Dear Readers,

In 2014, there were more wars than in any year since the start of the millennium. The number of political conflicts now stands at 424, of which 223 are violent conflicts, and 21 are wars (based on the conflict barometer of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research). That number is unlikely to decrease in 2015.

Conflicts have changed in the 20th and 21st centuries. They have become more confused, very often involve non-state actors and increasingly affect the civil population. Violence affects all areas of the population, but especially women and girls. However, the public rarely hears about the situation of women in armed conflicts. The abduction of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram and the resulting social media campaign under the hashtag #bringbackourgirls was one of the rare moments in recent years. The reporting on the fate of the Yazidis in Iraq, kidnapped by the socalled „Islamic State“, was another.

It is rare that women are the ones bearing arms and fueling conflicts; more often, they are the first victims in war. Sexual violence is frequently used against them by both sides in a conflict as a deliberate act of war in order to demoralise the opponent.

This fifth edition of „Gender matters!“, the gender politics newsletter from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), turns its FOCUS to some of these conflicts and illuminates the gender aspects within them – between powerlessness on the one hand, and the empowerment of women on the other. The Syrian conflict, for example, has forced millions of people to become refugees. Most of them are now living in refugee camps in the region, and thousands of them have also come to Germany as quota refugees. In her analysis, the Syrian human rights activist Laila Alodaat, who has worked with the FES on numerous occasions, shows the complex consequences this terrible conflict has for women. Samar Yazbek, one of the most well-known opponents of Syria currently in exile, makes it clear in her interview how bitter the development in her homeland is, particularly for politically active women. Besides the conflicts reported in our media, there are many we seldom hear about; and a good portion of these are in Africa. FOCUS further examines developments in a region which is suffering major unrest due to, among others, Boko Haram: first in East Congo, and second, from the perspective of the relatively peaceful country, Cameroon.

Another priority issue is the question of how female refugees fare when they make it to Germany and apply for asylum here. Without pre-empting matters too much, it is clear that our asylum system does not take into account the gender-specific experiences and challenges of female refugees.

Finally, we interview a woman who, through her commitment and varied success, has shown that women are most certainly not to be seen in the passive role of victim. Fartuun Adan is the winner of the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung 2014 and works in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human and women‘s rights. Her work also shows that to achieve peace and security, women must be included and empowered; and at the same time, men must be made awa - re of alternative perspectives that do not condone the use of violence.

In the FOCUS articles, you will find repeated references to Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council. This milestone of international women‘s rights celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2015. Central to the resolution is the protection of women‘s rights in conflict situations, and empowerment thereafter. It is often noted that this resolution has mostly been of symbolic importance, but when it comes down to it, it is overlooked in issues per - taining to management, in resolving conflicts and ultimately, during the consolidation phase after a heated conflict has died down.

And this still happens despite the fact that many studies show that demo - cratic and gender-balanced states are much less susceptible to (civil) wars, armed conflicts and breaches of human rights. The empowerment of women and the advancement of their interests during and, in particular, after a conflict, is therefore an important preventative measure in terms of avoiding future conflicts.

What is needed is a change in the mindset of those currently setting foreign policy. Germany could also play a role in ensuring that women and their interests are represented more forcefully than before in international nego- tiations. In Sweden, a commissioner for feminist foreign policy ensures that gender aspects are taken into consideration. An astonished audience discovered this in June at the FES event „Sexualised Violence Against Women And Children: What can Sweden and Germany do?“ It is a challenge in most countries to ensurteh at gender aspects are included in foreign, security and defence policies. But, politicians such as the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid in the Federal German government, Christoph Strässer – an active guest speaker at not one but two FES events on the subject of gender and conflict this year – are prepared to rise to it. Together with actors from civil society, he specifically considers how women and children may be protected and empowered. This development gives hope that Germany will act more sustainably and courageously in the future on the topic of gender in armed conflicts.

Also in FOCUS in this edition of „Gender matters!“, you‘ll find the REVIEW section which highlights the FES‘s most recent work on gender issues. Upcoming DATES and new PUBLICATIONS relating to gender are set out in the sections of the same name. As in every edition, we‘d like to show you who‘s working on gender policy issues in FES: this time under the heading WE DO GENDER, we introduce the Global Policy and Development section.


I hope you have an interesting read,
Susan Javad
Editor of „Gender matters!“



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This woman has reached Greece. Many others remain behind in Syria or in the refugee camps
of the region – Photo: Reuters

The armed conflict in Syria and its disproportionate impact on women

The Syrian revolution is in its fourth year, yet it is rarely referred to as a ‘revolution’ anymore.

The Syrian regime spared no effort to turn the peaceful uprising that called for freedom and dignity into an armed conflict: their fear is that the fulfilment of people's legitimate demands would eventually bring an end to their authoritarian rule of over 40 years.

Starting as an uprising against a brutal dictatorship, which demanded freedom and human rights, it quickly developed into a horrible armed conflict. This is in part due to the regime’s notorious suppression, along with the uncontrolled influx of arms to various parties and the lack of any concrete international reaction. There are three main armed players currently controlling the territory and the resources: the Assad regime supported by Iran and Russia, opposition armed forces with varying levels of organisation and sponsorship, and the self proclaimed “Islamic State”. Meanwhile, the players that fail to make it on the news, to the negotiation table, or be part of any form of decision-making are the millions of Syrian civilians who continue to bear the scourge of this conflict alone.

With more than 220,000 deaths and 4 million refugees, this conflict exacerbates the already fragile situation in the entire region. Women and girls are exposed to immediate, tragic, and systematic injustices, while the long-term consequences of such violence and militarisation impact them gravely and disproportionately.

As the struggle continues and extends its reach into a larger territory, we witness a society reverting back to a primitive state. We see an overwhelming culture of violence that was caused by the proliferation of arms, the collapse of the legal system and the absence of the rule of law, grow into a culture that deprives women of their legal status and diminishes their hard-earned social gains.

For decades now, the systematic discrimination against women, in law and in practice, has left Syrian women in a weak and unfavourable position. They live in a culture that tolerates their degradation through tradition and neglects their physical and psychosocial well-being.

When the uprising against the Assad regime began, women were on the forefront of the movement and continued to be throughout the turmoil. As the violence escalated, these women gradually ‘disappeared’ – either literally, via detention, death or displacement, or implicitly, via deprivation of their right to movement, education or work.

The women who have stayed behind in Syria are particularly suffering from the consequences of the bloodshed in five major areas:

The widespread use of arms

In its fight against the uprising, the Syrian regime has applied measures such as releasing extremist, convicted criminals from prisons while brutally targeting pacifist activists, lawyers and political figures who were calling for unarmed protests to demand civil and legal reform. Such actions, combined with aggressive repression, abuse, torture and the use of propaganda, resulted in a widespread distribution of weapons amongst civilians and made it, besides being a tool of aggression or self-defence, a means to employ a personal view of justice.

And while small arms have a devastating impact on women who are usually the victims (not the perpetrators) of crimes committed with such arms, the greatest threat still revolves around the extensive use of explosive weapons. Since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, 53% of civilians have died by explosive weapons, and as a result of the Assad regime doubling the use of explosive weapons in 2014, over 35% of the death toll in Syria (76,000 of an estimated 220,000 casualties) took place in that year. Further, almost half of the global casualties by explosive weapons between 2011-2013 happened in Syria. This has a devastating impact on women, where 74% of the casualties are a result of explosive weapons and 17% of small arms.

