panzi and Heal Africa are vital to the rehabilitation and breakdown of this cycle, and of the normative recognition of sexual violence; offering treatment and education to survivors enables them to challenge the acceptability of rape and thus destabilise its place in Congolese society (Cannon, 2012; 480).

‘Mama’, therefore, becomes a label of optimism; despite, and perhaps because of the legacy of sexual violence, survivors can educate and raise children, and once again re-establish themselves as the core of the community.

#MeToo

Artwork: Januz Miralles at Berlin Artparasites

Artwork: Januz Miralles at Berlin Artparasites

Me too.

In a week, those two little words have gained immense meaning. Since The New York Times reported the serial sexual abuse perpetrated by film mogul Harvey Weinstein, women all over the world have taken to social media using the hashtag #MeToo to share their own stories of sexual assault, abuse or harassment.

It has been heartbreaking to read harrowing encounters that women from all walks of life have experienced, and I for one have been inspired by their courage.

I’m a passionate advocate for women’s rights, and for years I’ve fought against gender inequality. I’ve long discussed issues of harassment and assault in depth, and yet I always relied on statistics and other women’s stories to back up my arguments. I’ve never shared my own stories because I have been ashamed and afraid of what people would think.

And yet I do have a story – most women do, as we’ve found this week.

“I’ve never shared my own stories because I have been ashamed and afraid of what people would think. And yet I do have a story – most women do, as we’ve found this week”

Artwork: Patryk Mogilnicki at Berlin Artparasites

I can’t bring myself to share #MeToo on social media as I’m scared of what will happen. So for now, I let the braver women of this world share their stories openly. And I make my stand, by writing mine anonymously, here.

When I was 12, I was on the London Underground and a man exposed himself to me, stood in a corner and masturbated staring straight at me. It was a quiet train and no one else noticed as I was the only one looking towards him. I got off at the next stop. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 16, a boy who I had never met, told his school that I had performed oral sex on him. Everyone heard about it and people called me a slut. I had never even met him, but I felt that it was my fault. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 18, a boyfriend – who I thought I loved – forced himself on me during an argument while I begged him to stop. I didn’t understand that it was rape because it wasn’t a stranger outside of my comfort zone. It was in my house. The next day he apologised and I quietly broke up with him, never admitting why to my friends. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 20, I got locked out of my house for a night and stayed over at a colleague’s. I woke up halfway through the night with him touching me. I screamed and pushed him off but he yelled back, saying I had been begging for it. I worked with him for another three months and never told anyone. I stayed silent and ashamed.

When I was 25, I was out walking late one night and three drunk men grabbed me. They pulled my skirt and touched my breasts. Luckily, their drink slowed them down and before they were able to hold me down I ran away.  It was dark. I shouldn’t have been walking that way. I stayed silent and ashamed.

Last night, on a main street, a man walked up to me and said “Hey baby.” It was dark and I silently sped up, keeping my head down. “Fucking bitch!”, he yelled as I ran away. I stayed silent, scared that he would do something worse.

Artwork: Loui Jover at Berlin Artparasites

These are a few snapshots of times in my life when I have felt ashamed to be a woman. For years I’ve been angry at myself for bringing these incidents on. So many incidents happening to one person, it must be something I’ve done.

This week has been triggering for me – it’s brought back memories that I have spent years trying to forget. But it’s also been liberating and hopeful. It has made me realise that the force of this movement around those two little words shows the sheer scale of the issue.

Now, more than ever, we need to bring a stop to it. To make it very clear that this is not acceptable. That as a woman you are not asking for anything, and deserve respect for being a human being.

I have to keep coming back to this when these memories swarm back to me. It is not my fault. I will not stay silent. I will not be ashamed.

I have been attacked but I will never be defeated.

An Ode to the Trigger Warning

 


Founder of Attacked Not Defeated, Phoebe Tansley, is a sexual health practitioner, gender-based violence prevention advocate and survivor. Here she revisits a previous blog and reflects on her experiences over the last five years.


 

By Phoebe Tansley

Unbelievably, it’s been over two years since I last wrote about my personal experience of surviving rape. I suppose as time goes by and workload mounts, self-reflection gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list too often.

