CNEWA Connections: Working to Eliminate Violence Against Women

Drawing attention to a terrible huminitarian scourge

People around the world were horrified when they read about the systematic rape of Yazidi woman after ISIS had taken control of Mt. Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. It is a part of the world CNEWA knows well. CNEWA works in Iraq and continues to help both Christian and Yazidi women who were raped by ISIS and whose lives have been destroyed.

While that shock and outrage were justified, most people don’t realize how common and widespread violence against women is. Of course, when a sports or entertainment personality is accused of violence against a woman in the U.S., the coverage is often lurid. However, two things need to be noted: 1) most often the reporting is more about the abuser than the victim and 2) the reporting often gives at least the impression that such abuse is an uncommon event.

In the rest of the world, it is often a very different story.

Towards the end of the 20th century, it was noted that in the conflicts raging in the Great Lakes Region of Africa the number of military casualties was unexpectedly low. Further research indicated that the reason was that the fighting was not so much soldier against soldier as it was soldier against civilian and most often against women civilians. Although the reality is as old and vicious as war itself, it wasn’t until recently that rape as a weapon of war entered the area of international humanitarian law. On 19 June 2008 the UN Security Council condemned rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity in SC Res 1820.

It is a crime that can no longer be ignored or overlooked. And next week, attention will be paid.

On 25 November the UN observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. For far too many of us in the west this is just another UN observance. Violence in our world is probably the strongest proof for the existence of evil. To see violence against women, however, as merely a subset of human violence in general overlooks characteristics of this crime that are uniquely vicious and evil. In the small space allotted to this piece, I would like to highlight two issues of importance regarding violence against women. They are by no means the only issues but they are, nevertheless, significant and also demonic in their efficiency.

They are: rape as a weapon of war and human trafficking.

Rape as a weapon of war became prominent as an issue not only in the context of conflicts in Africa but also in the atrocities regularly committed against women by ISIS in the Middle East. Similar atrocities have been committed against student girls by Boko Haram in West Africa. As a weapon of war, rape is horrifyingly efficient. It reduces the risk of injury to the military; it demoralizes the civilian population and—something which is often overlooked—it is also a method of genocide. In many cultures a woman who is raped becomes a social outcast and ineligible for marriage even though she is an innocent victim. She is doubly violated—by the rapist and by her own culture. In some cultures “unmarriable” women are outcasts, cut off from their parental families and from the overall culture. If the number of potential wives and mothers is radically reduced, the future of a people is threatened. Rape, therefore, can prevent a people from reproducing and can ultimately condemn them to extinction.

The pain that these innocent women suffer is simply unimaginable. In 2009 Jonathan Torgovnik, a professional photographer, published a book of interviews and photographs entitled “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape” (Aperture, 2009). Torgovnic gives not only voices but faces to the women raped in the conflict. He takes statistics and with his camera and interviews produces a searing witness of the suffering these women continue to endure. It is a very important book and should be read with the realization that what happened to these women in Rwanda is happening throughout the world where rape is seen and used as a weapon of war.

The second issue is the trafficking of persons — or “contemporary forms of slavery,” as it is sometimes called. This is a world-wide issue. There is a tendency to think that trafficking is limited to underdeveloped countries. That is absolutely untrue. Several years ago law enforcement uncovered a large trafficking business that literally shuttled slave labor daily between New York City and Philadelphia. Developed countries in western Europe, the United States and Canada all have serious problems with trafficking.

Documentation on human trafficking indicates the following:

1) studies show that, due to increased police work against trafficking, statistics are getting more accurate. It is estimated that in 2018 the average number of detected victims of trafficking per country was 25,400;

2) the sex trade is the major outlet for trafficking in the world;

3) of the victims of trafficking 21 percent are men, 49 percent are women, 23 percent are girls and 7 percent are boys.

With 72 percent of the victims being adult or under aged females, the problem of trafficking is clearly an issue of violence against women.

Pope Francis has frequently been outspoken against violence towards women. In an interview on 28 May 2019, he condemned such violence; as recently as 11 October 2019, the Permanent Observer Representative of the Holy See to the UN addressed the body on the importance of combatting this scourge.

CNEWA has worked for generations to support and empower women in countries where we serve — through education, catechesis, skills training and health care. Significantly, much of that work is being carried out by other women, frequently women religious, who are helping restore dignity and witnessing the Gospel to those who have been abused, victimized or treated merely as commodities.

But there is still so much to do, by all of us.

Slightly more than half the human race is female. How can it be that half of humanity is so invisible? One day a year the UN observes an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. However, that one day should remind all of us that violence against women is not just a woman’s problem. It is a problem for all of us.

We must be aware of it in our own society and country and in the world at large. We must be aware that there will never be peace and justice worthy of the name while women are singled out as targets of violence.

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