The mass crime of rape: ending impunity

A group of us gasped when one tiny mother of five, who looked no older than my 20-year old daughter, lamented, “When I think about my life here, I often feel I’d rather be back in the bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army, at least there I had a community". While we are making some progress in fitful efforts at prosecution, we are failing victims of rape miserably, reports Susannah Sirkin.

Susannah Sirkin
23 May 2011

Last week in Kenya, leading human rights advocates, lawyers and women’s rights groups met to discuss new constitutional and police reforms and accountability for mass crimes, including rape that occurred in 2007.  Meanwhile, local headlines focused on the efforts by six key alleged perpetrators to avoid International Criminal Court indictments. In his speech to the assembled group, Judge Philip Waki, who headed Kenya’s independent commission into post-election violence, singled out mass sexual violence as a priority issue that the government has not addressed and where stigma, fear and police corruption impede justice.

 As an organization of health professionals working to investigate, report  and advocate against war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – Physicians for Human Rights focuses on the health consequences, the scale and scope of sexual assault in conflict zones and on collection of forensic evidence of the crimes.

We are convinced that unless there is a visible and serious end to impunity globally for sexual violence in armed conflict, the crime will be perpetuated.  We now know through numerous studies that rape in civil society also increases and is even   “normalized” when soldiers, government forces and rebel groups carry out tens of thousands of rapes with total impunity. Ending impunity means exacting a serious price onto those who inflict or would inflict this horrific crime.

Comprehensive justice in the face of this crime means prevention, prosecution, and punishment, but also acknowledgment, apology, and reparation. And reparation must aim to restore life to these women, to enable them to truly survive and live with dignity.

While we are making some progress in fitful efforts at prosecution, we are failing victims and survivors as well as their communities miserably.

 Last summer I heard the testimonies of young women formerly known as “bush wives” in Gulu,  Northern Uganda. The ferocious rebel forces had abducted them as children, forcing them into sexual slavery in the jungle. Their schooling was interrupted; they bore numerous children often as their own childhoods were ripped away in an instant. Now, post-conflict, these single mothers, massively violated and exposed to horrific atrocities, have returned to local towns, where many are given sewing machines to learn a skill and eke out a living, but no school or child care. They feel abandoned and stigmatized.

A group of us gasped when one tiny mother of five, who looked no older than my 20-year old daughter, lamented, “When I think about my life here, I often feel I’d rather be back in the bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army,  at least there I had a community".  What does she want most? To go back to school – all young women want this, she said. But she can’t afford school fees.  Her plea echoes the 2011 report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the High Commissioner for Human Rights: We need to listen to the survivors of sexual violence first as we organize to respond to their needs.

Valiant efforts are underway: We have new research, increased media attention, fresh laws and policies and official commitments. In the past year we’ve witnessed the launch of UN Women, and bold UN resolutions that require an innovative system of monitoring and accountability. We have a resolution that recognizes sexual violence as a threat to global security, thus making it an international priority of the highest order.  The Secretary General’s Special Representative on Violence Against Women in Armed Conflict, Margot Wallstrom,  launched her office and her work, speaking out forcefully. The International Criminal Court is prosecuting rape in five countries - Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic as a war crime and crime against humanity, and in one country, Sudan, rape is an element of the charges for the crime of genocide. We have seen some high level arrests.

But mass rape as a weapon of war largely continues to occur with almost total impunity as we saw in recent weeks in Cote d’Ivoire, and even more recently in Libya, where the ICC Prosecutor announced last Monday that he is investigating gang rape as a “weapon of war” allegedly being used by the security forces of Muammar Ghaddafi.

While progress in finally naming and making visible this crime is evident in the proliferation of huge billboards and slogans I saw this year in Kenya and Congo, stigma is still an overriding challenge.  As global leaders sound an alarm and condemn mass sexual violence, we laud the courageous women survivors and activists in war zones who risk most to speak out.

It is a daunting task to understand the scale and scope of sexual violence in conflict areas. In far too many places we still cannot discuss or document the crimes due to danger and lack of access. In Afghanistan women (as well as boys and men) suffer in silence. There is little research or reporting and massive denial by officials and community leaders. In Burma, access to women survivors is also difficult and dangerous. Given the nature of the atrocities there, a Commission of Inquiry is urgently needed as PHR and NWI have advocated along with our Burmese colleagues.  In Darfur, international organizations monitoring violence against women and providing care for victims of rape were expelled two years ago with no end in sight to the assaults and impunity.

The Nobel Women's Initiative's conference in Quebec this week on Women forging a new security: ending sexual violence in conflict,  provides a rare opportunity to move forward with a civil society strategy. Bringing together activists who work in diverse sectors from different geographies and political frames, we have a chance to form a strategic platform and more coordinated advocacy at this pivotal time.

As the UN’s Stop Rape Now campaign ramps up and circulates information to a global network, civil society must organize and mobilize a powerful response that puts real pressure on governments for prevention, protection, prosecution and support to survivors. Collectively, we need to hold governments and their agencies to their obligations.

We can campaign for protection measures to be more robust. We can press for peacekeepers to have clearer, stronger mandates to protect women. We can make sure more women are trained and deployed in protection forces.

We can campaign for legal reforms and blacklist countries where rape is inadequately defined and covered in criminal codes. We can speak out when witnesses are intimidated or police fail to make arrests. We can support proper standards for evidence and investment in justice systems and training for prosecutors, police, judges and health professionals. In Kenya there are only two forensic doctors.  In DRC, apparently only one part-time one in the Kivus.  Justice cannot be delivered when health and judicial infrastructures are so appallingly frail.

We can insist that major international donors support the essential front-line grassroots women’s groups that require small grants to survive.  A new report on North Kivu in eastern DRC reveals that in areas where grassroots women’s organizations are most successful and supported, more than 50% of rape victims present to health and legal services within the critical 72 hours of an assault.

We can mobilize to highlight the glaring gaps in support to women and press for accountability in delivery of aid. In February I visited a local government health clinic in a small village in South Kivu, DRC, 30 kilometres from the well-known Panzi Hospital. There was no electricity, no running water, an empty pharmacy, no rape kits or emergency contraception. But on site, an amazing nurse and her aides were working in the dark, without salary for the previous three months. The clinic had seen 15 rape cases in January. The victims cannot afford an official medical evaluation in the nearby town of Uvira or access to justice.  In Uvira, half a dozen legal and social support NGOs labor to support survivors of violence.  Not one had access to a computer.  And yet, every day they open their doors to victims of violence and push their systems to respond and deliver justice.  And they call on us to speak out for them and with them.

That is what we’ll be doing this week in Quebec.  As we come together from myriad sectors and regions to share struggles, successes and strategies, we must form a more powerful and effective civil society movement to stop this mass crime.

To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the conference click here



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