16298695_575633395979470_3817207482471222057_n

I decided to write this as I recently reached the five year milestone since I was attacked; and in particular wanted to focus on something which has cropped up for me recently; triggers.

In the five years I have been doing this, many survivors have approached me and asked me for advice on how to cope; some reassurance that it gets easier. I know that when survivors who are further along in their journeys than me describe where they are at with it, it has at times comforted me.

In particular I remember reading an account written by a woman who – like me – was strangled, but around 20 years ago. She talked about how she couldn’t wear anything too restrictive around her neck for years because it reminded her of the attack, but that over time she started to wear scarves again and now she can do so without even thinking about it.

To me, in the early days of recovery, that was probably the most comforting thing I read. So next time you see me rocking a turtleneck and looking pretty smug about it, you’ll know why.

turtleneck

source: rifemagazine.co.uk

 

***

The word ‘trigger’ suddenly becomes really present in your life after you’ve experienced sexual violence.

I remember in the immediate aftermath, various professionals kept asking me what ‘triggers’ me or if I had been ‘triggered’, and not really knowing what they meant.

As I wrote in a previous blog, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arrived with delayed onset so for about six months after I was raped I felt relatively ‘okay’. It was my first trigger which actually then led to the first signs of PTSD; and that trigger was a pretty catastrophic one as it involved me being mugged by two men carrying machetes.

The sight of two violent men, the feeling of vulnerability, and the very real threat to my life took me right back to the night of the rape, and culminated in a total shut down of logic; I remember a feeling of overwhelming fear, and of utter devastation. It was from that moment on that my hyper-arousal kicked in.

There are plenty of definitions of hyper-arousal online; all I can really say with any authority is my own experience of it, which was a feeling of being constantly under threat.

Every situation was a risk, every day was a mission to avoid being raped or attacked. Every unknown person, and some known people, felt threatening. I had adrenaline constantly pumping through my body which translated into night-terrors as I slept; and so it was rare to have a restful and uninterrupted night’s sleep – even with the addition of a hammer that I kept by my bed.

I remained in this exhausting state of existence for around 18 months; but now, I am pleased to report, it has eased off substantially.

These days I walk home from the tube at night with the regular amount of anxiety that any woman experiences (that in itself is still frustrating but I’ll take putting keys between my fingers over screaming ‘HEELLPPPPP’ and running in the opposite direction when a man smiles at me on the street – this actually happened).

I am also, I think, a better friend and family member than I was back then. I’d put this mostly down to the fact that I don’t conduct an impossible-to-pass risk assessment of every social engagement before I attend in the same way I used to; I’m generally more trusting and can devote more brain space to enjoying people’s company now that it’s not being taken up by holding my bladder for hours on end because I’m convinced an attacker is waiting for me in the toilet.

All joking aside – hyper-arousal is totally debilitating and so if you are currently experiencing it, be gentle with yourself. You’re allowed to drop the ball a bit in other areas of your life while you navigate this horrible, relentless sense of impending doom. If a loved one is experiencing this, let them off the hook if they flake on a few meetups or don’t reply to your messages. They will come back to you and they will be so thankful that you continued to love them and gave them time to find their footing again.

So, remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything was much better? It is – however, as with most difficult things in life, recovering from trauma is not a smooth ride. Rewind to four months ago, there I was living my life, feeling good about not having to barricade myself into rooms anymore, when the mother of all triggers decided to descend.

It had been so long that I had forgotten how it felt. And yet; the length of time I had felt better for, and the confidence I had developed, somehow made it worse: I wasn’t protected by shock like I was back then; the memories were flooding in with ease and clarity, and I was no longer dissociating with the event like I used to.

This wasn’t a scary movie anymore, it was me. It happened to me. It really happened.

I was watching the TV programme Broadchurch, which came with very clear and robust trigger warnings. Confession: I basically ignore trigger warnings. This is because between working in sexual health, studying sexual violence advocacy, and running AND, I have developed the ability to almost completely separate my personal experience and my professional experience. This ability is what has enabled me to do the job I love for the last five years.

