by Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
- USA -
“We need the NGOs to bring firewood in lorries [trucks]. If they do not, we have to keep going. We have heard and seen rape with our eyes here outside the camp. In one day, three people were raped. On another day, two were raped...One 10-year-old girl was raped twice. There is no response from the government. We invited the governor to come and sit in a meeting with us, but [he] refused.” — a refugee in Iridimi Camp, Chad
According to a report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2003, mass rape of women and children has been documented in Bosnia, Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Somalia, and Uganda during their respective wars. The report estimates that more than 20,000 Muslim women were raped during the Bosnian war, many of whom never received the proper medical and psychological care. In Africa, where there is a large percentage of internally displaced persons and refugees, more than 90 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, various reports estimate that anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 women were victims of rape. In displaced households in Sierra Leone, 94% reported cases of sexual assault, rape, torture, and sexual slavery. Worldwide, at least one in three women has experienced physical and sexual abuse; some areas of the world have rates as high as 70%.
In the summer of 2007 as a Trinity College human rights fellow, I was involved in promoting and spreading the petition to bring the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) to the U.S. Congress. In a stand against gender violence, this bill proposes to allot $1 billion over a period of five years to support health and psychological services, as well as education and legal help for victims of violence. The goal of the act is to not only end violence against women, but also change societal attitudes towards survivors of gender violence. As a survivor of sexual assault and a Connecticut certified sexual assault crisis counselor, this bill promotion was more than just a job for me. This bill gives a voice to many of the brutalized women in the world.Gertrude Garway is an officer for a gender-based violence program supported by the International Rescue Committee in Liberia. She tells the story of a mother and her daughters who were victims of refugee rape. “One day she was with her two daughters when they were all, at the same time, raped by three of the fighters...Listening to the screams of her youngest daughter, she was powerless to do anything as slowly the voice of her 10-year-old girl became silent. The young girl died from the assault.” As Mary Diaz, former director of the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC), puts it: “Because of their powerlessness, adolescent girls in refugee situations are more vulnerable to forced marriage, sexual slavery and forms of gender-based violence, among other abuses. They are also the least likely to be offered education and reproductive health care, putting them at greater risk for HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions.”
Even gathering firewood, necessary for survival, is a dangerous task. According to a report released by the WRC, women “risk being raped, beaten, or killed when searching for firewood.” In an effort to address the epidemic, the WRC developed the Fuel and Firewood Initiative – a partnership with InterAction, the UNHCR and the World Food Program – to provide refugees with sustainable energy while reducing the risk of rape. Erin Patrick, a senior program officer for the initiative describes the pressing need for intervention: “Internally displaced women and girls in Darfur are at risk of rape, harassment and other forms of violence every time they leave the camps to collect wood,” she explains. The initiative involves policy makers, fuel and energy technologies, and humanitarian efforts to provide a better quality of life for refugees.
“The danger is the same, near or far, but there's no wood nearby. When we are there getting the wood, local people sometimes take the girls' clothes off. And do bad things. The people wear green uniforms. Some have camels. Some have horses. At the place where we get the firewood they tell us, 'Line up one by one.' They say, ‘Stand 2 by 2’ and they take us off like that and then they rape us. Sometimes this happens until evenings. We have told the police, but the police say ‘Stay in your tent and nothing will happen’.”
— a refugee in Mille Camp, Chad
These stories happen far too often, and yet few people ever hear of them. Even with programs like the Fuel and Firewood Initiative in place, international recognition and action is needed.While working on the I-VAWA campaign, I focused on contacting women's organizations that worked with victims of survivors. Most were incredibly supportive, even going so far as to ask that their organizations' names be attached to the petition we were circulating. However, the biggest opposition we faced was from groups that did not directly work on gender violence and that perceived that stopping violence against women was somehow connected to the pro-choice movement. They were supportive of the cause, but did not want to help us promote the petition. Unfortunately, I see this as one of the most critical problems hindering gender violence eradication movements today. Because of the political divide over women's reproductive rights, some people have chosen not to associate themselves with any cause that remotely resembles it. One group asserted that if they were to post the I-VAWA on their website, they would also need to post a pro-life petition as well.
The I-VAWA was introduced to the U.S. Senate by Vice President Joe Biden on October 31, 2007 and in the House of Representatives by Congressman Howard Berman on April 30, 2008. However, the bill has not passed—it is still sitting in committee. While it does have bipartisan support, I-VAWA has been pushed to the side due to other pressing matters in the U.S. However, with Biden as Vice President now, there may be a higher chance that the bill will be signed into law. You can help make that happen by contacting your Senator or Congressman.
About the Author
Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch is a recent graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, CT with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Neuroscience, where her thesis was on learning, memory and attention deficits in female college-age sexual assault survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder. For the past three years, she was the senior co-editor of the Feminist Scholarship Review and Women Unite! at the Trinity College Women and Gender Resource Action Center.
Elizabeth is an advocate for women's health, lobbying on Congress for reproductive health rights. In addition, she is a Connecticut certified sexual assault crisis counselor. Her work has appeared in Campus Progress, EmpowHer, Feminist Review, Girlistic and Della Donna, and she regularly writes for Demand Studios and is the Hartford Women's Health Examiner. She plans to get her Masters of Social Work in order to work with refugees and victims of sexual abuse.