On March 12th, PROOF’s exhibit Unearthed: Stories of Courage in the Face of Sexual Violence was displayed during an NGO forum titled, “Initiatives to Prevent Violence Against Women in Asia Pacific Region” as part of the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
The activists who spoke in this exhibit represent NGOs committed to defending women’s rights in Australia, Nepal, Iran, India, and other nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The status of women’s rights varies by country, but each activist shares a sense of the difficult task ahead, and a continued frustration with the lack of justice in their respective nations. They contend with the symptoms of institutionalized violence against women-- harassment, domestic violence, forced marriage, acid attacks, and rape.
CSW is strengthened by its emphasis on community and inclusiveness. The diversity of these panelists’ organizations highlights the adaptability of the international effort to defend women. Each panelist draws upon a collaborative and flexible spirit in her work. Sophie Hardefeldt, of the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, described the “women’s alliance model.” This Australian system creates networks between different NGOs to maximize the number of services available to women and to present a united front before the government. At the same time, Ms. Hardefeldt said, “We work to ensure that there is a diversity of women’s voices.” The irony of activists’ decision to join together in a group, instead of acting alone, is that the group’s collective influence increases the weight of every individual’s voice.
According to these panelists, capturing popular support and gaining the compliance of the government requires the cooperation of many women. Lynn Dykstra recounted the events sparked by a recent acid attack in Iran. The Iranian government has long notoriously condoned violence against women. This time, however, thousands of women joined in protest, restricting the government’s ability to openly endorse violence. These women honored the victim’s private tragedy by claiming the assault as an attack on all women.
PROOF’s exhibit Unearthed embodies one of these NGOs’ messages: women’s ability to offer mutual support honors individuals’ voices. Unearthed features Smita Sharma’s stunning photos of the faces of Indian rape survivors and women’s rights advocates. The quiet dignity of their voices and faces starkly contrasts society’s appalling treatment of these women.
For Kamalika Das, a seventeen-year-old Kolkata girl, speaking up to defend herself from a classmate’s sexual harassment led to her being singled out for harassment by her community. After receiving a reprimand from her school, she committed suicide. Unearthed is dedicated to Kamalika’s memory. PROOF and the NGOs represented at this panel work to help girls and women like Kamalika, who might otherwise be forced to stand alone.