Why it's worse on women

Art April 10, 2012 00:00


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When men do battle, it's often the women who suffer most

Thais had a chance at the end of March to contribute ideas on protecting women’s rights in a world of conflicts that affect them more than men.

 “While men and women alike suffer, women suffer disproportionately in conflict and post-conflict situations. Armed conflicts exacerbate violence against women,” said Pramila Patter, who leads a committee assessing the global Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).

She was speaking at the Asia-Pacific Regional Consultation for the Proposed General Recommendation on Human Rights of Women in Situations of Conflict and Post-Conflict, held at the Windsor Suites Hotel.

The Cedaw committee that Patter chairs reports to state governments every four years, and yet few of the recipients see any relevancy in the fact that women suffer more in dangerous times, lamented Patter, a Mauritian.

Her panel is now consulting people in more than 15 countries around the Pacific Rim and will hold similar forums around the world later this year.

“It’s important to understand the different types of conflicts,” Patter said, noting that reports have been received of officially unacknowledged sexual violence, violation of economic rights and access to healthcare. “The pressing issue is to make state parties accountable for ensuring better protection.”

Thailand signed the convention in 1981 and an optional protocol for petitioning against violations and conducting investigations in 2000. The Cedaw committee has also commended Thailand for ratifying the 2005 Name Act, which allows married women to choose their family name, and for designating a gender-equality officer in every government ministry.

But Cedaw Thailand coordinator Supatra Putananusorn pointed out that some women are still suffering despite significant social development, helpful legislation and government programmes such as the Women’s Development Fund.

“There might be unintentional or indirect discrimination in the implementation of some government programmes,” she said.

“For example, programmes targeting women affected by the conflict in the South, such as income-generating projects, can be a burden to them. And the elderly and women with disabilities are often ignored.

“To truly offer equal rights, government projects should cater to different needs.”

Duong Savorn of the Cambodian Defenders Project reported that more evidence is emerging of widespread sexual crimes and gender-based violence including gang rape under the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79. These incidents were seldom punished and implicitly endorsed by the “enemy policy” promulgated by the leadership.

“Evidence indicates that actual or threatened sexual violence was a daily reality for Cambodian women,” said Savorn, a Khmer Rouge survivor. “The victims continue to suffer from trauma, discrimination and social stigma.”

He said the Extraordinary Chamber of the Court of Cambodia hearing the war-crimes cases against former Khmer Rouge leaders has not “afforded a systematic and comprehensive investigation” of crimes specifically against women. “The Court has determined that, due to written Khmer Rouge policy, rape did not comprise a major part of the criminal activity of the regime.”

The Cambodian Defenders Project convened its own hearing on “Sexual Violence under the Khmer Rouge” in Phnom Penh last December to “acknowledge, recognise and validate the experiences of witnesses and survivors”.

The resulting report, “True Voices of Women under the Khmer Rouge Regime”, listed testimony on systematic rape prior to execution, sexual violence and rape as instruments of torture, and exchange of sex for medicine or food.

Savorn said 132 victims submitted evidence. “One woman told us she’d witnessed 30 women being raped before she was gang-raped by three men.”

The project researchers found that survivors and witnesses of sexual violence continue to suffer psychological and physical trauma, from shame, isolation and helplessness to headaches and chest pain. They often forget to eat, have nightmares and behave aggressively.

It was found that the perpetrators enjoyed impunity, being rarely accused of, let alone punished for sexual crimes. Some are reportedly still alive and at least one holds a position of provincial authority.

There was, of course, no way for the victims to file formal complaints about sexual crimes – or any crime committed by the ruling Khmer Rouge. The Extraordinary Chamber of the Court has declined to fully investigate the extent of sexual crime during that period to determine the number of victims.

The Cambodian government has since ratified the relevant international treaties, including Cedaw, but the Court will not acknowledge the sexual crimes.

“We have asked the government to submit this report from the women’s hearing to the Cedaw committee and to set up a trust fund for reparations to the victims,” Savorn said.


- The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) is an international human-rights treaty devoted exclusively to gender equality.

- It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1979, and is often described as an international “bill of rights” for women.

- Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines discrimination against women and sets out an agenda for national action to end discrimination. It requires signatory states to take “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men”.

- To date, 186 nations and territories have ratified the convention and as such are legally bound to implement its provisions.