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Minority women deliberately targeted for rape and other violence – new global report

6 July 2011

Women from minority and indigenous communities are targeted for rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and killings specifically because of their ethnic, religious or indigenous identity, Minority Rights Group International says in its 2011 annual report launched today.

In the flagship annual publication, Batwa community said they experienced physical violence and in many cases it was ongoing. According to the report, in the UK, there have been increasing reports of violence against Muslim women who are more easily identified by the head scarf they wear.

Like other women, minority and indigenous women also face violence from within their own community or their own families. Poverty, low literacy and social and economic marginalisation are some of the factors that contribute to the incidence of domestic violence within minority and indigenous communities. In Canada and Australia, according to the report, the limited available data show high levels of violence against women within indigenous groups, but there are indications that complaints from such women are treated less seriously by the authorities.

The report makes a strong case that, despite the levels of violence faced by minority and indigenous women, many of them are fighting for their rights to be recognised, and demanding justice.

‘Women are not just the victims of violence, they are also its leading opponents,’ says Minority Rights Group International’s Director of Programmes. ‘In many countries the struggle to stamp out sexual violence against minorities is being led by minority women activists themselves, sometimes at serious risk to their own safety.’

‘Much has been achieved over the last decade to highlight the scourge of violence against women around the world. But development agencies, governments and human rights activists need to realise that not all women face the same obstacles, and that violence against women often has a particular ethnic or religious dimension,’ Lattimer says.

Case studies

The following is a list of some specific cases of women from minority or indigenous communities who face targeted violence. Interviewees and their contact details are listed below each case:

India’s ‘untouchable’ women face multiple levels of violence and no justice

As a minority, Dalit women are subject to a ‘triple burden of inferiority’ based on caste, class and gender. This combination of structural factors renders Dalit women vulnerable to some of the most abhorrent forms of physical violence. Because beliefs about the low status of Dalits are pervasive among the general population in India, such violence is nonetheless often ignored or under-estimated by officials.

Dalit women in India are vulnerable to murder, rape (including gang rape), custodial torture, and stripping and parading in public spaces. Dominant-caste men are the main perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse, as well as members of the Indian police force, men in other societal positions of power and authority and men from the Dalit community.

Legislation does exist in India to protect Dalits and other minority groups from discrimination, but poor access to justice and widespread social exclusion render legal avenues of justice for Dalit women victims of violence largely ineffectual.

Violence against women from Iraqi minorities is rife, but remains poorly addressed

According to NGOs reporting to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Iraq in 2010, women from minorities are ‘the most vulnerable section of Iraqi society’. Their minority status and gender identity put them at particular risk in a female population that is already experiencing great trauma.

Evidence from the Iraqi Minorities Organization (IMO), an umbrella group that includes members from a range of minorities, confirms that minority women are subject to both domestic and politically-motivated violence. IMO also describes the levels of fear minority women face in their daily lives, and the measures they take to protect themselves; measures which are to the detriment of their religious and cultural identities. For example, in an unstable and increasingly conservative environment, non-Muslim women feel forced to wear the hijab in public to avoid being identified and targeted by extremists. Christian women in Kirkuk and Mosul report feeling extremely insecure outside their homes.

Afro-Colombian women disproportionately affected by conflict

An NGO survey, quoted in the report, found that out of Colombia’s four million displaced people the majority of displaced Afro-Colombians are women and many are heads of households with children. Such women continued to face multiple forms of discrimination, placing them at a distinct disadvantage.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only 5.3 per cent of displaced Afro-Colombian women earn a minimum salary.

Rights activists point out that all parties to the conflict, that is, the two guerrilla groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – as well as government forces are involved in human rights abuses, including violence against women.

During their displacement, Afro-Colombian women have frequently reported physical threats, economic exploitation, rape and other sexual violence. Few victims register complaints due to fear or ignorance of complaint channels.

In the case of Afro-Colombian women, rape – especially of young women – continued to result in many unwanted pregnancies and the birth of children of mixed ethnicity. Such children, as well as their mothers, are frequently ostracized within their communities, and therefore doubly victimized. Women also complained to the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, during her 2010 visit to the country, of coercion and threats to join armed groups.

Uzbek women still facing violent attacks in post-conflict Kyrgyzstan

The 2010 violent conflict in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, has had a particular impact on women. There have been repeated accounts of ethnicity- and gender-based violence against women, both during and after the June violence. Both ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz reported sexual violence, but the former disproportionately so. An Uzbek human rights activist reported meeting at least 50 victims of sexual assault in a refugee camp in Uzbekistan after the June events. But overall, it is impossible – for several reasons – to quantify the scale of gender-based violence during the conflict.

A gender-based violence assessment report produced by UNIFEM in August 2010 indicates that while both communities generally felt insecure after the violence, there were particular concerns among Uzbek women survivors. They were afraid of repeated sexual or physical violence against themselves or their children, and thus severely limited their own movements in the city. In addition, access for victims to almost all services has been very limited, including psychosocial counselling, legal advice and education. Some ethnic Uzbek service providers have been sacked from their jobs, while others have left the country.

Sexual and gender-based violence against Uzbek women has reportedly continued in southern Kyrgyzstan throughout the year. In December, local human rights groups registered with the authorities seven instances of kidnap and rape between October and December. Women were reportedly tortured, beaten and held in captivity for several days, before being left near their houses. The cases continue to make many female Uzbek school students scared to leave their homes because of fear of assault.

One hundred per cent of Batwa women in Uganda report having experienced violence

In May MRG published the results of research into violence against Batwa women in Uganda. One hundred per cent of Batwa women responding to individual interviews reported having experienced some form of violence; for the majority, the violence was ongoing or had occurred in the past 12 months. This is significantly higher than national averages.

Batwa or pygmies are one of Africa’s first peoples, but today in Uganda they are one of the poorest and most marginalised communities.

Of the women interviewed in Uganda for the research, 57 percent had been sexually abused at some time in their lives, with 46 percent having suffered marital rape. Other forms of violence they mentioned included being threatened with a weapon (36 per cent), dowry-related violence (25 per cent), forced marriage (21 per cent) and being detained against their will (18 per cent).