Zainab Salbi tells us why the world must wake up, recognise the value of women and ensure they are better protected.
Itís been a month since the 100th anniversary of International Womenís Day was celebrated around the globe and its back to business as usual. For Zainab Salbi, a renowned human rights activist and founder of Women for Women International, the fight for womenís equality is not confined to one symbolic day. She tells Belinda Otas why the world must wake up, recognise the value o
Zainab Salbi is a world renowned human rights activist and was named in March, as one of the World’s Top 100 Women Activists and Campaigners by the UK Guardian newspaper, in its series of 100 most inspirational women. Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a humanitarian organisation which works closely with women in war-torn regions, where most women live in fear and have no one to tell their story to. Ironically, Salbi also needed courage to break her fear and silence, which she credits to a Congolese woman named Vitu. Vitu, 62, had been gang raped alongside her 9, 20 and 21 year old daughters with her sons forced to spread their mother’s legs.
Salbi says she was the first person, Vitu ever told about her ordeal and when she asked “What do you want me to do? Should I keep it a secret or should I tell the world?” Vitu responded “If I could tell the world, I would but I can’t. You can. Go ahead and tell the world.” An encounter Salbi describes as one of the most humbling experiences, adding the silence is broken “women start talking with other women and realise they are one of many, it’s such a big turning point.” It is her belief that women at the grassroots have far more courage than the ones going up the ladder because the more social status you have, the more you are afraid of loosing it.
“I see this over and over to be inspired and say, how I can claim I’m assisting my sisters if I don’t have the courage they have. That’s why I broke my silence and wrote my book.” Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi’s memoir was published in 2005 and chronicles her life in Iraq as the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot to his atrocities to an arranged marriage, aged 19, which was abusive, among other events leading up to 1993, when she started Women for Women International.
Salbi explains she was worried and scared about reaction to the book because “it’s my fear.” However, when women from Iraq and other parts of the world started telling her what you wrote resonates with us, “I realised in the process that I owned my fear and had to take responsibility for it” .
Compelled to start Women for Women International due to the rape count during the Bosnian war, the organisation has been at the forefront of helping women and girls rebuild their lives by moving them from victims to survivors to active citizens. This includes: providing financial and emotional support, job, leadership and business skills, and educating them about their rights. Women for Women International currently operates in eight countries including, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When Salbi visited London recently, where she gave a lecture at the London School of Economics, on Peace vs. Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: Compatible or Contradicting Concepts? She said “I’m worried about the status of women in Afghanistan.” Described as ‘one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman,’ Afghanistan is currently in the process of reconstruction in anticipation of foreign troops withdrawal due to begin in July. Notably, Salbi said it would be counterproductive if Afghan women were once again sacrificed in the ‘name’ of peace as the government of Hamid Karzai, is known to be on a course of possible reconciliation and a deal of reintegration with the Taliban; notorious for their oppressive views and treatment of women. A reality which is not far fetched - in 2009, Karzai was accused of trying to win votes while campaigning for re-election, when it was reported that he backed a law the UN said would legalises rape within marriage and ban wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands' permission. Back then, the proposed law was said to be "worse than during the Taliban” by Senator Humaira Namati, a member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament.
What continues to appal Salbi is the fact that violence against women is still prevalent especially in countries like the Democratic of Congo, which has been described as the ‘most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.’ Dubbed, “the rape capital of the world”, by a senior UN official in 2010, over 250,000 rapes has been reported since the protracted war, which started more than 13 years ago and has cost over 5.4 million lives. “What is happening to Congolese women is unacceptable. For the world to witness it over and over, and is still not outraged or giving proper protection to women is unacceptable." Asked if the UN had become complacent in the atrocities taking place in the DRC? Salbi said there is a high level of tolerance because though the “U.N. has laws, resolutions and guidelines about women's issues, it doesn't really get the whole issue about the provision of security for women and children. There needs to be a complete protection plan. It's doable if there is political will."
According to statisticians, 57 percent of the world’s population is female. Yet, the issue of gender inequality remains a widespread problem and violence against women is an epidemic which affects millions and Rape has become a weapon of war. Salbi says the tolerance of these ills against women contributes to the mammoth nature of the inequality we continue to see in our societies. “We live in a world where 1 out of 4 women, is violated and we tolerate it and that’s worldwide. In war, it’s a microcosm of that and a higher rate because it’s concentrated. Secondly, no one gets the value of women’s voices even if they are and see things differently to men. So, there’s a lack of appreciation of the internal aspect that women often bring to the table and that’s what I think is reflected even when women are included in something. It’s symbolic not a full inclusion". It is her view that people don’t really get it in terms of how women sustain the economy. “These are fundamental things but it’s primarily the lack of value and the tolerance. Women are the glue which holds society together and equality starts in the economy and women should not be counted for women’s sake but for the sake of the family, community and nation. The quality of life of women correlates directly with how the society fares overall. Where women suffer, it’s a matter of time before entire communities are at risk”.
A trend which has repeated itself in conflict regions, where women bear the brutal brunt of war. The campaign to end this reality has manifested in a slew of resolutions aimed at empowering women as adopted by the UN. In 1975, the First U.N. World Conference on Women was held in Mexico City, where three core objectives were identified: Full gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination. The integration and full participation of women in development. And an increased contribution by women towards strengthening world peace. Fast forward to 2000, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which calls for better protection of women and girls in conflict zones, and in 2008, Resolution 1820, which for the first time recognised rape as a weapon of war was adopted. In July 2010, U.N. Women, an organization Michelle Bachelet, its first executive director and former Chilean president calls "an ambitious international commitment to accelerate the realization of women's rights and gender equality," was created.
However, it remains to be seen how this newly created body will help alleviate the pain endured by women in different parts of the world. Salbi says in the 100 years since International Women’s Day and other movements aimed at empowering women started, a lot has been done. Women now have the right to vote, are politically active and the world has female presidents like President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and most recently, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.
“But we have a lot to go. This is a mountain and we are half-way there. We are not at the peak but we have done a lot and we just need to do more”. she says.
It is Salbi’s belief that unless the UN recognises there is an urgent need to “investment in women,” she does not envision them achieving ‘Gender Equality,’ one of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals by 2020. It is her stance that more women must given a sit at the table where key peace negotiations and decisions which affect them are made. And if the world needs a good model to build on, “I would say look at Rwanda. It’s a good example, what Kagame did for women”. Rwanda is the only nation with 56.3 percent, the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world, which has translated into a more active role in the nations’ political process. But first, we must break the silence and disown our fears.