I watch documentaries, films and TV programmes as well as read academic texts, personal accounts and fictional descriptions involving sexual violence all the time. Of course – I am human – it still affects me, but what I rarely do is relate it to my own experience.

I think one of the main reasons I have been able to do this is because what happened to me is a less common form of sexual violence – stranger rape. So, when I tuned into Broadchurch, the only thing going through my mind was that it would be interesting to see sexual violence support services depicted in a drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant. It didn’t even occur to me that it might impact me personally.

And then suddenly, a frightened, injured woman was being taken into a clinical room for examinations – and it was me.

She had bruising on her arms and neck and cuts on her legs – just like me. She even had a cut on the back of her head where it hit the ground when she lost consciousness – just like me. And as the timid remains of her voice attempted to answer the policewoman’s questions while tears involuntarily fell out of her eyes, I remembered: that’s me.

This totally blindsided me and it took some time to feel like myself again. My nearest and dearest will tell you I am pretty in touch with my emotions – I regularly cry watching DIY SOS – but before experiencing this trigger, I can count on one hand the number of times that I remember crying about what happened to me. But this trigger acted like a faucet, and the tears were unyielding for a good five days.

***

I am very lucky in that I am currently being supported by a therapist, so I was able to take this into the therapy room within a week of it happening and do some very intense, challenging, but ultimately hugely restorative work around it. My therapist also gave me a talking to around my wilful ignorance of trigger warnings, and encouraged me to take a bit of a time out from anything which could be upsetting to watch.

But the most profound realisation to come out of this trigger has been this: maybe I don’t have to carry around my experience like a heavy burden whilst simultaneously trying to conceal it. Maybe I don’t need to be so anxious that others might view it as an impediment to my work and other areas of my life.

After watching Broadchurch I got into such a state that I felt an overwhelming urge to run away, because I genuinely didn’t know how I would ever be able to act normal and carry on with the life I had created for myself.

Partially due to aforementioned hyper-arousal, and partially due to my tireless indulgence in self-serve guilt, I decided not to do a runner and instead to bite the bullet and talk to a couple of people in my life about what I was going through.

The response I got wasn’t the one I was expecting. The people I chose to share with were my brother (for the comforting honesty that a sibling will reliably deliver) and two co-workers (because I was demonstrably not coping at work).

Both of these conversations resulted in these people fundamentally (and much more sensitively than this) asking me what on earth would possess me to stifle my human feelings and reactions to something which was not my fault in the first place, when those very feelings and reactions grant me an empathic knowledge which could actually be invaluable to my work?

Oops.

I had been so utterly convinced that my experience of sexual violence and the impact it had on my mental health would be at odds with my professional practice that I had neglected it and starved it of oxygen until it eventually clambered up into my consciousness, gasping for air and begging me to accept it as a part of me.

I am coming to realise that the most important thing I can do to aid my work is to take care of myself – and that means all of myself, not just the parts that are convenient.

Sometimes, admitting that something is hard and asking for help is the hardest part.

These blogs are not easy to write; and they’re even harder to share. But I do so in the hope that – just as that article comforted me five years ago – someone might read it and feel a little bit less alone. So to anybody who can relate to some of the things I have described in this blog, consider that sometimes it takes another person to point out the truth that has been glaringly obvious to everyone else the whole time; that the darkest part of yourself that you have demonised and shamed for so long could actually be cultivated into something wonderful, if you’d only shed a little bit of light onto it.

afterlife

“Afterlife” by Chana Bloch

Are segregated carriages the answer to assault on trains?

by Laura Mundy

Image source: flickr.com

Image source: flickr.com

I was recently introduced to Slow Journalism; a concept fighting against the fast-paced, incomplete news coverage we are currently subjected to. Headline one day, viral on social media for 24 hours, and the next day? Nothing.

I wanted to reflect here on a gender-based issue that hit the headlines recently and was stereotypically brief, with little to no further comment or analysis.

Back in August, Jeremy Corbyn proposed the idea of women-only train carriages to tackle the staggering amount of gender-based violence reported on UK trains in the past year. He also suggested a 24-hour hotline where women could report incidents, an increase in cabinet members focusing on women’s safety and stricter rules for organisations reporting incidents on their premises. But it was the women-only trains that was the focus of all media coverage that day.

