Right Livelihood Laureates at the forefront of eliminating violence against women

News 25.11.2020

On November 25th, the world celebrates the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, kickstarting the United Nations’ 16 day-campaign “Orange the World: Fund Respond, Prevent, Collect.” On this occasion, we want to highlight and praise the outstanding work of some Right Livelihood Laureates who have continued to tirelessly work towards ending violence against women, despite the current challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worldwide, it is estimated that one out of three women experienced gender based violence, making it one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating Human Rights violations in the world today. While the world is currently preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the epidemic of violence against women continues in the shadows, despite being amplified by the crisis. According to UN Women, every three months of lockdown equals to an additional 15 million women being affected by violence and lockdown measures were gender-blind. These two crises intersect and exacerbate pre-existing gaps and shortcomings in the prevention and responses of violence against women. Today, we want to bring the perspectives of some courageous Right Livelihood Laureates at the forefront of this shadow pandemic, tirelessly working towards ending violence against women. From an increase in physical violence to challenges in bringing perpetrators to justice, we explore how the work of those laureates has been further challenged by the current pandemic. 

Physical violence is more often than not the most visible and notable form of violence against women. For over 20 years, 2013 Right Livelihood Laureate and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, has assisted women survivors of sexual violence in healing through a holistic process. In a recent interview, he disclosed that he observed an increase in the number of girls in dire need of surgery due to rape during the pandemic. A phenomenon that can be explained by the fact that children are not going to school, therefore lacking a safe space. The number of children treated by Dr Mukwege and his team during this pandemic has been higher than usual, while at the same time treating COVID-19 patients. 

Psychological assistance has also become more difficult to provide during the pandemic, as lockdowns do not only increase the risk of violence but also isolate women. A challenge to which Medica Mondiale, the organisation founded by 2008 Right Livelihood Laureate Dr. Monika Hauser as well as 2002 Right Livelihood Laureate Kvinna till Kvinna, adapted to very quickly. Their teams and their partner organisations moved to the digital sphere and continue psychologically assisting the survivors through online messaging, video-calls or telephone hotlines, while at the same time upscaling their work to inform communities on COVID-19 and distribute hygiene material. Medica Mondiale also created a “COVID-19 emergency fund” to further enhance their work in these complicated times. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic challenges survivor assistance services in the short term, the increase in violence against women is also likely to persist long after the COVID-19 crisis, due to its lasting socio-economic consequences. 2012 Right Livelihood Laureate Dr. Sima Samar, noted that the increase in poverty is directly linked to a rise in numbers of Child Early and Forced Marriage. This grave human rights violation comes with a heightened risk of violence, abuse, rape, early pregnancy and deprives girls of their childhood and education. Dr. Mukwege also noted that socio-economic stability, one of the four pillars of holistic care,  is the one that has perhaps been most affected by the pandemic. The Mukwege Foundation assists women in finding income generating activities, but this is proving increasingly challenging. In a similar fashion, Kvinna till Kvinna and their partners have also organised a “back to school campaign” and empowerment projects. Economic empowerment is key to decreasing vulnerabilities to violence. 

Surviving violence also entails a legal dimension, with the goal of obtaining justice and reparations. Nevertheless, most perpetrators still enjoy complete impunity, whether the violence be committed by an intimate partner or by state actors. Dr. Sima Samar has been fighting the culture of impunity for years in Afghanistan, advocating also for the need to include women at the table of decision making to ensure better prevention programmes and  that justice is served. 

Unfortunately, some countries, such as Egypt, still have laws which perpetuate impunity. In fact, to further discriminate against women, perpetrators can be “pardoned” if they acted “in good faith”, including for “disciplining their wives.” A “justification” that, regrettably, would likely be applicable to the perpetrators of numerous victims of domestic violence during the pandemic. It is in this context, characterised by the role of the state as a perpetrator of violence against women, that 2016 Right Livelihood Laureate Mozn Hassan strives to have women’s rights respected and to build a feminist movement. The official international definition of violence against women includes any physical, sexual or psychological harm to women, including arbitrary deprivation of liberty, a crime which is regularly committed by the Egyptian government. Throughout the pandemic, Ms. Hassan has been advocating for the release of women prisoners and drafted an action plan on the matter, which would involve the creation of a National Emergency Committee specialised in Women’s prisoners’ conditions, to regulate their release and ensure their fundamental rights be respected, including their right to health.

Today, we stand up with all women survivors of violence and activists worldwide who stand by them in their recovery. However, these courageous individuals cannot be left alone and states should play their roles. Today, while 135 countries have adopted measures to prevent or respond to it during the pandemic, only 48 included prevention and/or victim-support services as a key part of their response plans, with very few adequately funding these measures. To solve the problem of gender based violence, States must provide adequate funding, collect more disaggregated data, and place women at the centre of decision making and policy design, to ensure that programmes better prevent and respond to violence against women, while also educating boys and providing comprehensive sexual education. 

Let us therefore launch these 16 days of activism by speaking louder and not letting the COVID-19 pandemic overshadow the shadow pandemic of violence against women. 

“This pandemic is a time when we understand the other epidemics we face. Sexual violence is one of those, but the power of the Feminist movement will always make this struggle possible.” – Mozn Hassan

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