The destruction through the use of heavy arms is massive in Syria and predominately
hits civilians. – Foto: Reuters

Beyond the number of casualties, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas also has a great impact on the healthcare system. This is due to the destruction of infrastructure and hospitals, and the general fear of moving around in an armed conflict setting. This is particularly the case in Syria where attacks on health facilities and personnel by different parties involved in the conflict have become commonplace. A recent publication showed that between February 2014 and February 2015, there were at least 83 separate reported attacks on health facilities.

As for women, the lack of access to reproductive healthcare can be a death sentence, especially in places where maternal mortality is already high. No recent information on maternal mortality in Syria was available, but the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) stated that 80% of maternal mortality could be prevented by better access to healthcare during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. We believe similar, if not worse, statistics to be applicable to Syria.

It is also crucial to mention that the survivors of explosive weapon attacks suffer from long-term challenges such as physical disabilities, psychological harm, and thus, social and economic exclusion. These challenges have a greater impact on women who live in a society where, compared to the men, they already have less access, more social restrictions and limited freedom of movement.

The failure of the rule of law

During the armed conflict, the already shaky rule of law completely failed: first, when the Syrian regime transformed the judiciary into a tool of repression through a combination of unconstitutional laws and emergency military courts; and second, when it gave unlimited power to the notorious security branches who took pride in their horrifying reputation for torture, abuse, and being the place where the best and brightest disappear.

This failure resulted in more power being given to arms and more force bearing down on those who do not have access to weapons (women, children, elderly civilians, disabled people) or do not wish to use them (again women, ideological pacifists, etc.) leaving them marginalised, disempowered and with no access to justice.

As the state completely abandoned its role in protecting its citizens, constructing a fair society and ensuring safety and security, arms have become the sole source of power and justice. And since weapons are only available to men, Syrian women have been left with no power or selfprotection and have had to quickly retreat from being active right-bearers to being subjects in need of male protection; thus, reaffirming masculine stereotypes that harm men and women alike.

Moreover, the fact that Syrian women do not have the right to pass their nationality onto their children has resulted in thousands of cases in which women can’t simply flee the violence because their non-Syrian children have different visas and entry requirements to get into neighbouring countries. This threat is further amplified as the discriminating Personal Status laws do not grant women custody of their children or the right to make decisions related to their livelihood without the approval of the child’s father, and in his absence, the father’s male relatives or a judge. Finally, traditions put many constraints on women when it comes to working outside of the house, and the spread of arms and use of explosive weapons in populated areas have added a massive burden to their freedom of movement. These restrictions turn into an absolute ban when sexual violence becomes a weapon of war – turning women’s refuge into a de-facto detention facility.

The empowerment of women requires recognition and criminalisation of the gender-based crimes committed against women and a comprehensive approach to combat impunity for crimes perpetrated by all groups in control. Dealing with these crimes requires adapting a culture of reform, restitution and rehabilitation, rather than mere punitive justice. Only a victim-centred approach to justice will allow space for rehabilitation, social and psychosocial support, empowerment, and growth for both women and men.

The economy of war and new financial burdens on women

It is crucial to adapt a viable political economy approach to understand the depth of women’s suffering in the on-going conflict. The Syrian conflict is yet another example of how women’s experiences of violence cannot be separated from the new roles dictated upon them by the emerging war economy.

Despite great bias in laws and traditions, Syrian women surpassed men in educational attainment at the secondary and tertiary levels before the uprising. This, however, never translated into higher participation on a decision-making level, although women did much of the paid and almost all of the unpaid labour. According to the Syrian Bureau for Statistics, women formed no more than 16% of the overall workforce in 2011, of which they made up over 50% of the agricultural workforce (usually unpaid and run by male family members who own the land and the income), 68% of the services sector (the country’s lowest paid industry), while very few were represented in Parliament (14.2%), the judiciary (13.38%) and in academia (20%).

The Syrian regime’s targeting of civilians and civilian-populated territory with explosive weapons, among other devastating means, resulted in a widespread destruction of infrastructure. The enormous increase in military spending and the subsequent collapse of traditional income sources and local currency gave way to emerging war trades that reinforced masculine constructions and led to a war economy that has brought additional burdens on women. Women now bear new responsibilities as heads of household and primary carers for a large number of children, elderly and orphans, while their right to work, education and movement has been almost entirely compromised.

Today, with 12.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 7.6 million people internally displaced by violence, and 4 million registered refugees (statistics of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as of March 2015), only 15% of the required funds have been met (US $1,135,217,169 received of the US $7,426,692,851 required). Syria has become a case study of the feminisation of poverty where women form the majority of poor people, not solely due to the lack of income or inability to work, but also due to the lack of access to productive resources and the gender biases in law and practice.

These inhabitants of Idlib were lucky. They receive food distributed by a humanitarian
aid program. Many other Syrians in need get nothing – Photo: Reuters


The presence of women in politics and decision-making positions in government and legislative bodies contributes to redefining political priorities, placing new items on the political agenda that reflect and address women‘s gender-specific concerns, values and experiences, and provides new perspectives on mainstream political issues.

Syrian women have already proved their great capabilities when they were equipped with the space and the choice. In January 2014, 47 Syrian women of diverse backgrounds and positions came together to set up the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy. Their aim is to contribute to a peace process that ensures an immediate ceasefire, a lift of the siege in civilian areas, release of political detainees, and which ensures effective participation of women on all levels of decision-making as well as the negotiation process in the transitional period. They have also offered to send a delegation to observe the Geneva II negotiation process and ensure that the demands and experiences of the Syrian women will be respected.

The document issued by the Initiative proved to be the most inclusive, balanced and civilian-centred document since the Syrian uprising began. However, despite the tireless efforts of the Initiative members, the UN envoys to Syria have failed to translate their promised support into action and Syrian women continue to be absent from formal negotiations.

The participation of women in opposition fronts also continues to be at a minimum and the concerns of women remain sidelined. This marginalisation has devastating consequences, including the lack of gendered aspects in the emerging policy, the absence of the female-experience and an emphasis on arming and militarisation as opposed to development, conflict resolution, and peace making.


In Syria, peace cannot be achieved or sustained without the active participation of women and the incorporation of their perspective at all levels of decision-making.

We cannot afford to wait for a resolution to the conflict in order to start containing its devastating impact on women. It is imperative that all stakeholders stop compromising the effective participation of women at all levels, whether in constitutional and legislative councils, temporary or permanent local councils, judiciary, local courts, law enforcement and police authorities. National and international organizations must take women’s issues and experiences into account and act immediately to support and rehabilitate them, to allow for full and substantial participation, whether individually or through groups and initiatives. All of this falls in line with UN resolution 1325 which calls upon all conflict parties to include women in the management and resolution of armed conflicts.

On a positive note, the past century has proven that, unlike nations, women rise steadily and quickly if they are no longer limited by violence or deprived of choice. Syrian women will follow the lead of those great examples from Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Palestine, Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan and South Sudan – those women who took their countries beyond violence and came together despite race, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation to combat militarism, extremism and injustice.

