“There is a reason that international institutions have been so slow to move on this agenda - it is because impunity begins at home!”- Joanne Sandler, deputy director, UN Women. Jessica Horn reports from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on ending sexual violence against women.
There is no bigger conceit than to deny the violation in another person’s life. And yet when it comes to violence against women in conflict, the world community and its militaries, policy makers, legal systems and community leaders have done just that- for centuries. As Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Magurie offered in her opening remarks to the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference in Montebello, “I think that rape has gone on so long because we have refused to speak the truth”.
The fact that this tide of denial has begun to take a significant turn owes a debt to the many courageous and visionary survivors who have chosen to speak their truths. The room fell silent as we listened to the spontaneous testimony of Congolese activist Rose Mapendo, and the 16 month ordeal she endured in a death camp at the hands of genocidaires. In her words, “let's encourage victims to speak out, because without our voice nobody knows what is true”.
Survivors are often at the frontlines of this call to action, for the simple fact that they know how urgent the need for change is. As Binalakshmi Nepram of the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network passionately stated “for many of us it is about being pushed to the wall, and then fighting back for what is right”. In Manipur, a region of India that lies on the Burmese border- an emergency law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 continues to legitimise the army’s use of a wide range of powers to search, arrest and kill people suspected of disrupting peace. In 2004, the brutal rape and murder of a Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by members of the armed forces led to an unprecedented protest by a group of women who stripped naked in front of the army headquarters in what was for them an ultimate act of shaming authorities. To them, it was time to speak the truth.
Clearly our work is to take decisive action against acts of human cruelty, not least when legally sanctioned. In doing so, we also critically need to ensure that survivors are at the heart of our responses, in terms of justice, accountability and the basic support needed to piece life back together. However, would it not be better if these atrocities were never committed in the first place?
To Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Magurie, preventing individual acts of sexual violence requires a deeper engagement to end the cultures of militarism. She asks a compelling question: “How can we say to young men ‘be good, be virtuous don’t rape’ when in our militaries throughout history there has always been rape, sexual violence, militarism and war…And must we continue down this path? No! It is no longer acceptable that we take young men and women and take them into places and say ‘kill, kill, kill’ because that is what we do when we militarise the minds of young people”. In a pragmatic follow-up, Joanna Kerr, the CEO of Action Aid International, extends the question to ask that given how much we know about the economic rationale behind wars, we urgently need to make a case for the economics of peace, and explore the practical economics of non-violence. In human terms, it is clear the peace is far less costly. Can we quantify that in monetary terms?
Speaking from a military perspective, Charlotte Isaksson, Senior Gender Advisor to the Swedish military reiterated her belief in the role of the military as a force to ensure peace, noting the principle in her own military training of using lethal force as a last resort. She mused that if she was queen for a day she would create a model army that fully integrated issues of gender equality and preventing sexual violence and that could be used as inspiration for all existing security forces. “I would call it ‘PinkWater’" she joked and then added seriously “it is possible to do this. If we could travel to the moon…then of course we can end sexual violence!”.
At the governmental level, leveraging political will to acknowledge, resource and take action on sexual violence in conflict has always been the challenge. In the words of Joanne Sandler, long time advocate for women’s rights within the UN system and current Deputy Director of UNWomen, “there is a reason that international institutions have been so slow to move on this agenda- it is because impunity begins at home!”. With that said, Joanne also described significant strides made to integrate issues of sexual violence into governmental intervention mandates. This includes a noticeable shift among UN Security Council members, from a view that violence against women was not a security issue prior to the passage of Resolution 1325, to the current active practice of outreaching to women’s groups when doing country consultations and acknowledging violence against women among the list of human rights abuses in ongoing resolutions.
The work of preventing sexual violence remains a collective responsibility, and as speakers in the panels that opened the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference suggest, there are many routes to achieving it. And while we may well debate the ‘who’ of responsibility, and the ‘how’ of methodology’ there is one certainty emerging from this forum. For the question of ‘when’ action is needed to prevent sexual violence, the unequivocal response is: now!
To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the ocnference click here