At times such as International Women’s Day we must give women a platform to tell their stories for themselves, says Brita Fernandez Schmidt – and in turn, we must listen.
In my role as Executive Director of Women for Women International UK, I am often asked to comment on the atrocities and trauma experienced by women in conflict-affected countries: the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Yezidi women and girls being abducted by ISIS; spiralling rates of child marriage and domestic violence among Syrian refugees.
When I talk about these issues, I find myself drawing on personal stories from women I have met over the years. Stories about losing loved ones, fleeing from bombs, watching homes burned to the ground. Even more common are stories of enduring daily violence at the hands of a partner, being forced to drop out of school, having land taken away due to patriarchal inheritance customs. Many are stories that are rarely told, because of the culture of stigma and silence that surrounds violence against women – stories about being blamed and rejected by families and communities after rape, and living with the long-term stigma and psychological scars of abuse.
I share these stories because they are the reality of conflict – a reality that is usually missing from our news bulletins. 264 million women and girls currently live in fragile and conflict-affected countries, where the gender gap is wider – and more deadly – than anywhere else on earth.
This is what conflict looks like for them:
- Just 4 in 10 women in fragile and conflict-affected countries are in paid work (compared to 7 in 10 men). In areas of long-term, severe conflict, this figure drops to 2 in 10 women. Global data from Women for Women International’s training programmes show that only 8% of our participants report earnings above the poverty line of $1.90 per day when they join our programme.
- The gender gap in education is double that of other developing countries. Of the women we serve through Women for Women International’s programmes, 55% have no formal education and two-thirds cannot read or write.
- Women in conflict-affected countries are 50% more likely to experience violence and abuse. In Afghanistan, 37% of married women in our programme had experienced physical violence at the hands of their husband.
This reality rarely makes headlines, because it happens away from the battlefield, to women who are typically unseen and unheard. When I am given a platform to talk about women’s rights on occasions like International Women’s Day, I want to use it amplify these women’s voices and highlight their absence from the conversation – because if we are serious about achieving gender equality for everyone, everywhere, that urgently needs to change.
Yet there is another reality of women’s lives that I am not asked about very often. The women I meet through my work with Women for Women International are much, much more than the ordeals they have been through. Their stories are impossible to reduce to a soundbite or case study.
They are not just stories of suffering and destruction, but of strength and success. They are filled with action – driven by individual courage, and by the collective power of sisterhood.
While they may not be in paid employment, women make enormous economic contributions to their families and communities. They are both carers and providers, working a grueling double day amid the chaos of conflict.
Although they are largely missing from politics and leadership roles, women are not voiceless. When provided with the smallest sliver of opportunity, they show themselves to be powerful advocates and agents of change.
During a recent visit to the Democratic of Congo I met Fatuma, who runs a ceramics training centre in Bukavu, South Kivu – an area that has seen little respite from conflict in decades. Thirteen years ago, Fatuma took part in Women for Women International’s 12-month training programme and chose to learn ceramics as her vocational skill, discovering a passion and talent for it. She started her own pottery business and was able to save enough money to build a house. Fatuma then decided to set up a workshop to teach other women and was employed by Women for Women International as one of our trainers. Since then, she has trained over 3,000 women and helped them to establish sustainable businesses. Her workshop has become a vibrant hub in the community and is a refuge for many women who previously felt unsafe and alone.
Fatuma is a remarkable example of how, far away from the cameras and the headlines, women are getting on with the work of holding their communities together and repairing the fabric of society after conflict tears it apart. As the world witnesses a 25-year peak in conflict, research has found that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its treatment of women
I tell stories because I want to show that the 264 million women currently living in conflict-affected countries are more than just a statistic – more than figures in the background. They are individuals with hopes and dreams, with friends and families who rely on them, who love and are loved. They are part of our global sisterhood. They play critical roles during conflict, and have incredible potential to build more peaceful, stable futures for their countries.
As the world witnesses a 25-year peak in conflict, research has found that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its treatment of women – more so than wealth, level of democracy, or religious identity. Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, but an urgent priority for the whole of humanity.
Now more than ever, we need to bring women in conflict areas from the background of our news bulletins to the foreground of the global conversation. We must resist one-dimensional portrayals of women’s experiences, expand our idea of sisterhood, and create space for more authentic, interesting, and complex stories. Most importantly, we must give women a platform to tell their stories for themselves – and we must listen.
How you can help
For International Women’s Day, Women for Women International is asking you to take part in their #MessageToMySister campaign. Join a global movement to mark International Women’s Day with a small act of sisterhood that will have a big impact.
Write a message of hope and friendship to a woman survivor of war to let her know that you are standing by her side. Your #MessageToMySister will tell a woman survivor of war that she’s got a friend, someone who believes in her ability to build a brighter future for herself and her family.