Laila Alodaat is a Syrian national, lawyer for human rights and author of this analysis –
Photo: private

About the author:

Laila Alodaat is a Syrian human rights lawyer specialised in international law of armed conflicts. During her practice, she focused on international accountability and the responsibility to protect civilians and marginalised groups. She is also a trainer of international humanitarian law and has worked on several conflict situations including Syria, Libya, Iraq and Pakistan. She currently works on the Crisis Response programme at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and is also the Chair person of Syria Justice and Accountability Centre.


Copy-editing: JAMIE HYATT.


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Journalist and author Samar Yazbek comes from an Alawite family herself. But that was no reason in
her mind to support the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad in her home country of Syria. The price for her
political involvement has been exile – Photo: Muhsin Akgün

„Every side in the war has its own way of torturing women“

Interview with Samar Yazbek

Since 2011, Samar Yazbek has been living in exile with her daughter. Before fleeing, the journalist and author was politically active in her homeland of Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At the end of August, her new book „The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria“ will be published in Germany (Nagel & Kimche). In her interview, she outlines just how broken and shattered her homeland actually is and how this situation is affecting Syrians.

FES: After massive intimidation you were forced to leave your native country in 2011 and now live in exile in France. To which Syria do you wish to return, and how do you view the prospects that a return will be possible for you in the near future?

Samar Yazbek: If I had the choice, I would return to Syria immediately. To the Syria of which I have dreamed, and for which we peacefully took to the streets four years ago in March 2011: to a democratic, united and civil Syria.

But after the revolution became a murderous international and national war, radical jihadi battalions swarmed the country and the Islamic State (IS) came to the fore, it seems to be impossible. Today, making this dream a reality is a distant prospect.

As for the chances of a return, that surely depends on whether the world seriously tackles the Syrian tragedy. Until now it was blind to the crimes of the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people, and now it is blind to the clear division and splintering of society.

Syria now consists of different factions, fighting and tearing each other to pieces, with radicals holding sway on the one hand, and the Assad regime on the other. Even if it seems to the world from the outside that the greatest threat is posed by IS, I believe that the only possibility of a return for me and the millions of Syrian refugees depends on the fall of the Assad regime and in fighting the jihadis and driving them from Syrian territory. When I see how my country has become a place of continual massacres, and where the poor are paying the price because they are dying for nothing, I am filled with rage and grief.

FES: You have travelled back to Syria in secret numerous times in recent years. What is the situation for the Syrian women who have remained in the country? Is there still a possibility of political engagement?

Samar Yazbek: The situation is appalling, for men, women and children. But for women it is even more difficult, because the most important task of all falls to them, that of making a living. The men are pulled into the war, and the children and old people must be looked after by the women.

But not only that: from the sky, planes flown by the Assad regime drop barrel bombs incessantly, leading to horrific massacres. On the other side, the radical jihadis make life difficult for women, as they are not allowed to show themselves in public. Their freedom of movement is restricted, meaning they can only work at home. Or they are even killed, like a woman in the Idlib province, who was murdered by the Nusra Front (a jihadi grouping associated with al-Qaeda), because she supposedly committed adultery.

In addition, they live without electricity and water, don‘t have enough food, and after the houses were destroyed, most people in the region surrounding Idlib have become refugees ... in short, it‘s hell! All it‘s possible to think is: how will life go on and how does one stay alive?

During my stay there I witnessed, despite everything, how the women started regional initiatives to continue living and looking after their children, initiatives to play a role in society and to participate in public life. They teach the children, show them how to oppose violence, and support them spiritually. Despite the war, the women learn how to read and write, they learn languages, how to use computers and how to treat the injured. They have also brought small economic projects to life, which guarantee them a basic income, and this in spite of the obstacles they face in their surroundings.

Recently, there has been a problem of early marriage. It existed before, but has peaked now to the extent that marriage between children is common. The same has happened with marriage to foreign radical fighters. All I can really say about the women in Syria is that they are extraordinary heroines. They defy death by rockets and barrel bombs just as they defy death by the jihadis as well as their difficult living conditions.

With respect to the question of political engagement, it must be said that in a society which has endured such a long war, politics virtually ceases to exist. But the initiatives are constantly thinking about what can be done to continue developing under such difficult conditions.

FES: There have been many reports in the Western media about the atrocities of the so-called „Islamic State“ (IS). Do women rightly fear the IS in particular, or are other warring parties to be viewed as just as abhorrent in this regard?

Samar Yazbek: What IS is doing to Syrians and to women in particular, is almost impossible to describe. But that goes not just for the IS, but also to the other jihadi groups. For them, women are the ‚spawn of Satan and of sin‘. Their relationship with women is based on the barbaric assumption that they must be hidden in society. They are treated exclusively as sexual beings, beings without minds and feelings.

And if it appears to the outside world that IS is forcing public life in Syria towards concealing the body and mind, there is a veil of another kind: that of the Assad regime, which abused women as a means of violence against demonstrators. The Syrian regime doesn‘t force women to wear a headscarf, that much is true, but it has tortured the women held in its prisons and used rape as a form of leverage against them.

Every side in the war has its own gruesome way of torturing women. But they do differ according to the situation of women in their social, economic and religious class.

FES: By now, many female Syrian activists have been forced to live abroad. What connections extend across country borders and how do these politically active women seek to influence the developments in their homeland?

Samar Yazbek: The female activists have fled from persecution by the security forces, from areas where the Assad army and its secret service hold sway. They have experienced horrific things in Syrian jails. Some of the female activists attempted to return to the North back then, when the Free Syria Army (an alliance of moderate anti-Assad militants, official arm of the Syrian government in exile) began to free areas from the Assad regime.

But once the jihadi groupings came into the country and began to imprison and kill civil activists of both sexes and used armed force to make women wear the veil, they fled again. Many of them have found a way to escape abroad. From there they document war crimes committed by the Assad regime and by IS and other jihadi groups.

They have also attempted to tell the world what is happening in their country: they wrote articles in which they attempted to explain the complex situation in Syria; they met with representatives of states and of sub-organisations of the United Nations; they participated in the establishment of civil organisations to rebuild a bridge between home and abroad.

But it must be admitted that both their influence and the civil and political movements are weak and will lead to nothing as long as the war persists. Especially because the media in the West takes a superficial approach and concentrates on terrorism instead of solutions to the real problems. These problems are the triggers for religious radicalism, which by now are affecting numerous states adjacent to Syria as well as Europe and America.

FES: In your opinion, what can European countries, particularly Germany, do to curb the violence in Syria and help reinforce the rights of Syrian women?

Samar Yazbek: I‘m not pinning my hopes on the Germans – and by that I mean the German government – helping the Syrian people. And I‘m speaking at a political level here, because the international community, especially America, Germany and the UK, have played a very poor role to date.

They turned a blind eye to the crimes of Bashar al-Assad, even before the most recent developments, before the situation came to a head and it was no longer just about the problem of the Syrian people with the dictator Assad. Now there‘s the IS – the situation is highly complicated, and women and children are paying the price.

All of Syria is destroyed and has become a magnet for jihadis, murderers, soldiers and fighting militias. It is no longer the case that women in the various regions of Syria are living on the same level. Sy riisa divided up into zones controlled by the Kurds, the regime, the IS and other jihadi groups.

It is absolutely impossible to generalise about the situation in Syria. This is because women in the regions controlled by the regime suffer under different conditions than those living under IS rule, or those living under jihadis or other armed groups. You have to differentiate between them all.

But the situation of women will only improve first if the Assad regime is toppled by means of a political solution, and secondly, when the IS and the other jihadis are defeated. To do this, those responsible must work out a specific plan.

On the other hand, organisations of civil society and some regional initiatives of the people in the West, including Germany, provide support for the Syrian people. It is therefore necessary to mention the importance of the support of civil society and of those institutions which arose during the revolution and which are active in the area of education.

In my work with female refugees and with women who have remained in Syria, I have had good experiences with the organisation called „Women Now“. We want to support women and children in the areas of education, culture, economics and politics. And with my support, some subgroups of the organisation will be set up in Europe. All I can hope is that groups like „Women Now“ have an influence and that they are supported, because action in civil society and the empowerment of women and children is a very important step on the path to reconstructing society in the post-war period.


Questions asked by SUSAN JAVAD, FES Berlin
Translated from the Arabic by LARISSA BENDER


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Rape victimes in Walikale demand the prosecution of their rapists – Photo: Simone Schlindwein

Democratic Republic of Congo: A society out of control

More women are raped in Congo than in any other country in the world. But why? After more than 20 years of war, the men experience a proper bloodlust, the women become the victimes of this boundless violence, say psychologists.

Like a fortress, a building towers above the roofs in the heart of the East Congolese province of Goma. „Heal Africa“ is written on the outside in red letters. At the entrance, armed police officers search every visitor for weapons. Women have been treated for decades in the „Heal Africa“ hospital, mostly after rapes. But the hospital, operated by a Christian organisation and financed by donations, is more than a port of call for medical emergencies. Instead, it follows a holistic approach: from psychological care to jump-start programmes for women who need to start a new life, for themselves and their families, after fleeing or being displaced. „Heal Africa“ is a shield against the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sexual violence is directed at women in particular.

„World capital of rape“

Nowhere in the world is rape so systemic as in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country where civil war has raged for 20 years. More than 50 militia groups create chaos and anarchy in the thick jungle and involve neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda. The eastern part of the country, in particular, has been described by the UN as the „world capital of rape“, or „the most dangerous country in which to be a woman“. The statistics gathered by human rights organisations and the UN show that sexual violence is increasing annually. More than half a million women have been raped since the start of the war in 1998. Just under 40 percent of women in eastern DR Congo have been the victims of sexual violence. Of these, 60 percent were abused by armed men. For this reason, there is a prevalent theory that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war. But what does that mean specifically, and why is this happening so systematically and so brutally in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Mpofi, Bunyampuli, Luvungi, Kembe, Lubonga, Bitumi, Kasuka, Ndoruru, Brazza, Nsindo, Mera, Kibua: these are simple lonely villages in an endless sea of shades of green around 100 kilometres away from Gom. There is jungle as far as the eye can see. In July 2010, over a four-day period, a total of 387 people were raped in these villages. Among them were 300 women, 23 men, 55 girls and 9 boys. The youngest victim was 2 years old. The oldest victim was 79. Most of the women, whether young or old, were raped by multiple men, often even with „tools“: a stick, the barrel of a gun, the blades of machetes. The fact that one of the women wants to speak about it at all, is very brave and courageous. She doesn‘t want to give her name because the fear is too great. We‘ll call her Marie.

She had received threats before, she explains. Weeks before the attacks, the rebels of the Rwandan Hutu militia, the FDLR (Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Rwanda) sent their own women to Luvungi, Marie‘s home town. It was market day. The women were buying soap and matches, paying for them with gold. „When they were gone, we found a letter,“ recalls Marie. It read: „If you don‘t leave Luvungi, we‘ll kill you!“ „The letter wasn‘t signed, but we knew where it came from“, said Marie.

Everywhere there are militiamen, state authority is distant and weak: An FDLR fighter patrols in Kalembe – Photo: Simone Schlindwein

Marie, a mother of five, sits on a wooden chair in her mud hut without windows in the small town of Luvungi. It is dark in the room. Raindrops pelt the straw roof. She has a crying baby on her lap. That fact that the embryo in her womb survived the multiple rapes is a miracle.

„It was late in the evening“, she recalls. An evening in which her whole life changed abruptly. She was lying in bed beside her husband – her husband who left her the day after and never returned. Suddenly, men kicked the door in. They were wearing uniforms and were armed. „We‘ve come to take care of you,“ they shouted. They tore Marie from her bed by the hair and threw her on the ground. Every one of the men raped her. Her husband was forced to watch. They even raped her two-year old daughter, who screamed and screamed, and has never spoken again since. Then the rebels dragged Marie into the bushes and raped her again. More than 300 women experienced the same thing as Marie in Luvungi and the neighbouring villages in 2010.

„After battle, men just want sex“

For the first time, academics on the ground in DR Congo examining the question of motive. For almost two years, German psychologists from the University of Konstanz have been holding discussions in eastern DR Congo with demobilised fighters from the various rebel groups as well as the army, to find out why these men rape. More than 200 retired fighters were surveyed, many of them for months as part of talk therapy. „It surprised me, how possible it is to speak with these men about their actions,“ says Tobias Hecker, who interviewed more than 100 perpetrators himself.

Numerous interviews with psychologists were held in a training school in Goma, which provides education to traumatised young men and women. According to Pascal Zagabe, the centre was established after the volcanic eruption in 2002. Since then, it has mostly been those individuals damaged in the war that have been treated here: generally young people, abused girls and sometimes perpetrators too. It‘s not an easy approach, but it is an attempt to bring girls and boys, men and women back together again. Because of the war, the sexes have become increasingly distanced from one another.

In the inner courtyard, about a hundred young women and men are squatting together for an introductory lesson. The school year has just begun. Dr Zagabe beckons a young boy. The 19-year old Bonerge Kiunga looks younger than he is, but there‘s a look in his eyes that reveals that he has gone through a lot. „I have bathed in blood, slept and eaten beside corpses,“ Kiunga recounts. The story of his life is typical for that of a rapist apparently, and Dr Zagabe nods and encourages the boy to continue.

The training school in Goma for women who have been raped. Not far away, career perspectives are also being opened up to perpetrators. – Photo: Simone Schlindwein

Kiunga was born in an isolated settlement deep in the jungle of the Walikale Territory. When he was a child, his village was attacked on numerous occasions by rebels from the Rwandan Hutu militia, the FDLR. His family was forced to flee many times. Eventually, his father was killed and he lost his mother on the run.

He never attended school, but instead was recruited by the commander of his clan into its militia. He committed rape for the first time as a 17-year old, Kiunga explained. „After the fighting, you just need sex,“ he explained. He described the natural drugs given to him by his commander that also function as a sexual stimulant .“They make you feel like you own the world,“ he says, „but it was drummed into us that you were only invincible if you didn‘t touch a woman, otherwise the effect would be lost.“ According to Kiunga, as soon as the enemy was defeated however, „you went out of control.“

Bloodlust and a loss of control

German psychologists working in these areas often hear these kinds of statements during interviews. A study at the University of Konstanz came up with three explanatory models for the mass rapes.

An important factor is their own prior experience. Generally, for a child soldier like Kiunga, 85 percent of perpetrators have also been the victims of crime. 12 percent were sexually abused, generally by their commanders. 73 percent were forced to use violence on others. „All of the perpetrators are simultaneously victims,“ explains Hecker. In addition, the young recruits are forced by their superiors to commit horrific acts: 8 percent report that they have eaten human flesh, 26 percent were witnesses to cannibalism – but these are only extreme examples. Ultimately, one thing is clear: „Training in an armed group leads the fighters to cross a threshold, on the other side of which, violence is not only a duty, but is fun and a means of exerting dominance,“ says Hecker. This leads ultimately to a type of bloodlust, „a kick that becomes addictive,“ explains the academic.