As I Google ‘women only train carriages UK’ I am faced with a ridiculous number of newspaper articles from the 26th August this year, all reeling off the same spiel about ‘when Jeremy Corbyn said this thing’.

News stories seemed to angle on the contraversial Labour leader Corbyn, rather than finding a viable solution to the issue at hand

News stories seemed to angle on the contraversial Labour leader Corbyn, rather than finding a viable solution to the issue at hand

So, the fact that Jeremy spoke out about the issue was well covered. But how did people react to this? Have women been consulted? What are their responses?  Were people offended or was it welcomed? Has anyone anywhere mentioned it since 26th August?

THE FACTS

Jeremy Corbyn said very clearly that the women-only train carriages idea was a proposal that required deliberation and consultation, and not a policy that had been decided upon. He made this proposal in reaction to the British Transport Police Statistical Bulletin, which reported a shocking 25% increase in sexual offences from April 2014 to March 2015.

And so I landed on the British Transport Police website in the hope of finding out more, and got this banner in my face.

British Transport Police

Aha. It’s now easy to report crimes on trains, *discreetly*. I guess discreetly is important if you’re in a confined space and are the victim of a crime. But my initial reaction to seeing the word ‘discreetly’ was a shudder. To me, you do things discreetly when you’re embarrassed, or committing a crime, not trying to report one.
They say that 5,355 incidents were attended to by BTP officers in the past 2 years since the text service was launched. And which story do they choose to highlight the ‘success’ of their service?

A gender-based violence one.

 Transport police

Man arrested. *Result*.

Too often perpetrators of this sort of crime are not caught, so I am pleased to see that this one was. But it’s the fact that they were showcasing the aftermath of a crime that irked me. Why aren’t they doing anything to stop it in the first place?

WOMEN-ONLY TRAIN CARRIAGES ACROSS THE WORLD

Wondering if the concept of women-only carriages had come up before; I turn back to Google and find a Guardian article which tells me it has, many times.

Iran, UAE and Egypt are three such cases. I find these examples difficult to use as a comparison for justifying segregated trains in the UK, as gender segregation is more commonplace in these countries; their existence cited as a by-product of cultural attitudes or religious requirements, rather than a concerns over women’s safety.

India has also introduced women-only metro carriages and whole trains in certain cities. It also has growing incidents of gender-based violence around the country. Yet the response from many women is that it’s a big step back in terms of gender equality, and does not solve anything. Gender-based violence will continue to occur elsewhere, why is there only a focus on safety on trains?

Other sources and countries report problems with enforcement, men deliberately disobeying the rules, and becoming abusive and angry when told they cannot board a train. Where whole trains are women only, male family members complain about not being able to travel on the same train as their female family members.

Certainly, I struggle to see how this segregationist attitude can be maintained and enforced.

Image source: The Telegraph

Image source: The Telegraph

GENDER SEGREGATION

I can’t help feeling that I wouldn’t want to segregate myself, as a matter of principle. To me, it feels like a form of punishment, and doesn’t address the cause of the problem. Could a better solution not arise from heightening education in equality and respect? Is it right for the onus to be on the majority (women) to change their behaviour, and not the minority (violent men)?

Where travelling segregation is already in place with the ‘first class’ system, offering those willing to pay the price – a more luxurious journey separated from ‘the rest’ of us; I myself have sneaked into first class without paying on multiple occasions. It’s easy to do and I cannot see what would stop predatory men from entering the women-only spaces.

Surely sufficient numbers of security employees on trains is the most practical, effective and fair way to prevent violence on trains, rather than an opt-in gendered seperation system.

Ultimately, I am sure a lot of women welcome the idea and would opt in for their own safety. But I can’t help wondering, if women-only carriages do come into effect, would I be blamed if anything happened to me on a train with a women-only carriage option, having chosen not to ride in it. Maybe it even looks like I’m asking for trouble.

So what would I do, if a women-only carriage arrived at my platform?

I’m actually unsure. Why should I have to make this decision at all?

