Story by Wendy Ward, National Headquarters, Senior Advocacy and Program Policy Officer
For 30 years, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic as a brutal dictator. On November 25, 1960, three women who opposed his regime were murdered in a sugarcane field at the hands of Trujillo’s secret police. The Mirabal sisters, - Minerva, Maria and Patria - were wives and mothers who led a resistance movement to overthrow Trujillo. They lost their lives in pursuit of social justice and positive political transformation in their country.
Nearly 40 years later, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This designation is based on a long-standing tradition of women activists using the date that marks the assassination of the Mirabal sisters to raise awareness of the issue of violence against women. Ending this violence is essential to defend fundamental human rights.
Violence against women has been characterized as a “pandemic.” Up to 70 percent of women in some countries will have faced violence in her lifetime. Women are killed by family members and intimate partners. They are trafficked and sexually exploited. As children, they are married off, acutely vulnerable to physical abuse. Female genital mutilation is pervasive in 29 countries in the Middle East and Africa; and in many parts of the world, women and girls who have experienced sexual violence face being shunned because of cultural taboos.
As someone who works for an organization that responds to international emergencies, it’s wrenching to learn about violence against women that occurs in armed conflicts and natural disasters. These events cause deep instability, and too many women and girls already live under volatile conditions. Where gender inequalities existed before, they can intensify during emergencies in the absence of structure and order, and the things that help us meet our basic needs.
Steps can be taken during emergencies and recovery to prevent, mitigate and respond to violence against women and girls. Unaccompanied women and children should be registered, and their health and wellbeing safeguarded. Programs and services that address violence against women can be activated as part of the emergency response. Women must be involved in post-emergency decision-making and their perspectives integrated into recovery planning.
We have to continue talking about the problem. The American Red Cross recently hosted a panel event to discuss ways to combat sexual violence in Syria and Iraq, where incidents of sexual violence in armed conflict are being reported. One of the key themes of the conversation was addressing stigma in a complicated regional context.
Despite stereotypes of powerlessness, women are incredibly resilient in the face of emergencies. Resilience is a concept embedded in elements of the new proposed Sustainable Development Goals. These goals, which will be adopted in 2015, include one that focuses specifically on achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls.
To meet this goal, countries must end all forms of discrimination against women and girls; eliminate all forms of violence against them, including trafficking and sexual exploitation, and eliminate practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. The means to implement this goal depends on a global partnership that cuts across all borders and through all sectors of society to engage all of us.
Today we raise awareness of this scourge of violence against women and girls. We must collectively join efforts to stop it. I hope that in a generation, our children – particularly our girls – can honor the Mirabal sisters’ legacy without having to recognize violence against women as an enduring reality.