By Francesca Kelsall
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the beginning of a 16-day period of Activism against Gender-based Violence, the culmination of which will be International Human Rights Day on the 10th of December. The UN created the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1999 on the anniversary of the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.
Patria, Minerva and María Teresa Mirabal were Dominican human rights activists who became national martyrs and feminist icons throughout Latin America. Known as Las Mariposas (the Butterflies), they opposed the 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and organised and participated in clandestine activities whilst working towards the downfall of his regime. Known for his brutality, Trujillo’s rule remained undisputed for many years; even during his time out of political office he pulled the strings behind the scenes. Citizens of the Dominican Republic had few if any civil liberties under the dictatorship and those who opposed Trujillo risked torture or assassination. The sisters’ mounting involvement in the resistance caught the dictator’s attention and resulted in Trujillo giving the order for their assassination. On the 25th of November 1960, 56 years ago to the day, some of his associates intercepted a car taking the sisters to see their incarcerated husbands and clubbed them to death.
The death of the Mirabal sisters was an attempt by the dictator to regain control of a crumbling regime, his actions, however, had the opposite effect. Despite the sisters’ deaths being staged as an accident, Dominican citizens were all aware of who was responsible, and were galvanised into action. Six months after the death of the Butterflies, Trujillo himself was assassinated by a group of revolutionaries.
‘Las Mariposas’, Patria, Minerva, and María-Teresa Mirabal
Whilst the sisters fought against the Trujillo regime to restore democracy and liberty to their island nation, only one survived to tell their story and to see the fruits of their efforts; the fourth Mirabal sister, Dede, who died in 2014. She was possibly spared because she did not participate fully in the resistance efforts like her three sisters. Dede’s survival ensured that her sisters’ legacy would continue to inspire the nation and the world. She took guardianship of her nieces and nephews and fought for many years to preserve their memory. However, due to the instability that continued to plague Dominican politics after the assassinations, the Mirabals’ contribution to history as political activists would not be officially recognised until much later.
In 1992, Dede created the Mirabal Sisters Foundation, which continues today to work with struggling communities. The Mirabal Sisters Museum opened in 1994 and is a popular tourist attraction in Salcedo, Dominican Republic. The sister’s home province of Salcedo was renamed Hermanas Mirabal in 2007 as part of the government’s recognition of the sisters’ importance in the country’s history. For many years the anniversary of their death was seen by many as an unofficial day to acknowledge the continuing effort to end violence against women, however in 1999, the UN officially named the 25th of November ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women’.
According to the UN, 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of someone they know, someone who is usually an intimate partner. The lack of legislation in some countries regarding these issues can place some women in threatening and precarious situations. In many countries the law is biased towards the male perpetrators. In some countries a rape accusation commonly results in the marriage of the perpetrator and the victim. Just last week in Turkey, the government proposed legislation that would allow perpetrators of child rape to avoid sentencing if they married their victims (though this was met with fury from the public and was later revoked). In her statement for this year’s activism campaign, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women said, “Change to these elements has a cost, yet the price of no change is unacceptable.”
Turkish women hold pictures of Ozgecan Arslan, a student who was raped and murdered, during a protest against domestic violence (image: Al Jazeera)
Over the sixteen day period, the UN will promote their initiative: ‘Orange the World: End Violence Against Women and Girls’. The global initiative highlights the lack of sustainable financing for efforts to prevent and end violence against women. In 2015, the campaign called on governments and other organisations worldwide to ‘orange the world’, raising public awareness about the issue of violence against women and girls. From the Niagra Falls to the Abu Simbel Temples in Egypt, national monuments were bathed in an orange light in support of the movement. The colour orange is symbolic of the campaign and represents a brighter future for women and girls who will eventually be free from gender violence.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, take part in an ‘Orange the World’ event (image: UN News Centre)
So over the next sixteen days, if you see any orange-clad campaigners, please donate. Alternatively, you can register to participate or donate via the UN website or simply show your support by wearing orange. For the sake of women like the Mirabal sisters, spread your wings and be a butterfly! It is our duty to contribute to their legacy and combat gendered violence and human rights violations.