In Sierra Leone, rebel forces rape women and girls as spoils of war and to punish them for their perceived support of opposing forces. In Pakistan, women victims of sexual violence face serious bias if they take their cases to court: laws and those who apply them devalue women’s testimony and expose them to prosecution for illicit sex if they cannot prove rape. Not so long ago, these problems would have gone without notice. Rape in war was treated as an inevitable, if unfortunate, facet of war; women were blamed for sexual violence, and husbands were excused for beating their wives.

More than 50 years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights promised respect for human rights to all people, activists have forced governments to acknowledge the pervasiveness of violations of women’s rights and their own duty to stop them. Just in the past year we have strengthened the standards that prohibit abuses of women’s rights and seen them applied. The July 1998 statute creating an International Criminal Court, negotiated by member states of the UN, explicitly confers on the court jurisdiction over rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence. Another landmark came in September 1998 when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda punished sexual violence in a civil war and denounced rape as an act of genocide for the first time. In March 1999, governments at the UN Commission on the Status of Women created a means of enforcing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – women will finally be able to report violations of their rights and demand inquiries into abuses.

These advances are worth celebrating, but the articles in this Newsletter show how far there is to go. Governments excel at proclaiming their commitment to women’s human rights while pursuing policies that undermine women’s rights. Thus, while governments have condemned the use of rape in war they fail to investigate and prosecute rape as a war crime. States also neglect the threat of sexual violence against refugee women. The physical design of camps forces women to search far afield for firewood, thus risking attack. Moreover, policies governing rations reinforce women’s subordinate status by handing out supplies to male heads of household only. Women dependent on men for basic food and supplies may be trapped in abusive relationships or forced to exchange sex for food.

The articles that follow show why it is crucial to imagine how much better it could be. Sexual violence in war or against displaced and refugee women has serious health consequences for women injured or exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. Many women still do not enjoy reproductive and sexual autonomy; their choices are controlled through violence, coercion and discrimination. And women seeking economic opportunity find themselves working in slave-like conditions that profit only their ‘owners’ and the local police.

Change requires action on many fronts: dismantling the structures that reinforce women’s inequality, responding to the immediate concerns of women, and crafting remedies that meet women’s real needs. Almost five years after women demanded action in Beijing, it is past time to make improving women’s lives a priority.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 14

Issue 14 articles