Breaking the Silence: Bosnia and Beyond

Notes by Jo Bartosch

This summary of the event may not be accurate as it was drawn from my hastily scrawled notes and undoubtedly flawed memory.  I thought I’d publish these for those who were unable to attend.

It was hoped that there would be time to watch this lecture by Dr Janine N Clark about the long term consquences of sexual violence. Regrettably we weren’t able to on the night though I urge people to watch it. Obviously please be aware that the subject matter is upsetting.

Alex Chalk MP gave an eloquent and heartfelt introduction – A reminder that the men who killed and were killed in 1995 were his contemporaries.  He then drew our attention to the ideological; the horrifying speed at which what began as the coarsening of public debate degenerated into depravity.  He warned that respect and understanding are fragile, and that apparently good people can commit heinous crimes.

Police & Crime Commissioner Martin Surl gave an account of the trip he took to Srebrenica last year. He explained that reconciliation had not been achieved.

Waqar Azmi, Chair of Remembering Srebrenica, concluded the first section of the event with a sobering reminder of how genocide happened in all of our lifetimes only a two hour plane trip away from the UK. He made the salient point that those who committed atrocities in Srebrenica are no different from us in the UK today.  He ended with a powerful call to challenge intolerance and to pledge ourselves to create a better, stronger and more cohesive society in the UK.

The second section of the event focussed on violence against women and girls.

  1. Today’s event is called ‘Breaking the Silence’, referring to the fact that there is still a taboo around discussing sexual and domestic violence in our communities. How does this silence play out in your work? How important do you think it is to break the silence around violence against women and girls?

Heather Cole, who has extensive experience of supporting victims of sexual violence in conflict, explained that ‘wars are fought on the bodies of women.’  She gave powerful examples of how men’s violence is obscured in the mainstream media, where headlines and reports make gender invisible in discussions of violence.  Heather explained that rape is what men do when they have control over women.  Whilst this has been her experience from working in areas as geographically diverse as Sierra Leone to the refugee camps in Greece, each time agencies expect her to produce evidence to demonstrate that resources are needed to support victims.  Support for women who have survived sexual violence is an ever present and fundamental need, though male violence is so universally hidden the consistent refrain from funding bodies is ‘where is the data.’  Each time she arrives in a new country to support women victims, Heather has to gather testimonies from traumatised women to secure resources that should be there.  In the institutions that oversee aid as with those that facilitate justice, systems are stacked against women.

Louise Williams gave an overview of the services and support offered by GRASAC.  She talked about the part that silence plays in sexual violence and abuse. Survivors often feel silenced by shame and fear, and it’s common for a survivor to call the helpline several times or attend several support sessions before they feel able to talk about what happened to them.  Louise concluded by demanding that all help to create an environment where we can talk openly about sexual violence without stigma.

Michael Conroy-Harris asserted that young men have been indoctrinated by culture that hates women.  Part of his work with A Call to Men is to draw attention to the portrayal of women in the media; to challenge the pornification of popular culture and the deeply embedded victim-blaming in the press.  As seeking approval from one’s peers can act as ‘a motor to violence against women and girls’ Michael seeks to empower boys to speak up and stand up to peer pressure. With reference to genocide and the consequences of hatred left unchecked, Michael suggested that ‘the seeds are evident in young teenage boys’; If we’re teaching them to police each other then they’re learning to fear breaking ranks. That’s how you end up with ‘foot soldiers’ in the war against women.

  1. Three early steps to genocide identified were stereotyping, discrimination and dehumanisation; from your professional experience do you recognise these as contributing factors to violence against women?

Heather gave a powerful indictment of our culture that hates women. She argued that the systematic ridicule and humiliation that women are subjected to in the media fuels violence.  That women are routinely stereotyped and dehumanised in women’s magazines, broadsheets and pornography is evidence of the ‘banality of evil.’   Heather made the compelling and persuasive argument that the depictions of women across our media are inseparable from ‘mass acts of violence.’

Further, she critiqued the cultural norm whereby women’s bodies are offered as a reward to men.  She noted this as a factor in the sexual abuse of women by soldiers and peacekeepers, to the common practice of male business people procuring prostituted women to seal deals.