„Sexual sensation is precisely zero“

Psychologists discovered another phenomenon in the interviews: gang rape. „This has nothing to do with desire, but with group pressure,“ explains Hecker. This act, in particular, leads to brutal violence because anyone unable to get an erection in front of the others will use another tool. Women in the DR Congo are often raped with sticks, the barrel of a gun or even machetes. „The motivation is the fear of losing face – the sexual sensation is precisely zero.“

The University of Konstanz study demonstrates the use of systematic rape as a weapon of war: 27 percent of perpetrators have reported that rapes occur for precisely this reason. The fact that 387 sexual crimes were committed within four days can be attributed to revenge – the FDLR rebels targeted their enemies by attacking their women. „These reciprocal acts of revenge escalate quickly,“ says Hecker.

„Society out of control“

According to the findings of Professor Thomas Elbert from the University of Konstanz, it is important to understand that mass rapes are not culturally conditioned. A survey carried out in October 2012 by the South African network, Sonke Gender Justice, confirmed that one in three men in the DR Congo have committed sexual abuse on at least one occasion. Rapes are therefore not only carried out by armed men, but are also frequent in civil life. This finding leads to the conclusion that sexual violence is not just a weapon of war, but is culturally ingrained. But Elbert disagrees: there is no „rape gene“ among the Congolese, instead, extreme sexual violence is the result of the collapse of state authority, coupled with impunity. „Society has simply gone out of control,“ says Elbert.

The extreme form of this phenomenon was demonstrated in November 2012 in Minova, when Congolese soldiers – who are actually the guarantors of state authority – lost control themselves. In a small town on Lake Kivu, 40 kilometres south of Goma, soldiers from the army raped more than 100 women in a single night. This happened after a battle was lost against the well-trained Rwandan Tutsi M23 rebels (March 23 Movement) around the city of Goma. It was an unparalleled defeat. Totally demoralised, thousands of soldiers retreated in a disorderly fashion to Minova. The officers lost control of their troops. The soldiers plundered bars and shops, got completely drunk, and fired shots into the air. Then the attacks started.

Three months later, just two soldiers had been arrested and charged with the crimes. Only after pressure from the UN mission, did the military prosecutor institute legal proceedings. In May 2014, the judgment came: 2 soldiers and 13 officers were pronounced guilty; a dispiriting number, considering there were more than 100 victims. Most women were abused by several soldiers in succession. This was also reported by 22-year old Kaindo Bwira, who was raped by five men that night. She went to the police to make a report. But she couldn‘t describe the attackers. „It was dark, they were wearing uniforms, I couldn‘t see anything else,“ she said. Due to the lack of identification, most rapists ultimately escaped without punishment.

The basic problem: impunity

The legal procedure for prosecuting rape in DR Congo is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, after the events in Minova, the international community applied pressure and there was movement in the crumbling judicial apparatus. For the first time in the history of the country, in November 2014, a commander and former militia chief, General Jerome Kakwavu, was sentenced for rape by a DR Congo military court. Between 2002 and 2004, Kakwavu headed up the FAPC (People‘s Armed Forces of Congo) militia. „Kakwavu regularly sent his fighters to schools to get beautiful young women for him, whom he could keep as sex slaves,“ wrote Human Rights Watch in a report. Two of these women later spoke out against the General in court and secured his conviction with their testimony. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. This was a small but significant milestone in the fight against the impunity of sexual violence in the DR Congo.

A military judge reads the judgment in 2014 against 39 soldiers for mass rape and murder. Not all received prison sentences, but it‘s a start: impunity may finally come to an end – Photo: Reuters

In September 2014, the army leadership in the DR Congo drafted a nationwide action plan against sexual violence under the auspices of an armed forces special commissioner for gender issues. A commission was appointed under the defence minister to evaluate the implementation of the plan. In November, the army leadership signed a declaration in the presence of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict from the UN security council, Zainab Hawa Bangura from Sierra Leone. The declaration provided guidelines of a sort for all army commanders, to report any sexual attacks by their soldiers and bring them before the court. Never again should a tragedy, like that of Minova, be allowed to occur – this was the clear message to the officers.

However, a few weeks ago, the Congolese army captured the FDLR rebel lieutenant commander, Seraphin Lionceau, against whom there is an international arrest warrant. Investigations by the UN revealed that he was probably responsible for the mass rapes in the Walikale region, the home of Marie and the child soldier Kiunga. He was the to give the order on the ground. This was finally an opportunity to bring one of the perpetrators before the court.

In the inner courtyard of the military court in Goma, there is a stench of urine and marijuana. Almost 100 soldiers sit around between broken vehicles. It is finally payday after three months without wages. Men, women and the soldiers‘ children queue to collect a few dirty banknotes. The discussions are heated. Captain Sumaili Makelele doesn‘t let it bother him. He sits relaxed in his office before a stack of coloured folders full of handwritten documents: eyewitness statements, judgements and applications. Makelele was only sent to the East six weeks ago. He‘s not quite familiar with his new role yet. FDLR? Colonel Lionceau? Luvungi? Mass rapes? – none of this sounds familiar to him. An arrest warrant issued in 2011? Makelele is getting a little nervous. He pushes the folder on his desk back and forth, as if he‘s looking for something. At last he finds a bunch of keys. He opens an old cabinet in which folders are piled high. Many of the papers have become yellowed with age and disintegrated in the tropical heat. „What was the name of the village with the rapes?“ he asks again. No, he can‘t find a file now on Luvungi and the mass rapes. He sighs and says he‘ll have to ask his superiors.

Hesitantly, Makelele calls the office of the military secret service. „Do you have a colonel from the FDLR by the name of Lionceau sitting around there?“ Someone on the telephone confirms that they do. „Great, then send him over to us, apparently there‘s an arrest warrant – I just have to find it,“ explains Makelele, and then shrugs his shoulders. He seems to be visibly lost. What a pity. Court proceedings on Luvungi after all these years – that really would be a sensation.

Author: Simone Schlindwein


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„Stop Boko Haram” reads this sign that a man in Chad holds in his hands. As Cameroon, Chad also suffers from Boko Haram’s raids and attacks. Thousands of refugees from Nigeria live in these two neighbouring countries – Photo: Reuters

In the shadow of the storm: Cameroon‘s women step-up against violence

There are many conflicts to choose from in Central Africa. Just to name a few: the Central African Republic (CAR) which is still trying to reconcile its different ethnic groups after terrible bloodshed; the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where brutal rebel groups spread violence in large parts of the country; and most recently, Burundi, where, after many years of civil war, peace seemed to settle, until the sensitive balance of forces was shaken by the attempt of army factions to overthrow the president in May 2015. In the midst of this region, Cameroon is one of the more stable countries.

However, this country of 20 million inhabitants, which is endowed with favourable agricultural conditions but few natural resources, has been impacted by the conflicts of its neighbours in both central Africa and western Africa. Nigeria, the most populous nation of the African continent and Cameroon’s direct neighbour, has become the stronghold of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Cameroonians in the extreme northern part are particularly suffering since Boko Haram regularly raids villages beyond the Nigerian border.

