In a Belfast hotel last spring, stories of children and life floated through the rooms.
Yet those of us who were present for this meeting of female human rights activists from more than 20 countries were painfully aware of old friends who could not join us.
We sang ‘‘Happy Birthday'' to one such woman, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was serving a six-year sentence in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison. Nasrin, a lawyer dedicated to helping women unjustly imprisoned for their work to gain equal rights, had been convicted on charges of acting against national security and propaganda against the regime.
Nasrin was not alone in her predicament. The women in Belfast shared personal accounts of assault, imprisonment, torture, death and fear. Women from Liberia, Myanmar, Colombia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka and other countries shared information about soaring rates of gender violence — whether due to repression, greed, armed conflict or inequality — and a lack of accountability from governments and society as a whole.
What we had in common was the desire to provide our daughters, and generations of women to come, with secure futures.
As comforting as it was to find support among like-minded women, it was less than comforting to admit that our calls for change continue to follow a decades-old refrain: We seek the right to live in a world where decisions over our bodies are our very own, to choose lives that we alone desire, and to live without the threat of violence. Sadly, such freedoms continue to be regarded as radical challenges to entrenched societal norms and principles.
Good intentions from the international community are not enough. The words that fill declarations and resolutions must be made real. They must be turned into action if survivors of gender violence are to feel the difference in their lives, and real, tangible progress is to be made in preventing violence against women.
If I am encouraged by anything, it is by the women working at the grass-roots level. In the last few years I have observed our collective power building steam and momentum: Women are rising up and demanding accountability for crimes not only against them, but also against society at large.
In my country, Iran, women have worked tirelessly to challenge and overturn the discriminatory laws imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many women like Nasrin — and my young colleague Bahareh Hedayat, a university student sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison — were jailed for their work as lawyers, journalists or activists, for their efforts to expose the human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime.
Despite the very real threat of arrest, women in Iran started the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006 to attract support from ordinary Iranians for the reform of laws that promote violence against women. Though mass public protests became too dangerous, with many of us detained and charged, we pushed on. We moved our focus to the community level, to try to change mindsets within smaller groups.
Iranian women, like women around the world, are demanding fundamental changes that would grant them the right to live secure lives, free from violence. Women around the world, including those in the West, struggle daily with the violence pervading our societies. Political turmoil and armed conflicts continue to bring gender violence.
Some change is happening from the top down, but we must be cautious about what that really means. After the recent presidential elections in Iran, for example, the government for the first time appointed a woman as the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, while another woman was appointed to lead Iran's mission in Geneva.
Yet under Iranian law, a married woman must still have written consent from her husband to obtain a passport. What would happen if the husband of the new Iranian ambassador were to forbid his wife to travel?
The Foreign Ministry's new spokeswoman is not allowed to stand as a sole witness in a court of law, despite the fact that she is trusted to speak on behalf of the nation. The 2013 Islamic Penal Code holds that a woman's testimony is worth half the testimony of a man.
Our determination to change the systems that repress us has helped spur many national governments, and the international community, to action.
South Africa has opened a groundbreaking investigation into mass rapes allegedly orchestrated and perpetrated by President Robert Mugabe and his party, the ZANU-PF, during the 2008 election in neighboring Zimbabwe. In Guatemala, the first-ever female attorney general is pursuing, at great personal risk, the architects of the country's 1980s genocide in which rape was used to tear communities apart.
Indeed, in the past year there has been a flurry of activity to combat gender violence. Britain has led the way, encouraging the Group of 8 and other nations to fund efforts to end sexual violence. In September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, 113 countries signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. This declaration prohibits amnesties for sexual violence in peace agreements and allows suspects to be held accountable wherever they are in the world. It also pledges to adopt a new international protocol in 2014 to help ensure that evidence collected can stand up in court.
Such international commitments are certainly very welcome. When countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo — famously referred to by the former United Nations Secretary General's Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict as the ‘‘rape capital'' of the world — signs such a declaration, we are encouraged that there may be a real shift in attitude.
But we must be careful as well, and not mistake a signed agreement for an actual reduction of violence. Such agreements do little to help those in immediate need. And no one knows that better than the women leading the charge in their own communities.
These are the women who all too often see promises made by the international community hijacked by deeply embedded cultural norms and national interests.
Some of the same countries that are signing these agreement are also providing military funding to governments that knowingly support war criminals or refuse to arrest them. The continued saga of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan comes to mind: He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, including orchestrating widespread rape in Darfur, yet he travels freely to many countries.
Then there are those governments that point fingers without taking responsibility for violence against women at home. South Africa, with one of the world's highest rates of violence against women, battles its own internal demons while examining Zimbabwe's crimes. Yet in occupations, revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East and elsewhere, women are walking the walk — and are highly visible.
In India, women have demanded to be heard in protests against violent assaults. Women flocked to the streets calling for regime change in places like Tunisia and Yemen; they filled a courtroom to recount their own rapes in front of a former president on trial for genocide in Guatemala.
After years of fighting for their voices to be heard, those who deal with communities impacted by violence are working across borders to bring about change. The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, for instance, brings together more than 700 organizations ranging from international powerhouses like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to local groups like Panzi Hospital in the eastern part of Congo — a remarkable place that stitches up women who have been literally torn up by sexual violence.
Together, these groups make a human chain that uses our collective voice to be heard not only in the halls of power but also in streets, homes and schools. It is at this grass-roots level that the key to real change is found.
Most of us live in a patriarchal system that justifies the use of violence. Changing this system will be a long, slow, difficult process. As women, as citizens and as a global community, we must all hold society to account. At the same time, we must recognize that we have become a threat to the patriarchies and governments that try to silence us.
My colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh, who could not join us in Belfast last spring, was released from jail in September by the Iranian authorities. The move came just days ahead of a visit by Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, to the United Nations General Assembly.
Those of us who work to defend the rights of women in Iran know that the regime released Nasrin to appease the international community, and not because it has had a real change of heart. We are so happy to see Nasrin free, but we know that she and other Iranian women are not yet really free.
Promises are good; change is better. A group of determined women, gathered in a room dancing and singing or present in spirit, energized, brave and ready to make you account for your actions: That is the revolution.