Michael concurred with Heather’s observations.  He added that there are incremental stages in the dehumanisation, and that the common depictions of women in advertising as merely a collection of body parts is evidence of this process.  He concluded by saying “Once you’ve made someone ‘less than’ it’s open season.”

  1. Questions for Superintendent Antill of Nottinghamshire Police. Nottinghamshire Police recently opted to categorise VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls )as hate crimes. Can you please tell us a bit about why you decided to do this, and the consultation process that you went through to make this decision? How will this work in practice? What do you hope that the outcomes of this will be? Do you think there needs to be a corresponding culture change in the police force more generally around vawg?

Nottingham police have had a focus on hate crime for a long time, not least since the murder of Sophie Lancaster; an aggravating factor in her being targeted was that she was a member of a subculture.  It is up to individual forces whether they categorise an offence as a hate crime.  At present in Nottingham, only a small number of crimes are categorised as gender hate crimes.

It is estimated that one in five hate crimes are reported.  With regard to VAWG, a woman will typically experience thirty acts of violence before reporting domestic violence to the police.

Supt. Antill admitted that he was unsure about adding gender to the protected characteristics that are considered hate crimes.  The move towards including misogyny as a hate crime was prompted by the work of Nottinghamshire Women’s Centre.  He also consulted with the campaign group Hollaback. Supt. Antill explained that it was thinking about women’s experience of street harassment that convinced him of the necessity of considering gender as hate crime.  Explaining women’s responses to cat calls he noted that women can’t win: they either smile to avoid conflict (which is then deemed to be encouragement), shout back at the aggressor (which often results in an immediate escalation) or ignore it (which can then lead to being followed).

He re-iterated that contrary to media reports, no new legislation has been brought in and wolf-whistling/ cat calls cannot and will not be criminalised as a result of them now being recorded as hate crimes.  The change is more an exercise in communication and a move to increase women’s confidence in having their concerns taken seriously by the police.  He described gendered hate crime in public places as comparable to other bullying behaviour.

  1. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme for the year is ‘21 Coming of Age’; the hope is that future generations will grow to understand the devastating consequences of hatred unchecked. Genocide survivor Nedzad Avdic, who was 17 years old at the time of the genocide, says thst ‘All children have the right to learn about what happened and not to being up new generations of hatred.’   What should we be teaching our children to build respectful relations between individuals and communities?

Heather proposed that in a culture saturated with eroticised depictions of violence against women, conversations around consent are ineffectual.  She powerfully argued that the hormonal reward system triggered by pornography effectively conditions men to be aroused by hurting women.  Heather suggested that as sexual behaviour is socially learnt, sexual violence in conflict is a public manifestation of this.

Louise explained about the work GRASAC do with regard to PHSE locally and the input they have had in Gloucestershire’s PINK curriculum.  She added that ‘we are not born to hate, we learn it’ and it is our responsibility as a collective to tackle the attitudes that lead to violence. She suggested that a joined-up and focused approach to tackle male violence is essential.

Michael made the point that ‘hate might not feel like hate to perpetrators.’ As boys are ‘coasting along on a settled landscape, shaped deep down by what amounts to hatred towards women,’ and individual feelings of hatred are hard to recognise as such, even when behaviour suggests otherwise.  Michael argued that the social construction of gender is the first step in dehumanisation.  Further, that the logical outcome of limiting and confining humans into gendered roles is hate.

Supt Antill suggested PHSE (Personal, social, health and economic education) has a vital role to play in combating gendered violence.

South West Regional Chair of Remembering Srebrenica Anousheh Haghdadi closed the evening with a powerful warning that violence against women and girls is a serious problem, and that hatred and intolerance in all their forms should not be left unchecked.  She concluded with a rousing call to action; for people to make a pledge – hold a memorial event, educate in schools, universities and workplaces, or get involved in some of the fantastic work already going on in Glos.

If you feel inspired to get involved and take a stand against hate, please visit the Remembering Srebrenica website

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