Especially women and children suffer, as children are the preferred targets of these raids. Boko Haram kidnaps them, forces them into sexual slavery, or forces them to take up arms in their name. Many families have been separated by these attacks and have fled their home region. The majority of those internally displaced are women. Many of them have become the head of the household de facto: their husbands dead or missing, and hardly any of them can arrange assets like land or cattle, which they could earn money with.

New approaches to conflict resolution

This is where associations like ‘Violence against Women’ come in. The group is based in the far northern tip of Cameroon that borders Nigeria and Chad. Aissa Doumara, project coordinator, explains: ‘our group is imploring mass meetings, door to door sensitisation campaigns on nonviolent religion and youth resistance to Boko Haram recruitment. It is empowering widows, displaced persons and refugees to embrace their new roles as heads of households following the involuntary separation of families’. Some of the women that the association works with have received financial and material support to start-up small businesses. Others have undergone, and are still undergoing, informal training on income generating activities so as to sustain their households. In addition, the group is encouraging young girls to go to school so that they can make careers for themselves and shake-off the shackles of early and forced marriages.

Like this girl in Abuja, many school children express their solidarity with the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram by wearing a red ribbon attached to their school uniform – Photo: Reuters

The security challenges that Cameroon faces have provided windows of opportunity for innovative approaches in solving crisis; more and more women are departing from traditional women issues, like health and education, and are now involved in issues of protection and defence. Recent measures by security stakeholders (governments, civil society organisations, and even the women themselves) are empowering women and making them active in defence matters, engaging them in decision-making, and enabling them to pick up skills through training and education in peace and security initiatives.

Face to face with violence and conflict, Cameroonian women have started to invest themselves more into ‘hard politics’ like defence and security as compared to the role that has traditionally been assigned to them. The Cameroonian army has been recruiting women since the 1980s and in the meantime, some of them have made it into the higher ranks. In February 2015, for the first time ever, several women were appointed to colonel as army inspectors and heads of the gendarmerie legion. While the Cameroonian Parliament falls short of its 30 per cent quota of female representatives, 25 per cent of the defence committee’s members are women. They actively participate in security debates and in the formulation of policies as well as in the passing of security laws.

This development falls in line with the demands of the United Nations resolution 1325, which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Resolution 1325, among other related points, urges UN ‘member states to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’. It is one of the landmark resolutions concerning women’s rights, but so far, has only had limited impact on the reality of conflict throughout the world.

Catherine Samba Panza, interim president of the Central African Republic, speaks to the armed forces in the capital Bangui – Photo: Reuters

In neighbouring CAR, all hopes are currently set on the new female president, Catherine Samba Panza. She is the first female president in sub- Saharan Africa and the first ever of a francophone African country. After violent conflict erupted in Spring 2013, she has had to manage CAR under very difficult circumstances. Her success – or failure – is also crucial for Cameroon where over 100,000 refugees, mostly women and children, have fled from the bloodshed.

Include women into peace processes!

According to Grace Manga, PhD student of political and security strategic studies, University of Yaounde II, very few women in the region are the perpetrators of crimes involving armed gangs or traders in arms, nor are they the facilitators and inciters of war. Instead, as a result of education and training ‘many more women are now active players in security processes beside the post-conflict humanitarian and care giving roles they play’.

The willingness of women to be part of political, social and economic development is increasing and these women need to be empowered for full participation and partnership in decision-making at all levels. Women are the hardest hit in times of crisis as they are left as sole managers of their homes or are victims of rape and other kinds of violence. Special political consideration should be given to them before, during and after such crises.

African governments have to live-up to their international commitments vis-à-vis gender equality and the empowerment of women and thus, must reform their judiciary to ensure that civil laws take precedence over discriminatory, traditional laws – laws that work against women and young girls. These governments must enhance democratic governance and practices to ensure an equal distribution of national wealth for the development of multiculturalism, tolerance and the accommodation of diverse socio-cultural, ideological and religious beliefs and instil peace and security in their communities and societies as a whole. Such efforts would be supported if women themselves could work to find synergy, to identify and analyse their common security problems, and to develop feasible recommendations and strategies for reform.

Contribution: SUSANNE STOLLREITER, FES Kamerun
Copy-editing: JAMIE HYATT.


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Female refugees demonstrate in 2014 in Munich against the compulsory internment of women and children – Photo: picturealliance

„Then just lock yourself in“ – female refugees in Germany

„Refugee ship“ is written on the tarpaulin that covers a massive raft made of tree trunks and oil barrels. A few metres away is a second tarpaulin that reads „Refugee women are getting loud“.

While thousands of refugees try to reach Europe on unsuitable boats, these women are already here: in Germany. And their campaign shows us that everything is far from good once the promised land has been reached. Women from various refugee centres travelled from Nuremberg to Berlin in the autumn of 2014. On board with them: Women in Exile – an initiative of refugee women, who came together in 2002 in Brandenburg to fight for their rights.

The group contends that female refugees are doubly discriminated against, by racism and also as women, explains Elisabeth Ngari, the cofounder of Women in Exile. She spoke at the end of January event entitled „Powerlessness and Empowerment: Sexualised Violence Against Women and Children – Fifteen Years After UN Resolution 1325“. The event was organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).

Why do women flee to Germany? They flee, just like men, from war and chaos and from political persecution. But there are some special features, the roots of which lie in patriarchy: they flee from genital mutilation, from forced marriage, from persecution by their family if they fail to meet moral expectations, or from their violent spouses. The women‘s rights organisation Medica Mondiale was represented at the event by its founder, Dr Monika Hauser. She drew attention to the fact that many years ago rapes were being used systematically as a weapon of war. It‘s partly thanks to Medica Mondiale that these rapes are now deemed crimes against humanity and prosecuted before the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Not all of these types of violence necessarily require state prosecution, but have more to do with society, the traditional family and the prevailing image of women. The refugees home countries do nothing to protect women. That too can be grounds for asylum. „Non-state and genderrelated persecution“ is how politicians refer to it.

In practice, gender-related persecution (or, fleeing from female genital mutilation, from forced marriage or the threat of murder on the grounds of supposed family honour) is not generally recognised as grounds for asylum, but solely as an obstacle to deportation. The women are then „tolerated“. As a consequence, they have no rights to an integration course. If there are free places, however, they can take them, but the accompanying childcare option has has just been abolished. Recently, well-integrated refugees have received the right to residence after a number of years here. But the less educated someone is, the more difficult it is to integrate them into, for example, the German job market. And there are many countries in which women can barely receive an education. They are, therefore, clearly at a disadvantage with this rule.

Toleration provides a breathing space, but it is hardly possible to build an independent life with this status – Photo: picturealliance

In summary, it may be said that the asylum system in Germany is often not sufficiently attuned to the special circumstances and threats that women face. This becomes clear in many „small matters“, which for women can become an existential threat: as rape is very much associated with shame, women do not usually tell officials from the German Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees about their experience. As the officials are often male, the women are simply too ashamed – even their families do not know about it. This is, therefore, a completely different scenario to when someone reports having suffered torture.