The Istanbul Convention: #ICchange

By Soffi James

Image source: www.coe.int

Image source: http://www.coe.int


The Istanbul Convention could bring about a drastically positive change in the way that gender based violence cases are handled in our society, yet it has until now lacked the exposure it deserves and even failed to make it into any of the manifestos of the major political parties. Our blogger Soffi tells us more about this important legislation and the group who are campaigning to see it be adopted here in the UK.


The winds of change are blowing as the new UK government settles itself into in the Houses of Parliament. Much disappointment and unrest has seized the country in the weeks after the election, particularly with reference to the reformation of the Human Rights Act. The recent pledge by Justice Secretary Michael Gove that, if the reforms are rejected by Strasbourg, the UK will pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights, is an untimely regression for women’s rights. But, in this period of revision and transformation, these winds can be harnessed in the direction of positive change for women. A convention – the first of its kind – was made open for signatures on May 11th 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Its aim: solely to tackle sexual and gender based violence. Its name: The Istanbul Convention.

It is the first legally binding instrument in the world that creates a comprehensive legal framework to protect women against gender-based violence. If ratified by any government, the convention will prevent, protect and prosecute in the name of victims of attack. The Istanbul Convention goes into fine and necessary detail, categorizing the types of violence women can be victim to, the different preventative solutions and the numerous actions that can be taken after the fact.

Ground-breaking work could be done under this convention. It will prevent further cuts to domestic violence refugees that happened as a result of austerity measures by the previous UK government. It makes it a matter of law that the country must provide sufficient sexual violence shelters and centres for its citizens, alongside psychological and medical support, and legal aid. It outlines preventative measures, such as providing education in schools on domestic violence, healthy relationships and self respect for girls and boys. Issues such as Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriages will be criminalized. All this, in an entirely open and inclusive umbrella – this support will be available to women regardless of race, creed or colour, or any other self-identification category for that matter.

Image source: icchange.co.uk

Image source: icchange.co.uk

Victims will be safer under the protection of this convention. Cases like, Laura’s, whose name has been changed for anonymity purposes, would hopefully no longer be in our headlines. Laura was raped, and went to the police. She was then mistrusted and misrepresented by those who should have been the arms of protection, not prosecution. They failed to properly collect evidence from her T-Shirt, despite her assurance that a DNA test would incriminate her rapist. Article 50 of the Convention may have prevented Laura’s two subsequent suicide attempts:

“Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that the responsible law enforcement agencies engage promptly and appropriately in the prevention and protection against all forms of violence covered by the scope of this Convention, including the employment of preventive operational measures and the collection of evidence.”

The UN has called the Istanbul Convention the “gold standard” for reducing sexual violence cases. It all sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. The winds are changing and European countries are taking the helm. At least, some of them are. To date, 18 countries have ratified the Istanbul Convention, including Finland, Monaco, France, Denmark, Spain and most recently, Poland. Most of the nations in the Council of Europe have signed the Convention, but still refuse to embrace its laws into their own legal system.

Sadly, in the UK’s recent election, none of the parties mentioned the Istanbul Convention in their manifestos. The safety of women against sexual violence was apparently not at the top, or even on the agenda. For such an important movement to go unnoticed is worrying, but a group of campaigners have been working to change this, with the hashtag #ICchange.

This campaign urges the UK government to act on the promise it made by signing the treaty on June 8th 2012. Their reasoning is clear and concise, and the statistics shocking. They report that every week an average of 2 women are killed by a partner or ex-partner, and 233 women are raped daily. 112 refugee women and 84 children were turned away on one day this year. Support services are underfunded and overwhelmed, and #ICchange are trying to get countries to invest more resources and effort into reducing these numbers.

This international convention should be included in UK national laws, and the laws of other countries. Those countries that have signed the convention, like the UK, have only provided a handwritten agreement with its premise, not an agreement to do what it says. We need more than promises, we need commitment. Legal commitment. That would mean that each woman would not only be relying on her own government; she could call on higher international powers to ensure her own safety and the safety of other women across the world.


For further information on Istanbul Convention, click here [http://www.stopvaw.org/council_of_europe_-_istanbul_convention}

If you agree with the #ICChange movement, you can sign the petition to ratify this Convention in the UK government here.

[https://www.change.org/p/uk-government-get-serious-about-ending-violence-against-women]