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Speaking out against the silence: Violence against minority women

19 November 2013

Jasmin Qureshi works in MRG’s Communications team. As activists and non-governmental organizations worldwide take part in the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, she highlights the need to focus on minority and indigenous women, how they are affected by violence, and what should be done to address it.

The issue of violence against women and girls is shrouded in silence. This is a topic I’ve worked on a lot at MRG, as we work with communities affected by gender-based violence, and also as a freelancer on a global campaign to end violence against girls.

I’ve found it very challenging to build a global picture of how violence affects women and girls. We can say how many people are living with poverty in the world, or with diseases like HIV or malaria, but lack of data means we can’t say how many women and girls have experienced violence, in all its forms, around the world. When we talk about minorities and indigenous communities, who are often the most marginalized groups in society, it is virtually impossible.

Whilst the information out there is patchy, what we do know is that violence against women and girls is a global issue, and affects all countries, no matter how wealthy they are. According to UN Women, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence by an intimate or non-intimate partner. However in some national studies, it was discovered that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner. Again, we have no idea how many are from minority or indigenous communities.

MRG’s work – particularly in post-conflict situations – has uncovered information on marginalized women and their experiences of violence, and provides a telling snapshot of the extent of this human rights abuse. A recent MRG report showed that Muslim and Tamil women in the north and east of Sri Lanka, continue to face extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual harassment, even though the three-decade-long armed conflict ended in 2009.

In Somalia, where MRG is currently running a programme to research and raise awareness of the issue, Bantu and other minority women suffer rape, including by police officers, in an environment of almost total impunity for the perpetrators.

In Mauritania, where slavery still exists, available information indicates that enslaved Haratine women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. MRG is also working in Mauritania on a campaign to end these practices.

MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report in 2011, focused on women, and highlights many more alarming examples of the abuses encountered by minority and indigenous women – and is probably the closest thing we have to an assessment of the global situation.

The problem is, not only do governments avoid talking about violence, but also fear and discrimination within communities stops women from speaking out. Crucially, it also prevents access to justice. I wonder how many women experiencing violence feel they can talk about their experience, or that anybody would listen, and take action? How many governments or justice systems are talking about violence, studying it, finding out how it affects communities – the very people they have a duty to protect?

MRG has worked with Dalit women in India, who are particularly vulnerable to violence, for many years. Our research shows that only 0.7 per cent of gender-based violence cases in India result in a conviction, and around half of cases are stalled in the legal system. But our research also found that pressure from grass-roots community organizations helps progress cases through courts. Similarly, our report on gender-based violence in Sri Lanka celebrates minority survivors of violence as active agents of change.

The 16 Days campaign is a great way for all of us, no matter where we are in the world, to help end the silence and pay tribute to initiatives that stop violence against women. This is a global campaign that begins on 25 November, International Day against Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, Human Rights Day.

We need to speak out against violence against women, including against often-forgotten minority and indigenous women. Blog about it, share it on social media, take part in events, and talk to your friends about it.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.