Thursday, 12 June 2014

Starting a conversation about sexual violence in conflict

Starting a conversation 
about sexual violence in conflict

I was in London this week for a first aid course with the British Red Cross, learning some basics before my next move overseas (Beirut Calling!), and saw that the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was being held in the city. I wrote a bit about it in Talking about sexual violence back in April, so went along to check out the accompanying public exhibition.

Angelina Jolie and UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, are figure-heading this campaign, you can read about the aims of the summit here if you like. At the public exhibition, international NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Plan International and Save the Children set up stalls and exhibits alongside smaller NGOs advocating for better medical, legal and international support for victims of sexual violence in conflict.

Cherie Blair even made an appearance, donning her barrister's wig to confirm that UN Resolution 1325 - international recognition that women are disproportionately impacted by armed conflict, and disproportionately undervalued as participators in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacekeeping - "needs work". You can read about why she's right at Open Democracy, here

Male victims 

I sat in on a discussion with Refugee Law Project, an organisation working on justice and psychological support for victims of rape used as a weapon of war in Uganda. Their focus at the conference was to speak about underrepresented male victims of sexual violence in conflict. I had read a bit about this previously in Will Storr's article The rape of men: the darkest secret of war, but didn't know the extent of the stigma until the discussion. Male rape is such a taboo subject in Uganda that there is a total lack of training for lawyers and counselors dealing with reported cases.

Their work continues to change the voice of advocacy against sexual violence, working with police, prisons, and counselors. The NGO discovered that an effective way of starting discussions about rape in conflict in small communities was with film screenings, showcasing interviews with people who had lived through sexual violence and were seeking justice and support. This work changed the evidence base, transforming statistics into real stories, putting a human face to an abstract and stigmatized discussion.

In a way, this is what the SVC exhibition has been doing this week in London. Whether held in a small village in Uganda, or a state of the art multi-million-pound conference centre in the capital of the UK, a discussion about rape is always going to be hard to start. But someone has to start it, and with every story shared, someone else might find the courage to speak out and ask for the justice or support they need. 

"The worst pain is injustice"

If you have ever been told by someone that they have been raped, or suffered sexual violence, you will know the feeling of disempowerment it brings. Though you did not experience the assault, you share in the injustice, and wake up to something that happens every day, to millions of people. Rape leaves someone with a trauma they must live with their whole life long, often in secret. I discovered this for the first time last year, when a friend told me she had been raped throughout her adolescence by someone in a position of authority. To this day, she is seeking justice, not just for herself, but to protect others.

The exhibition this week had a three-screen cinema showcasing documentaries addressing sexual violence in conflict. I watched a film called Mission Rape: A Tool of War about the systematic rape of over 25, 000 women between 1992 and 1995 in the Bosnian conflict. The film followed the stories of women who now live in the same cities as men who raped them, men who now occupy positions in the public sector and police. Despite this humiliation, every day women call victim-founded support centers to report their rapes.

Zlatka from Sarajevo, who was gang-raped by eleven men in 1993, decided only last year to speak out. Her reason:

"I don't want any woman to be exposed to rape like I was. No one single one. War is terrible."

The film delivered the tragic statistic that only one hundred of the tens of thousands of cases of rapes reported have been tried at The Hague's International Criminal Court and courts in Bosnia. War criminals such as Milan Lukic, who were found guilty of multiple charges and crimes against humanity, were not found guilt of rape. Rape was not a charge Lukic was convicted of, despite multiple testimonies. For the thousands of women who suffered at the hands of men like Lukic, this legal judgement dismisses rape as a biproduct of war. Those who lived it, and live it still, know that sexual violence was used as a systematic strategy of war, intended to humiliate, oppress and terrorize women of a certain ethnicity. As one of Lukic's victims said:

"Rape is one of the worst things for a person to survive. The worst pain is injustice."

One of the interviewed victims in the documentary was a high court judge when, in 1992, she was sent to Ormasrska concentration camp. Throughout her stay in the camp, alongside every other female prisoner, she suffered sexual abuse. All that she had learnt in her law degree, about Bosnian law, about international law, vanished when conflict came.

This is why it is so important to start these global conversations, which bring the hope of introducing better measures and protections in times of conflict. International action, though sometimes seemingly ineffective, sends a strong message to perpetrators: that victims of sexual violence should not, and will not, stay silent. 

The day ended with The Royal Court's powerful performance of Liberian Girl, a play written by Diana Nneka Atuona. It told the story of Martha, a Liberian girl disguised as a boy to avoid rape, who became a child solider in Charles Taylor's rebel army. 

Thanks for reading, it will be interesting to hear about the outcomes of the summit in upcoming weeks.


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