Sexual violence in conflict: "We are barely scratching the surface"

by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka | UN Women
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 15:41 GMT

Mejra Dzogaz cries near the graves of her family members at the Memorial Center in Potocari April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What should be an aberration continues to be an epidemic, says UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

This week, one of the world’s most famous humanitarians and one of the most powerful countries in the world are teaming up in London to host a global summit to end sexual violence in war. Hundreds of people representing governments, civil society, and the United Nations will convene to share solutions to the widespread use of sexual violence in today’s conflicts, and address the shameful gap between our aspirations and our actions.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture. What should be an aberration continues to be an epidemic.

The United Nations Security Council adopted four resolutions in five years devoted solely to sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security. Similar resolutions and declarations have been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and the G8. In the last fifteen years, international courts have produced a growing body of convictions of war criminals and robust international jurisprudence on this topic. Public awareness has increased exponentially, measured by the proliferation of media attention, social media activism, and academic research.

And yet, in my first year as Executive Director of UN Women, I have traveled to Nigeria, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the sprawling camps for Syrian refugees, and I can tell you that we are barely scratching the surface. The stories that I have heard from women and girls are hard to stomach and impossible to forget.

It is not that this problem is intractable, or that we cannot make progress. Since the United Nations began tackling this issue more forcefully, especially in the last decade, we have seen tangible changes in the way we approach human rights monitoring, security sector reform, transitional justice, peace negotiations, and peacekeeping missions, from their mandates and directives to their staffing, training, and operations. We have seen that targeted patrols by blue helmets can help reduce attacks against women and girls when they are collecting water or firewood, or on the way from and to markets and schools. We have seen itinerant mobile courts traveling to remote areas drive up dramatically the number of trials and convictions of perpetrators. We have seen that one-stop-shops housing under one roof all services needed by survivors immediately improve the adequate provision of medical care or legal support.  We have seen the potential that reparations for sexual violence survivors can have in changing women’s lives and the communities in which they live.

We do not have a shortage of possible solutions. What we have lacked until now is the political courage required to invest massively in them. The reality is that programmes for gender-based violence continue to be the least funded in all humanitarian appeals. Women’s organizations respond to survivors and advocate for change with unrelenting passion, but with barely any means. In 2013, UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, the only multilateral grant-making body solely dedicated to this issue, raised only 10.8 million dollars, less than one percent of what they receive in proposals for funding from all over the world. Women and girls continue to be denied access to comprehensive health care to address their physical and psychological wounds, sexually transmitted diseases, or unintended pregnancies.

Reparations, the one measure of justice that women survivors most often demand themselves, is the one that has been used the least. And we under-invest in the only viable, long-term strategy to get to the structural, social, and material roots of sexual violence: the political and economic empowerment of the majority of its victims, women and girls.

Without a radical investment in women’s empowerment, we may reduce impunity but fail to reduce rates of violence or have a tangible impact on the lives of women and girls. Without that missing ingredient, violations of women’s rights are not preventable and women cannot contribute to peace. This is the message that the global women’s movement has repeated for years, and will not stop repeating until we see equality in the bodies that shape our politics and decide on matters of war and peace.

Throughout the world, UN Women helps care for survivors, train peacekeepers and police, improve early warning and prevention, raise awareness, and provide accountability through investigations and transitional justice, from national and international courts to truth commissions and reparations. But the most important part of our work is our determination to fight for the empowerment of women all over the world and their leadership on matters of peace and security. We simply cannot afford to wait another decade or another century for equality.

In the words of Malala Yousafzai, the most powerful embodiment of courage and hope, “we cannot succeed when half of us are held back”. It is simply not acceptable that those who have the most to lose take the biggest risks in advancing women’s rights. We all have work to do and no time to waste.