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Unprecedented momentum to end sexual violence in conflict

Tuesday, 10 June 2014 23:20 GMT

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

The victims of this crime are more than just numbers; they are women and men who will suffer long after the conflict ends.

As you read this article, sexual violence in conflict is taking place in countries around the world: in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan and dozens of others.  It is happening in towns and villages, in detention centres, in refugee camps and camps for internally displaced persons and it affects thousands of people every day.

The victims of this crime are more than just numbers; they are women and men who will suffer long after the conflict ends.  They are children, some of which are too young to speak or go to school, but who are already familiar with the horrors of war.   They are families who have witnessed their loved ones brutalized in the most unspeakable ways.

The story of sexual violence in conflict is as old as war itself, but the international community is standing up to say it is no longer acceptable to stand by and allow these crimes to continue.

We are witnessing unprecedented momentum to end sexual violence in conflict.  For the first time, stakeholders from around the world, including government officials, civil society activists, religious leaders, university students, researchers and journalists, have come together in London on June 10 to 13 at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. 

The goal of the Summit is take the political commitment that has been shown in the United Nations, and from countries around the world, and turn it into concrete action on the ground where it can make a difference in people’s lives.

Survivors of sexual violence must be at the centre of everything we do.  It is my hope that the Summit will refocus attention on the plight of these brave women, men and children who are trying to rebuild their lives.  It is our collective responsibility to ensure that survivors have the services and support they need so they have a more secure and bright future. 

There are five key areas where action is needed most:

Accountability.  The May 2013 report by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the UN Joint Human Rights Office documented 135 women and girls in the DRC who were subjected to rape and attempted rape when the army entered their town of Minova in November 2012.  The trial for these crimes concluded in May of this year, and only two soldiers of the 39 tried were convicted of rape.  This failure to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes continues a culture of impunity in which sexual violence is acceptable.

The role of the military.  We must ensure that government militaries, police and security forces are trained in international law so they are more effective in preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict.  In the DRC, for example, special police units have been formed to specifically address cases of sexual violence and peacekeepers are providing armed escorts for women to safely travel to the market and back.  These examples must be replicated in all countries where sexual violence in conflict occurs.  By incorporating state authorities into prevention and response, the rule of law will improve and perpetrators will realize they are accountable for their crimes.

Women’s participation in the peace process.  The exclusion of women from the peace process undermines efforts to empower women and girls and foster their participation in all areas of society.  By failing to include women’s voices, conflict-torn societies will struggle to achieve lasting peace.  No society can advance if half of its citizens are held back, and it is difficult to pursue an economic and social development agenda post-conflict if women are denied a place at the table.  

Services for survivors.  Survivors must be at the centre of everything we do in addressing sexual violence in conflict.  Many are ostracised by their families and communities resulting in the loss of both their support networks and their livelihoods.  They may suffer life-threating reproductive and mental health issues that require extensive medical and psychosocial care.  Women may become pregnant and bear children who face a life of stigma and marginalization.  It is essential to provide support and services for these individuals so they can move forward in rebuilding their lives.

Protection for advocates and human rights defenders.  Lastly, we must commit to protect the brave men and women who risk their lives every day to report and respond to sexual violence in conflict.  They are on the front lines of this fight and often risk their lives to provide the legal, medical and economic support that survivors so desperately need.

These stories of rape and abuse in conflict are far from over, but we are closer than ever to making them a part of history’s past.  I look forward to working with my colleagues at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in London to help finally bring an end to what has been called history’s oldest and least condemned crime.

--Zainab Hawa Bangura is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict