Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sue Halpern: Breaking a Conspiracy of Silence

Breaking a Conspiracy of Silence
By Sue Halpern
The New York Review of Books

This past July, a little over a year after the United Nations Security Council finally declared rape a crime of war, the parents of Taraneh Mousavi, a twenty-eight-year-old beautician from Tehran, received a call from an anonymous stranger. The young woman had been missing for weeks, ever since she'd attended a post-election rally at the Ghoba mosque; it was rumored that she was being held by Basiji militiamen. The caller said that Mousavi had had "an accident," and was in the hospital with "tears in her womb and her anus." Mousavi's parents rushed to the place where she was supposed to be, but she wasn't there. They still have not found her—or her body.

UN Resolution 1820 expressly foresaw the situation that Taraneh Mousavi found herself in on June 19, one year to the day of its adoption. " Noting," it says,

...that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.

There are many ways to define war, just as there are many ways to violate a woman's body.

It would be naive to imagine that a string of tortuously constructed sentences issued by an organization whose own "peacekeepers" have been implicated in the rapes of girls and women in Sierra Leone, Congo, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Cambodia, and Bosnia, among other places, would reverse or forestall a practice that dates back to the Mongols, and likely before them. Indeed, as the playwright Eve Ensler wrote in The Washington Post the day that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was supposed to issue a one-year assessment of the resolution, rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where girls as young as three are systematically brutalized, has actually doubled and in some areas tripled in that time. As she pointed out, "The girl children born of rape are now being raped."

Ban's report, when it was finally released, was full of recommendations to gather

more and better data to enhance our understanding of the various forms of sexual violence in conflict and its aftermath, including its magnitude, nature and risk factors; the profile and the motivation of perpetrators; the consequences of this violence; and the effectiveness of programmes and prevention strategies.

It urged

State and non-State parties to armed conflicts to ensure that civilian superiors and military commanders use their authority and powers to prevent sexual violence and punish crimes committed by subordinates, failing which they themselves must be punished.

Still, as toothless as all this reads, UN Resolution 1820 was a small step toward ending what Jan Egeland, the former United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called recently "one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history."

One party to that conspiracy has been the mainstream media, which, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their stellar new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is what happens when a phenomenon is extensive, entrenched, and so common as to be perpetually old news even while it's happening. The one consistent exception has been Kristof himself, in the column he's written for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times since 2001. On a page where others can be relied on to elevate the conventional wisdom, Kristof earnestly takes up the cause of the poor and oppressed of the world, most of them women, and of those who work on their behalf. For him, it seems, the traditional newsroom dynamic is reversed: the fact that another girl has been denied an education, or sold to a brothel at seven, or raped by the police to whom she was reporting that she had been raped, or left to die because of an obstetric fistula that has left her leaking urine and feces is worthy of comment because it has happened again, and will keep on happening until something—moral outrage, jurisprudence, grace—intervenes. In the meantime, and to press for change, Kristof invites us all to bear witness with him.

It wasn't always like this. As Kristof and WuDunn, who is both his writing partner and his wife, point out, when they were young reporters, newly married and newly posted to China for the Times,

We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear proliferation. It was difficult back then to envision the Council on Foreign Relations fretting about maternal mortality or female genital mutilation. Back then, the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for. We preferred to probe the recondite "serious issues."

Then Tiananmen Square happened, and the recondite was overtaken by the intractable but urgent issue of human rights. (The two reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China.) And then they stumbled upon another, less dramatic human rights story, the widespread practice by Chinese parents of withholding medical treatment for their baby girls, who were, therefore, dying in infancy in statistically anomalous numbers. "Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage," they write, "and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed."

To Read the Rest of the Review

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