Renee and I Are Shouting Loudly for the Rights of Women in War-Torn Africa; the Harrowing Stories of Rape and Violence Suffered by Women in Developing Countries Have Inspired the Great Initiative, with A-List Assistance

Article excerpt

Byline: Mariella Frostrup

YOU can only hear so many stories before you reach the limit of your own endurance.

My moment came on a visit to a refugee camp in Chad, where Hawaye, a beautiful Darufi woman holding her newborn baby, told me hers.

The Jangaweed -- armed mercenaries -- had ridden into her village, killed her husband and decapitated their baby in her arms. They had taken her captive and kept her as a sex slave. She had been multiply raped for three weeks before being thrown out, pregnant by one of her many violators, her life effectively destroyed. When she had finished describing the events that had led her to this refugee camp she was the only dry-eyed woman in the hut. I asked her what we could possibly do. "Justice," she said, her dark brown eyes pools of sadness, "safety and a future". In our world, such ambitions might seem achievable; in hers they exceed even the wildest expectation. The reality for a woman such as Hawaye can be found in a random sampling of facts compiled by The Fawcett Society recently to mark International Women's Day: gender-based violence causes more deaths and disabilities among women aged 15-44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war. It is estimated that worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Of the 250,000-500,000 women and girls raped in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the number of convictions produced by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is eight.

Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en route to school. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime -- many on a number of occasions. Some 70 per cent of those under the poverty line are women and with two-thirds of the world's illiterate also being female, taking control of their own destinies is a serious challenge.

For millions, the basic human rights articulated by this traumatised woman are as far from being achieved today as they were 200 years ago.

As my husband will attest, one of my greatest skills is shouting loudly, so along with Moroccan ex-financier and now artist Karen Ruimy, I set up The Great Initiative, a tiny foundation with huge ambitions to draw attention to the plight of women in the developing world and to fund grassroots projects conceived and run by African women. We were particularly inspired by Femme Africa Solidarite (FAS), whose African Gender Award seems a brilliantly effective way of cajoling African leaders into making women's rights, not normally considered a vote winner, into a priority. The award goes to the leader who has most improved the status and rights of their female population in the preceding year and offers the opportunity to celebrate the many positive changes occurring across the continent. Which is how Karen and I found ourselves in Liberia celebrating this year's FAS Award winner and Africa's first female leader, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with the Hollywood actress Renee Zellweger, our newest patron.

Attracting attention to the plight of women can be an uphill struggle but we've been delighted by the supporters we've attracted, from Bono, Damon Albarn and Graca Machel to Ms Zellweger.

There are few movie stars that you can call, invite to a recently wartorn African nation and three weeks later find yourself travelling alongside them. "Sounds interesting, count me in," was Renee's texted reply and on the designated date she showed up in London, clad in North Face, rucksack packed and raring to go.

Like us, Renee was fascinated by the story of Johnson's ascent to power, one that's already spawned a brilliant documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She said: "I decided to support Great because I was excited by the way they amplify the voices of women whose stories we rarely hear, by their support of the inspirational FAS African Gender Award and by their commitment to fund small grassroots projects conceived and run by African women. …