A coordinated effort to bring an end to violence against women and girls gets underway this Saturday as campaigners across the world participate in the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based abuse.
On Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, buildings and landmarks across the world will be illuminated in orange — the color of the campaign, which this year runs under the theme “Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls.”
In the Middle East, there has been some cause to celebrate in 2017, with the long-campaigned-for repeal of rape-marriage laws in Tunisia (article 227), Jordan (article 308) and Lebanon (article 522) marking an end to penal code provisions that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
The decisions, which took place within the space of a few months, “heralded new change for the region” said Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “Now we’re seeing momentum to do away with these clauses in other Middle East countries,” she added, pointing to pressure building in both Bahrain and Palestine to stop violence against women.
Middle Eastern countries including Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Syria still have versions of the rape-marriage clause.
“The 16 Days campaign allows women’s rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and activists around the world to galvanize and really address this incredibly egregious abuse that pervades all countries around the world,” Begum added.
Zoya Rouhana, director of Lebanon-based NGO KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation, described the “huge amount to be done to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence and exploitation and achieve gender equality.”
KAFA will spotlight issues surrounding sexual violence for the 16 Days campaign to raise awareness and “counteract the culture of victim blaming and shaming,” Rouhana said.
The campaign will also highlight the “existing laws that can protect women from certain types of sexual violence and call for new laws that protect women and hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.
According to the World Bank, the MENA region has the lowest number of laws protecting women from domestic violence of any region in the world, while UN Women claims that 37 percent of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, with indicators that the real percentage might be significantly higher.
In Jordan, figures from a recent population census reveal rising rates of child marriage, particularly among Syrian refugee girls pressured into early wedlock to reduce financial pressure on struggling families.
Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) explained that the issue of child marriage does not just affect children.
Speaking at the launch event for JNCW’s 16 Days campaign “Too Young to be Married,” she said “it has a negative impact on women at all stages of their life as they cannot enjoy their youth or finish their education, and the majority of them are subject to gender-based and sexual violence.”
As part of its 16 Days campaign, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has launched a global cartoon competition calling on participants to illustrate the negative effects of child marriage and domestic violence — the two most common forms of gender-based violence (GBV), according to Fatma Khan, the GBV officer at UNFPA in Amman.
Speaking to the Jordan Times, Khan said that violence against women is highly underreported in the country, making the figures available unreliable.
It is a situation reflected across the region, where a culture of victim-blaming and normalized perceptions of GBV prevents many women and girls from speaking out about assault.
“Certain forms of violence are still (seen as) justified and women themselves believe it’s still ok for men to hit women in some situations,” said Begum, who stressed the responsibility of governments to tackle GBV at all levels, including challenging the stigma surrounding reporting gender-based violence in families and communities.
“The abolition of article 522 in Lebanon won’t be effective without tackling the existing survivor-blaming norms,” said Saja Michael from ABAAD, a gender equality NGO which spearheaded the campaign to repeal the rape-marriage law in Lebanon.
She also underlined the importance of raising awareness, citing “lack of information and knowledge about women’s rights and GBV at both the institutional and community levels.”
“Law amendment or law abolishment, does not automatically result in its effective and fair implementation. For instance, although Egypt has abolished similar legislation in 1999, the practice still takes place in marginalized areas,” she added.
Last summer, ABAAD attracted international attention after hanging ripped wedding dresses along Beirut’s corniche in an eerie public demonstration against the now-repealed rape-marriage law.
For the 16 Days campaign, it plans to highlight issues surrounding incestuous rape and sexual violence, building momentum behind a push to increase the penalty, which currently ranges from two months to two years for offenders.
Changing the laws is just part of the battle according to activists in the Middle East, who emphasized the need for coordinated efforts to implement and enforce legal changes.
“These laws are not enough — we need to keep the political momentum going to implement and then monitor these laws,” said Tunisian activist Ikram Ben Said, describing the danger of allowing women’s rights to be pushed down the political agenda.
“There are a lot of economic and security issues in the region and there is a tendency to forget about women’s issues. In Tunisia, we always hear from politicians that this is not the priority now.
“Having these laws is very important but the most vital thing is implementing them and having the tools to do so.”
This will be part of the focus at a regional conference taking place during the 16 Days campaign on Dec. 5 and 6 in Beirut, where high-profile women’s rights campaigners will discuss ways to transform new laws into enforceable and budget-backed policies to protect women and girls from violence.
“It is of utmost importance to increase coordination between women’s rights organizations and exchange best practices in terms of advocacy and policy implementations,” said Michael, “There is much more work to be done in order to attain gender equality for women, girls, men and boys.”