Female refugees are in the minority

Around one-third of all asylum seekers in Germany are women. According to Bilkay Öney, the Social Democrat Integration Minister in Baden- Württemberg, men particularly dominate among the age group of 18 to 34 year-old refugees. In the other age groups, the ratio between the sexes is more balanced. She also quotes the frauenpolitische dienst: „Women come to Germany in most cases as part of a family grouping ... Single women rarely venture on the often difficult and risky escape routes, along which they run into difficulty more frequently than their male contemporaries, and become the victims of human traffickers and sexual violence.“

If they make it to Germany, the women are immediately confronted by the next problem: they have fled from violence, but cannot feel safe in Germany. Women in Exile – the women under the tarpaulin – are critical of the fact that they are required to live in refugee centres, or even gymnasiums, where they find it difficult to escape aggressive occupants. In these types of refugee centres, traumatised and stressed people, who are often unable to communicate with each other, are put into very close quarters. Conflicts cannot be well-managed and violence occurs again. Women from war zones, often traumatised, feel exposed in such situations, which can traumatise them even further.

Someone who is traumatised needs quiet, but there isn‘t any in the refugee centre. You also need a private space, somewhere that people can‘t just burst into. But in the refugee centres, management arrives unannounced, the shower rooms often cannot be locked, and the way there is often through poorly-lit hallways. More than one female refugee recounted a man suddenly standing at the door while she was showering. Elisabeth Ngari realised how exposed to sexual advances many women in these group refugee centres are. She reported at the FES event „Powerlessness and Empowerment“ how management of the refugee centre responded to her when she told them about it: „Then just lock yourself in,“ was the short answer.

Elisabeth Ngari at the FES event „Powerlessness and Empowerment“ in January 2015. She is fighting for the rights of female refugees – Photo: Jens Schicke

When you are physically and psychologically stable, a sentence like this can be easily absorbed. For traumatised women, however, this kind of statement is a slap in the face – and the accommodation that is supposedly safe in Germany becomes a nightmare. Then there is the fear of neonazis and xenophobes. There were 153 violent attacks on asylum seekers in Germany in 2014, of which 35 were arson attacks. The feeling of possibly being the target of an attack in the refugee centre, for refugees who have just fled from violence, is hardly bearable.

Out of the refugee centres

One of the demands of Women in Exile is therefore to get these women out of the refugee centres and gymnasiums. They demand private apartments, which neither the centre management nor other occupants – nor, in the case of domestic violence, their former partners – can enter; and ultimately, somewhere where they are not such easy targets for the neo-Nazis.

Every refugee and female refugee must deal with the consequences of the violence they have suffered themselves. Health services are only provided for refugees in very acute cases. But traumatised women and men need psychological care. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), like many other psychological illnesses, is generally classified as a chronic illness, which cannot be dealt with by acute treatment. You can try to apply for the therapy to be paid for as „miscellaneous assistance“, but the approval process is lengthy and there is often a lack of suitable therapists. Women who are threatened by their husband or family when they are already in the refugee centre are likewise not provided for under the German asylum system. The stressful confinement in the refugee centre can facilitate this violence. These women cannot go to a women‘s refuge, because no one will pay for it. It is even more difficult, when they have to keep out of the way of their persecutor, as many women affected by violence do. Then they would need to flee to another district or federal state. But asylum law does not provide for this change of location either.

Consequently, the Zentrale Informationsstelle der Autonomen Frauenhäuser (Central Information Agency for Independent Women‘s Refuges) published a list of demands in March 2015. Above all, the residence requirement posed major problems for women affected by violence. If they find a women‘s refuge which is financed in such a way that they can take them in, the question is then: where do they go after their stay? The authorities want the women to return to the refugee centre they were assigned to – to their violent husband. In the view of the women‘s refuges, this is obviously an unreasonable demand. In addition, another central point of the demands is that all federal states should give refugees access to health insurance. Hamburg and Bremen are providing a good example in this regard.

Refugees have thus far found it difficult to access doctors. That must change, and quickly, a view held not just by the women‘s refuges – Photo: picturealliance

Gender-related grounds for fleeing are not provided for

Why are things so difficult for women refugees? In the official definition of a refugee in the Geneva Convention, gender-related violence is not specifically mentioned. According to that, a refugee is a person who has fled their country „owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion“. The word „gender“ is missing. Alternatively, women are then defined as a „social group“. In many countries it is also made clear that perceptions about gender roles may also be regarded as „political opinions“. Germany is not particularly advanced or accommodating in this regard. The persecuted person must also be exposed to breaches of their rights which go beyond „what the inhabitants of the respective state would otherwise generally accept,“ as the German Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees states on its website.

So, for example, women who managed to escape the Taliban in Afghanistan have been refused entry on the basis that they were expected to go through what happened to all women in their home country. The concern behind it is clear: theoretically, all women from a country in which Sharia law applies could apply for asylum in Germany. But Nadja Saborowski from the Berlin Centre for Refugee Aid and Migration Services points out that a latent danger is not recognised as a grounds for fleeing: „What is important is the degree of the threatened persecution. There must be a specific danger for the person affected or an increased probability of the occurrence of a breach of their rights.“ The fear of the German Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees is therefore, largely unfounded.

Treaties and conventions:
still not adequately implemented

Germany is moving at a slow pace on the issue of female refugees. In doing so, it has bound itself under many international treaties to provide full protection to female refugees. For example, the Federal Republic of Germany is subject to the major UN convention on women‘s rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee, which reviews compliance with the convention, sees repeated deficiencies in the case of Germany: „The Committee insists that the contracting state strengthen its efforts to eliminate discrimination against female migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and minorities.“ That was the finding in the ‚Concluding Observations‘ of the committee evaluation state report of 2009. The next report should be submitted in 2015. But women‘s refuges have seen no improvements to date.

Delegates at the 56th CEDAW session in Geneva in 2014. The associated committee reviews compliance with the convention by signatory countries. Germany is under an obligation to expedite improvements in respect to the rights of refugee women – Photo: UN Photo

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, goes into much more detail than the CEDAW committee in the so-called Istanbul Convention, which Germany signed in 2011. It stipulates that violence against women should be recognised as a grounds for asylum. In addition, legislative measures should be implemented to ensure a gender-sensitive admission and asylum process and associated support services. Moreover, Article 61 is to ensure that women „shall not be returned under any circumstances to any country where their life would be at risk or where they might be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.“ However, ratification and the subsequent implementation of the convention has not yet occurred in Germany.

The UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR, has also drawn attention to the fact that violence against women is often regarded as „private“. It therefore published guidelines back in 1993 on international protection from gender-related persecution. The current edition dates from 2002 (HCR/GIP/02/01) and emphasises that each of the grounds for fleeing contained in the Geneva Convention on Refugees must be interpreted in a gender-sensitive way – to avoid cases in which violence against women is judged as solely a „private matter“ or their feminist convictions are not viewed as grounds for political persecution.

On paper, therefore, female refugees are relatively well protected in Germany – but in practice, many things are lacking. This spring, Women in Exile will document the experiences of women who have fled with the German asylum system and put together a list of demands. It will then be accessible at „“.

Author: Heide Oestreich


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Fartuun Adan promotes women‘s rights in Somalia. She is the winner of the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung 2014 – Photo: Elman Peace and Human Rights Center

„You‘re never safe in Somalia“

An interview with the women‘s rights activist Fartuun Adan

As of 2012, after more than 20 years of civil war and destruction, Somalia once again has an elected president and a formal government. But in terms of women‘s rights, Somalia is still ranked as one of the weakest countries in the world.

