A Galvanizing Moment for Women's Rights

A Galvanizing Moment for Women's Rights
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For a women's rights activist, this week's United State of Women Summit hosted by the White House was a reminder that ending violence against women remains the single greatest challenge both here in the U.S. and around the world. From the women who shared their own experiences of violence to Vice President Biden's impassioned speech, the call to action was clear: "We have to give women and girls a greater voice. But that's not enough. They have to be assured that their voices will be heard."

For more than 20 years, Women for Women International has worked to support survivors of such violence in war and conflict. Since our founding in response to the rape camps of Bosnia and Croatia, we have seen noteworthy progress in raising awareness of the use of rape as a weapon of war and the beginnings of concrete action to counter violence against women internationally. We have seen the first conviction of rape as genocide and a crime against humanity in 1997, thanks to the work of a terrific team of lawyers led by Pierre Prosper and the courage of the Rwandan women who agreed to testify. (The recently released documentary on the subject The Uncondemned, produced by Michelle Mitchell, is a must-see.)

In neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, WfWI honoree Dr. Denis Mukwege has risked his life by condemning perpetrators of violent attacks against women while the Panzi Hospital he founded attempts to repair the horrifying physical damage to women and girls caused by brutal attacks. We see similar courage throughout the world from activists and advocates responding to the rape of Yezidi women and girls in northern Iraq and Syrian women refugees, or condemning the violent attacks against women and girls in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And the international community is beginning to respond, with greater resources and a more robust (if still insufficient) policy response.

But too many women still suffer silently, without recourse to justice or support to heal. One such place is Kosovo, where I travelled earlier this year to meet with some of the 32,000 women we have served there since the WfWI program started in 1999. An estimated 20,000 women were raped in Kosovo during the conflict in 1998-99. To date, only three cases of wartime sexual violence have been prosecuted. International justice mechanisms have been stymied by the minority of states that have not recognized Kosovo's independence. Indeed the UN has yet to release the official records of crimes committed during the conflict, despite petitions by the government of Kosovo.

Within the country, the strong cultural stigma associated with rape meant that many women remained silent, afraid that identifying themselves as victims would bring shame. That has begun to change, thanks to the leadership of former President Atifete Jahjaga and the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Rape. This week marked the one-year anniversary of the "Thinking of You" exhibit, designed by Kosovo-born Alketa Xhafa-Mripa. The exhibit featured 5,000 dresses, donated by survivors and others, installed on 45 clotheslines strung across the football stadium in Pristina in a show of solidarity with the women who were raped during the conflict. The exhibit, the making of which is the subject of another great documentary film released this spring, was the first major public recognition of the abuses endured by the women of Kosovo. For many women, it was the first time they came forward to acknowledge their past.

So as we move forward from the first White House Summit on the United State of Women, let it also galvanize us into further action to end violence against women and bring those responsible to justice. While we must focus on the victims of the conflicts of today in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, let us not forget those women - including the women of Kosovo - who still bear the emotional and physical scars of past conflicts.

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