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Only Solidarity will Bring Justice

Discover the latest article by WILPF Secretary-General, Madeleine Rees, on recognising conflict-related sexual violence as a profound violation of women’s rights. With a keen emphasis on objective investigations and survivor-centred approaches, especially amid conflicts like Israel and Gaza, Madeleine Rees passionately urges feminists to unite against divisive attempts seeking to stifle their voices.

Image credit: WILPF
Madeleine Rees
13 December 2023

Wars are all about violence and it’s gendered! Who starts them, why and what they want, is grounded in patriarchy and male power. Every woman knows that. Even if watching from afar, that inherent fear of what happens when male violence is unleashed crawls into our being. Women who have experienced war first-hand know it best. Every war, every time, women know the harms that are done, that those harms are gendered – and ultimately, that it is women who must deal with the consequences.

It’s the same, no matter where you are and what uniform, or none, is worn by the perpetrator; sexual violence, rape and gendered atrocities are going to happen. We know this because conflict-related sexual violence is not a new type of violence, it is a continuum of violence inherent to patriarchy. For decades we as feminists have worked hard to have this recognised and for there to be reparation and accountability for the survivors. In our struggles, we have refused to accept the role assigned to us by international law, which defined us from the male gaze: weak, vulnerable, in need of protection, our “honour” defined more by our bodies and our sexual organs than our own rights to dignity and autonomy. Men rape women to attack and humiliate other men and break communities. As feminists, we deny that any women’s enduring sexual violence is outrageous because they are ‘our women’. No woman proprietarily ‘belongs’ to any man or any state or any community. Each woman has her own personhood, her own rights. It is those rights which are violated when any woman is sexually assaulted by any man before, during or after armed conflict.

Feminists Did That!

We have done so much to smash the idea of women as the property of another man – a patriarchal norm present across nations and states. We have worked tirelessly to inform, reform and educate. Brilliant feminist lawyers have worked with brave and dignified survivors of rape during the Balkan wars and the Rwandan genocide to change international law: rape as torture, as a crime against humanity, as a constituent part of genocide. We all pushed to build the UN Security Council resolutions to recognise that conflict-related sexual violence had to be addressed and stopped. Even as we did so we knew this was a chimera. War is a patriarchal tool, and wars will never be safe for women: but we will have justice! The resolutions use the language of obligation towards states and militaries. They call for command responsibility and prosecution. They recognise the rights to reparation and health care. Feminists did that.

We are now in the midst of a political conflict because of the atrocities in Israel and we should add, very obviously, in Gaza. I don’t know how many women have been subjected to conflict-related sexual violence there. I do know that it would be incredible if there were none. But, what I believe, will not bring justice to women survivors. Belief alone will not bring accountability. The law can bring that and for the law to work there must be objective investigation, it requires a survivor-centred approach which, thanks to feminist engagement with the UN Security Council, is now deemed to be central to the process.

We Will Not Be Instrumentalised

Feminists did all of this and we did it together, not as women from one state or one political or religious belief, we did it together because it involves all of us and must apply to all of us. Today, that solidarity has been put at risk. Women’s bodies are used as objects to be violated during war and then used again for propaganda purposes in the political sphere, to “justify” ever more violence. The misogyny of this is both obvious and appalling. It must be called out and resisted.

Over Israel and Gaza, Feminists and feminist organisations are put in literal crosshairs for allegedly not being in solidarity with women survivors of Hamas’ attack. This is a gaslighting strategy, trying to pull feminists into the world of militarisation and retaliation.

We don’t have full accounts of what happened on 7 October and if there is to be justice then those full accounts are needed. The allegation of conflict-related sexual violence, as part of overall atrocities committed by Hamas, must be properly investigated and adjudicated. Israeli women deserve justice. It is not for the current government of Israel to deny Israeli women that right because of its own agenda.

Justice cannot be achieved unless we do it right and to do it right we have to hold on to what we know and what we have collectively worked for: the law and the structures are there and must be applied, for all women affected by conflict. The Palestinian women in prisons, Palestinian women subjected to the horrors of the bombing campaign, and indeed, Ukrainian women, women in Sudan, in Ethiopia…that long list of geographic locations where our solidarity is needed. This is what feminism is and what feminism demands.

As feminists, we cannot be reduced to silence by the violence unleashed on social media and very publicly against individuals and organisations by parties to conflict. We have made enormous progress, and we cannot let all of that be broken by those who seek to divide us. When we have been strong together, we have prevailed. Now more than ever, that solidarity is needed. Patriarchy kills, we need to assign it to history.

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Madeleine Rees

Madeleine Rees is a British lawyer and Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a role she has held since 2010. For most of her adult life, Rees has worked nationally and internationally to advance human rights, eliminate discrimination, and remove obstacles to justice. In addition to her work specialising in discrimination law with a major firm in the United Kingdom, she has also held various roles with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) – including as Head of the OHCHR in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she helped expose human rights abuses and the involvement of UN peacekeepers in sex trafficking As Secretary-General of WILPF, Rees is leading the organisation’s efforts to work through national and international legal frameworks to advance a future of human security and justice for all. Passionate about connecting women across borders to share experiences and organise for action, she is committed to building a true global movement for feminist peace. In 2014, Rees was awarded the OBE for her services to human rights, particularly women’s rights and international peace and security.

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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