Voice of America (Washington, DC)

18 July 2014

Africa: Women in Conflict Zones At Risk of Violence, Discrimination

U.N. Human Rights experts are expressing concern about the widespread violence and discrimination to which women in conflict-ridden Central African Republic and Syria are subjected. C.A.R. and Syria are two of eight countries examined by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which monitors States Compliance to existing rules.

Members of the committee say countries at peace often miss the deadline for submitting reports regarding their implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. So they say they were surprised, though, when delegations from two conflict-ridden countries - the Central African Republic and Syria - arrived on time to argue their cases before the 23 experts.

The committee says a six-member delegation from the C.A.R.'s transitional government described the profound crisis into which the country was plunged. It spoke of forced marriage, sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual violence against women perpetrated by armed combatants and civilians.

Crimes of impunity

The delegation lamented the impunity with which these crimes were being perpetrated, but said the government was helpless to do anything because it lacked a judicial system and all other functioning institutions.

Committee member and Rapporteur for the Central African Republic Patricia Schulz said it was surrealistic listening to this horrific litany of abuse.

"It was absolutely not normal. But, we took their presence there as a commitment of the transitional authorities to try and address the urgent needs of women and girls in this country," she said. "They are completely aware and we were completely aware of the very particular situation they are in."

Schulz said the C.A.R. is in a state of collapse and the kind of recommendations normally given to states at peace to end discrimination against women make little sense in this context. Nevertheless, she said the committee has urged the delegation to give priority to ending violence against women and impunity, and to peace and security.

In this regard, she said the experts told the delegation the government should engage women at every level of dialogue in efforts to reach a political agreement to end the conflict.

Strong recommendations

A similar recommendation was made in regard to women in Syria. A large high-level delegation, including several women, presented the government's report. Committee member and Rapporteur on Syria Nahla Haidar says that the committee is very concerned about attacks against civilian populations and the denial of humanitarian aid to besieged areas by all parties to the conflict.

She said the experts grilled the delegation on such issues as enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests of women and girls, and about physical abuse and sexual violence by government forces against women activists. She said the committee is particularly concerned about the marginalization of women's voices in peace negotiations.

"We have definitely also put a lot, a lot, a lot of emphasis on women, peace and security because everyone knows that Syrian women's voices were not properly integrated and heard in the peace talks that took place in Switzerland," said Haidar. "We felt that the opportunity of addressing other women's views, other political views of women and very important competencies of Syrian women that could make a difference in the negotiation and for the future of Syria was not addressed."

Haidar said the committee also addressed root causes of some of the problems in Syria. She noted the experts are concerned that Syria's new constitution places women under religious rule, a situation that did not exist under the previous constitution. She said the experts touched on problems of trafficking and exploitation of women in conflict.

The committee has asked the Syrian delegation to come back in a year to respond to these and other concerns.

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