Young, single, and politically-engaged women and women with a history of migration in particular, often experience gender-specific violence such as forced marriage, genital mutilation and politically-motivated rape. A lack of state structures contributes to such problems where perpetrators are only very rarely held responsible. Fartuun Adan is the director of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, an organisation set up by her and her husband. Her non-governmental organisation (NGO) promotes women and children‘s rights. After the murder of her husband in 1996, Adan fled with her daughters to Canada. In 2007, despite the ongoing conflict, she returned to Mogadishu to continue her work, including with the „Sister Somalia“ project, a centre for women who have been raped. In 2014, Fartuun Adan received the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in recognition of her work.

FES: Ms Adan, sexual violence was always part of the combat in Somalia. Has this danger been averted with the new government?

Fartuun Adan: The refugee camps are a huge problem. Women come from all corners and have no protection there: no house, no husband, no relations. We need fences and light at night, so that not just anyone can come in. And we need many more police officers there. Currently the army is in charge. But anyone can buy a uniform and walk into the camp as a supposed soldier.

FES: What is the new government doing to deal with the problem?

Fartuun Adan: Sexual violence in Somalia is a taboo so nobody talks about it. We have really tried to ensure that the subject can be discussed. The new government has nonetheless admitted that there are many victims of violence, and that we must find a solution to this problem: how can women be protected? how can we help them? And how can the perpetrators be punished? But the government is very weak.

FES: Human Rights Watch reports that even the AMISON troops – the soldiers from the peacekeeping forces of the African Union – attack women who come to their camps looking for help. Has anything changed since then?

Fartuun Adan: It is still being discussed now. More people are examining what happened there. But it‘s not just about rape, very often it‘s about sexual exploitation. These women have nothing, apart from their bodies, to offer in exchange for food. And that‘s not alright.

FES: What can the government do, specifically, to overcome sexual violence?

Fartuun Adan: We have a minister for women who is trying in particular to start criminal prosecutions. We also have a „Human Rights Road Map“. But it‘s all still being discussed. Nothing has been implemented. But we NGOs are talking about this form of violence. If women hear more about it on the radio, perhaps they will find the courage to speak out.

FES: An article was published recently which stated that women who have experienced sexual violence could be prosecuted for promiscuity in Somalia.

Fartuun Adan: Yes, there are some cases of this. These women were courageous enough to say what had happened to them and then they were arrested precisely because of that. These arrests completely undo all of our work. The police and courts always say: how are we supposed to know whether this woman is telling the truth? And we tell them: it doesn‘t matter if she‘s lying or not. This woman does not belong in prison. It is their task to investigate whether the case is true or not.

FES: On what legal basis do you make your arguments?

Fartuun Adan: There is a formal and an informal legal system. The state one, and the one in which the elders of the individual tribes are involved. We use both legal processes. It depends on the victim of violence. The problem is, if the victim wants to go down the formal legal route, it may be years before anything at all happens, except that the legal costs increase. We try to provide support for this route by paying for the lawyers, when we can. But if the perpetrator gets locked up, then sometimes his family wants to take revenge on her: the actual victim of violence. If she chooses the indirect way, then fathers and brothers can negotiate compensation.

FES: How do women get the courage to seek justice through Sister Somalia?

Fartuun Adan: We went into the camps and spoke openly there about the problem of sexual violence and exploitation. There is a hotline that women can call. Women also spread the word among themselves to contact us. We then talk about the various options they have. They can move into our women‘s refuge if they have experienced violence. We provide accommodation for women who have experienced genital mutilation. We can provide or contraceptives or medication for AIDS. We can also provide psychological counselling for the women.

And ultimately we can educate them on training courses, so that they can open a small business. This is all financed from private donations.

Computer course for women affected by violence in Elman Peace and Human Rights Center – Photo: Elman Peace and Human Rights Center

FES: What kind of businesses are they?

Fartuun Adan: It depends on the experience that the women have. They might sell clothes or vegetables at the market. It‘s also possible to make things in our centre, we have sewing machines, and you can dye fabrics. Or the women make decorations from henna. They learn how to deal with computers and can then earn their living as a secretary. We also have small apiary. Many of them learn how to cook and become cooks. We also offer young women the opportunity of becoming electricians. That is something that‘s traditionally a man‘s job.

FES: There are regions in Somalia which are still controlled by the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia, which fight against the government and their supporters. Can you work there?

Fartuun Adan: No, but we try to have a presence in the areas surrounding these regions and to offer the young men an alternative to the military, in other words, an education. We work together with them longterm, evaluate them to a degree, and in case of doubt can accept responsibility for them. For example, if a hotel manager with whom they are supposed to work asks: what do I do if this guy blows himself up?

FES: How dangerous is it to take young men away from AL-Shabaab?

Fartuun Adan: Before we start working in a community, we take stock of the security situation. The local authorities must be absolutely on our side and help us, otherwise there‘s no point.

FES: The new constitution in Somalia is based on Sharia law, but also guarantees women‘s rights. How do these fit together? For example, in family law? Or divorce law?

Fartuun Adan: A lot of the time, it‘s not a problem. A woman can leave the family. However she doesn‘t get half of the joint property, like in the West. Responsibility for the children remains with the man.

FES: You have a 30 percent quota for members of parliament – has it been effective?

Fartuun Adan: Yes, it‘s not 30, but it is still 12 percent women.

FES: What can they do to contribute to the protection of women?

Fartuun Adan: They are extremely important. We can be advocates for women, but what is important is that there are laws and that someone enforces them. Therefore we have great hopes of the government this time.

FES: You spoke previously about genital mutilation. It has been outlawed for a long time, but it is still practised. What can be done?

Fartuun Adan: There needs to be a process of social enlightenment, particularly with respect to the men. When men say that they want women who have not been circumcised, then this practice will disappear. We want the subject to be included on the school curriculum.

FES: Is the law being applied? Have there been convictions?

Fartuun Adan: No, the government has stated that it is against genital mutilation, but there are no prosecutions.

FES: Do you work together with the Muslim communities?

Fartuun Adan: Yes, the imams are very important when it‘s necessary to create awareness of how the Koran should be interpreted, to make the distinction from Al-Shabaab clear. Also on the issue of genital mutilation, they imams are very helpful when they say: that is not Islamic, what you are doing.

A stubborn campaigner for human and women's rights: Fartuun Adan at the ceremony to award the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation for 2014 – Photo: Jens Schicke

FES: If you had three wishes that the international community could fulfil, what would they be?

Fartuun Adan: I have one wish, a big one: In Somalia, one third of the population is under 30. These people are looking for work. If they have no alternatives, they can apply to Al-Shabaab. I want GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – German Society for International Cooperation) to undertake projects again so that these young men can work. The international community doesn‘t see that we are in a very critical phase. We‘ll lose these young men again if they can‘t work. GIZ wants to do projects in Somaliland and Puntland, but we need them in the south.

FES: You live in permanent danger. What do you do to protect yourself?

Fartuun Adan: Nothing. The majority of people think what we‘re doing is good. That protects us. Sometimes we change clothes, put on veils, but we can‘t do anything more.

FES: Do you feel unsafe?

Fartuun Adan: Yes, I always feel unsafe. You‘re never safe in Somalia.

Author: Heide Oestreich


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Dr. Stefanie Elies


Forum Politik und Gesellschaft


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