Sexual violence: not just a gender issue

5 June 2008

In the third of four reports from a UN conference on women targeted by armed conflict, Rosemary Bechler speaks to Nicky Dahrendorf, who as UN Action coordinator in the Congo holds "possibly one of the most challenging jobs ever devised".

Click here for parts one and two

3. A sobering reality

In that 'can do' atmosphere, I was very pleased to meet up briefly with Nicky Dahrendorf, who we last heard from on openDemocracy in late 2005. We repaired to a comfortable corner so that I could hear about what must be one of the most challenging jobs ever devised. On International Women's Day in 2007, twelve United Nations agencies came together to form the joint initiative, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations

Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) joined forces to improve the quality of programming to address sexual violence, to increase the coordination of efforts for comprehensive prevention and response services, and to improve accountability. The new Secretary General is keen to work on gender issues and has picked up on the challenge of sexual violence, and there is a new sense of momentum in the air. Nicky has just returned to the UN after two years away, to be appointed UN Action coordinator in the Congo.

'Prevention' in the field of sexual violence in conflict tends to be seen as a long-term challenge, involving a combination of judicial processes to demonstrate that there is no impunity for rape, and socio-cultural interventions aimed at changing attitudes in the long run and building women's capacity to expose and protest this violence. However, this is a long term process and everyone at the Wilton Park conference knows that women in eastern DRC or Darfur cannot wait the decades it might take for these efforts to work. The disruption of communities, of society as a whole, for example in the Congo can be measured not only in death, disease and trauma, but in women being kicked out on to the streets with their children and no income, prostitution, criminality and abuse of the kids – there are thousands of street children in Kinshasa, and the problem is growing.

But however tangible the sense of urgency in the people I am talking to, there are real problems in translating this into action. Nicky is currently wrestling to establish the parameters of her huge new remit; on the one hand, helping the DRC Government to develop a strategy on sexual violence, and on the other responding to the UN's new-found commitment to an over-arching approach. "Sexual violence is not just a gender issue," she explains, "It goes right across the board - it is about human rights, security sector reform - it's political. It's strategic. I don't mean to be politically incorrect, but if you are going to deal with this properly you have to integrate it into security sector and law reform. There are two immediate priorities for me - rule of law and impunity. This is tangible. If we can bring both civilians and military people to justice, it will have been a good start." UN Resolution 1325 will be a useful mechanism for communicating what has been achieved on the ground, but first the work has to be done. And this is where the problems start.

Already, a raft of political obstacles have been strewn across Nicky's path. It is not just enormous challenges, such as the glaring lacunae in the relevant data that concerns her, "Anecdotal evidence is all we have and much of it is incorrect. We can't develop our peacekeeping programmes without understanding the perpetrators and victims better. We need dedicated sex crimes investigators who go straight out to talk to these people. But after all these years - nothing has been done to pull the crucial data together. We need a proper stocktaking so that we can find out who is doing what where, so that we can begin to predict trends."

But the biggest problem is the UN machine itself. Already, her new post is beginning to feel to Dahrendorf like a sticking plaster over a gaping wound:

"Everything in the UN is a very gradual awakening - we know that. It needs a lot of lobbying and a lot of criticism. But I am very concerned about my job - put there in a senior position, but with absolutely no support. I have to scramble to get a computer: it's the same old UN story. The whole sexual violence issue does not lack funds. There is too much money around in my view. But the resources are really badly allocated. Important governments are duplicating their efforts in their haste to contribute. This project-oriented approach is not helpful, when what we need and what the Congolese Government needs, is strategy.

It's very late in the day. I think, to be truthful, it's too little too late. A lot of donors have got upset with the fact that the money that they have put into DRC and sexual violence has not seen results. It is a fact that certain lead agencies haven't delivered. Some of the international NGOs - IRC, Oxfam and others - have quite rightly asked why, with all the guys we have on the ground, we haven't been able to focus more on sexual violence as a priority. I've got about a year, but so far the work has been tedious and demoralising."

I come away from that conversation with a challenge of my own. Nicky has been thinking about her advocacy and communication strategy - radio, theatre, whatever it takes: "At the moment we are doing something with posters, and I can't help asking myself what some Interahamwe soldier sitting in the jungle in East Kivu is going to make of a little poster saying, 'Don't rape'." She wants to know if we have any good ideas...

The realities as Nicky describes them are sobering from every point of view: "We are nowhere near understanding the complexity of the problem. The way we are programming at the moment certainly does not address the complexity of the problem. This is not just about armed men in uniform: there are a whole host of other issues. Some are related to the conflict: some existed before the conflict, in belief systems such as fetishism, and whole cultures where notions prevail such as that raping a young girl cures HIV/Aids, or that raping an old woman strengthens the spirit. It is the human rights issue, I think. I might change my mind totally after a few more weeks in the job, but that is what I think now - and it has never been addressed that way."


Women targeted by armed conflict

Read the four reports from the conference

The changing face of war

Protecting women and girls in conflict

Sexual Violence not just a gender issue

Pray the devil back to hell


Also on openDemocracy: Anne-Marie Goetz, "War and sexual violence: an issue of security" plus an interview with John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs

Stop rape now: UN action against sexual violence in conflict

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