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Bringing women to the table to address sexual violence in conflict

“Why is their experience of war not deemed equal to men’s, when the blueprints for peace are being drawn?”

Attending the largest ever summit on ending sexual violence in conflict, Mary Robinson argues that women are not just victims of war – they must play an essential part in building peace. First published in the New York Times.

Mary Robinson

In war zones, rape is a weapon. We cannot claim to be serious about stopping war crimes if we do nothing to prevent and punish these heinous acts – and if women are not part of the solution every step of the way.

Thanks to the rallying efforts of William Hague and Angelina Jolie, dozens of foreign ministers and legions of advocacy groups are gathering in London this week to grapple with a global response to sexual violence in conflict. This is an unprecedented show of ambition; governments have not given these crimes the necessary attention in the past.

Now the blind spot will be uncovered: women – and men, too – are at risk of sexual abuse wherever gunfire rattles and militias roam. Like other forms of violence, sexual violence shatters people, families, and livelihoods. It leaves behind a legacy of trauma, making it more likely that the next generation will continue fighting, killing, and allow sexual violence to fester.

A history of modern warfare reveals sexual abuse at almost every turn: according to the United Nations, up to 250,000 Rwandan women were sexually assaulted in three months of genocide in 1994. In Yugoslavia, 60,000 women were abused between 1992 and 1995. Sierra Leone and Liberia jointly witnessed up to a hundred thousand cases over the course of a decade in the 1990s.

These days, the Democratic Republic of Congo makes headlines with reports of rape on an alarming scale, much of which is connected to the conflict in the eastern regions. The UN reports more than 200,000 cases of rape in the country since 1998. In April this year, a detailed report by the UN human rights office in the Congo provided evidence based on over 3,600 cases in the past three years – a conservative figure based on registered cases only. The oldest victim was 80 years old. The youngest was two.

Mary Robinson meets victims of sexual violence in the DRC
Mary Robinson visits a health facility treating women who are victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: UN Photo | Sylvain Liechti

As UN special envoy to the Great Lakes region, I travel to Congo frequently. When I address the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London this week, I will speak up for the women I meet in Bukavu, Goma and Kinshasa. I will remind delegates that the women of Congo are not victims first and foremost. Above all, they are leaders. They hold their communities together. They are the region’s best hope for peace.

Former President Jimmy Carter is my colleague within a group of independent leaders called The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela. He has recently written a visionary book arguing that women’s discrimination is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world, perpetuated and preserved by men in ascendant positions everywhere.

Sexual violence highlights that very injustice in peace negotiations, historically the preserve of male elites. There is no question that women suffer hugely. So why is their experience of war not deemed equal to men’s at the negotiating table, when the blueprints for peace are being drawn?

Moreover, in volatile settings, like eastern Congo, where the state has broken down and a security vacuum sets in, women are the ones who lead and organise the community while the men are swept up in conflict. We have seen women leaders heal divisions in Northern Ireland and Liberia, but the lessons from these successes have not significantly changed our thinking worldwide.

The people of Congo are used to hollow peace agreements – "bad men forgiving bad men in front of cameras," as the saying goes – only for the pomp and promise to fade away at the next round of gunfire. We need a different approach, one that includes the society as a whole, with a due role given to women. As Genevieve Inagosi, the Congo government’s Minister of Gender puts it: “Women do not only have the solutions. They are the solutions.”

Mindsets are evolving. The United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions recognising the need to include women in peace processes. We need to push the agenda further at every opportunity.

One reason I am hopeful is that, after this week’s summit, millions of silent victims, most of whom are women, will know there are actions they can take to defend their dignity. The top priorities at the meeting are to improve the documentation and investigation of crimes, and to provide better support networks for survivors.

The greater aspiration is that societies in conflict will know that these war crimes will not go unpunished and that transitional justice can be made available to deal with these abuses swiftly. The stigma will shift from the victims to the criminals. If rape is no longer deemed a warrior’s accepted privilege, we will be one step closer to peace.

This opinion piece was first published in On the Ground, Nicholas Kristof's blog for the New York Times.

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