Every year on March 8 thousands of events are organized in the four corners of the globe to denounce gender inequality and violence against women, as well as to praise women’s achievements, thus providing an opportunity to make a difference at home or abroad. International Women’s Day provides a unique opportunity for individuals, communities, institutions and society to reflect on the status of women worldwide and to highlight everyone’s responsibilities in the vital battle for the advancement of women.
This year, one Israeli organization is marking the day in a very unique way: IsraAID, the non-governmental aid agency I work for, will be standing with South Sudanese women in their efforts to raise their voices against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and to call for gender equality in a new nation that is still striving to build strong economic and social foundations.
IsraAID has been developing programs to support the efforts of communities and institutions around the world – in Haiti, South Sudan, Kenya and others – to improve the status of women. IsraAID provides Israeli and North American expertise in the fields of post-trauma, GBV and women’s rights to empower service providers in post-disaster and conflict countries.
In South Sudan, where I have been active since 2011, we accompany social workers and police in their mission to address the most pressing social challenges affecting women and children. Violence against women in the world’s newest independent state is widespread and has been exacerbated by decades of war. In the capital Juba, rapes, human trafficking, and under-aged prostitution have all dramatically increased due to rapid and uncontrolled urbanization. In particular, children in some slum areas are exposed to appalling and sustained sexual abuse.
Despite the magnitude of the problem in Juba, there is no effective prevention and response mechanism related to GBV. A huge gap exists between the communities and the police force, which is still perceived as abusive and corrupt by a substantial portion of the population. Strong stigma against security and military authorities persists, and traditional practices tend to undermine the development of a coherent response framework on sexual violence.
In this context, IsraAID brings to South Sudan Israeli experts who have been pioneers in the field of post-trauma assistance related to sexual violence. South Sudanese actors who work with us find it easy to relate to Israeli stories, challenges and successes: not too long ago, we were also striving to build the strong foundations of our new nation. Not too long ago, we were determined, like them, to advance a strong society where men and women are equally safe. The very same experts who developed the field in Israel – those who established the very first protocol to accompany GBV survivors, and who designed the first trauma centers – are the ones who today are training a new generation of actors for social change in South Sudan.
Since the program began in 2011, GBV survivors in Juba have become increasingly willing to speak out despite strong traditional impediments. Two weeks ago, for the first time in the capital’s history, the rape case of a 14-year-old girl was brought before the courts, as a result of the intense cooperation between the police and social workers IsraAID has been training. Despite intense fear and stigma, they convinced the teen’s mother to speak out and start a long and painful trial.
This is not the first time that the joint efforts of police and social workers have paid off. On the last day of our first joint training session, a team composed of a social worker, an investigator and a human rights activist, was deployed to address the first case of forced-early marriage ever reported to the police. The social workers found a temporary placement for the girl and dealt with her family, while the police investigated the case.
These are some of the many examples that highlight the importance of developing a comprehensive response mechanism that brings together the main actors working with GBV survivors in Juba. Looking ahead, IsraAID is developing a GBV investigation course and is looking to bring a team of Israeli police officers to South Sudan.
At home, Israel is also doing an impressive job combating violence against women. Support centers have flourished throughout the country, offering immediate and long-term medical and psycho-social assistance to GBV survivors. For instance, the Rashi Foundation has supported the establishment of treatment centers for children who are victims of sexual abuse, fostering the development of a solid network of safe places and services.
On International Women’s Day and every other day, it is crucial that we, Israelis, stand in favor of gender equality, in order to be a model for new and developing nations like South Sudan that have chosen our country to help them build their social institutions. For them, for us, and for the sake of international human rights and human dignity, we have the responsibility to be a light unto the nations and vehicle for a society in which men and women from all social, ethnic and religious backgrounds can live in equality and free from fear.