Bringing sexual violence out of the shadows of war

Villagers in Bunyakiri, DRC, perform a play about a woman who has been raped. Such dramatizations help sensitize communities to victims' suffering. © ICRC / P. Yazdi

Villagers in Bunyakiri, DRC, perform a play about a woman who has been raped. Such dramatizations help sensitize communities to victims' suffering. © ICRC / P. Yazdi

The topic of sexual violence in armed conflicts has gained both political traction and public attention in the United States in recent weeks and months thanks to statements made by likes of Secretary of State, John Kerry, US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, Russ Feingold, and actor-director-activist, Ben Affleck, as well as commitments made by the UN's General Assembly in September.

Just last week, Secretary Kerry met with his UK counterpart, Foreign Secretary William Hague, along with US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Catherine Russell, and UN Special Representative, Zainab Bangura, to discuss the problem and what they hope to achieve at an upcoming global summit in June.

"There's really no way to adequately describe the depths of depravity and the extraordinary violence of rape as a tool of war, as violence against women as a tool of intimidation, coercion, submission, and power," said Secretary Kerry. "And I think those of us who have known about this for a long time are disturbed by the levels at which this is used as exactly that kind of tool in too many parts of the world."

The ICRC's leading expert on the topic, Deputy Director of Operations, Pascale Meige, agrees that the problem of sexual violence in armed conflicts is far more widespread than previously thought. She was in Washington recently to brief law and policy makers on the subject, and took some time to talk to Intercross about the ICRC's new approach to this pervasive, yet largely invisible, problem.

Intercross: Let's start with what we really mean by "sexual violence in armed conflicts." What exactly are we talking about here?

Pascale Meige: The ICRC has documented many different patterns of sexual violence in the various conflicts and violent situations where we work. Sometimes, victims will describe being raped multiple times. Most often, the victims are women and girls but it happens to men and boys too. It is used as a method of warfare to intentionally exert pressure on communities, and it can also be opportunistic in situations where there is no rule of law. People just take advantage of the chaos to commit horrific crimes. It exists in post-conflict situations as well.

In some cases, neighbors and family members are forced to watch. They might even be forced to participate. We'll hear reports of a father being forced to rape his own daughter, of a son being forced to rape his own mother. In power struggles, you'll hear about a rebel raping a soldier's wife, or vice versa, as a form of revenge or reprisal.  It can also totally disrupt daily life. For example, a woman might go to fetch water or a girl might be walking to school and suddenly they're pulled into the bushes and assaulted. Sometimes, it will be done with a rifle, sticks, or other sharp objects. We're talking about acts that cause severe physical pain and wounds, not to mention mental anguish. The scars of sexual violence can last a lifetime for the victims, but also for the communities in which they live. It breaks people's spirits, tears families apart, and can destroy the fabric of societies.

What makes it hard to prevent and tackle is that it is shrouded in silence and steeped in a sense of shame. The fact that it is so widespread, yet largely invisible, is also an immense challenge for humanitarian agencies, like the ICRC, who are working in countries affected by war and armed violence. This is why we recently decided to take a new approach to tackling the problem.

How have we begun doing things differently?

We now start with the assumption that wherever there is armed conflict, sexual violence is happening. It's a reversal of the burden of proof. Normally, we would assess the nature and extent of a problem before implementing ways of dealing with it. But that doesn't work when people are too afraid to talk about what's going on and there is such a stigma attached to the problem. It's a Catch 22… you don't know how bad it is because the victims won't come forward and therefore you don't develop a response because you don't see it happening.

But it is happening and our experience in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has shown that when you offer both psychological and medical services, people are more likely to step forward and as a result, you get a better understanding of how prevalent sexual violence is.

So, by telling our teams in the field, "Take it for granted that this is going on in every situation where you work," it enables them to go ahead and design operational responses that will encourage victims to seek the help they need and deserve. That's when you can start to substantiate the extent to which it's happening and identify prevention and protection strategies.

Does sexual violence exist more in some countries or cultures than others?

This isn't a question of geography. It's a question of authority and accountability. Sexual assaults occur during times of peace and sadly, they happen across the globe – here in the US and in every other country. In wars, you tend to see all forms of violence become more intense, due the chaos and lawlessness, as well as the proliferation of small arms. Chains of command can be broken or weakened, and people are often displaced. This puts a lot of pressure not only on communities but also on arms carriers and the authorities. So it's only logical that pre-existing patterns of violence, like sexual assault, will increase. That said, there must be zero-tolerance at all times.

What can be done to stop it?

Practically speaking, those commanding the military and those commanding armed groups must give very, very clear instructions that these acts will not be tolerated. The impunity must be stopped. We've seen a couple of contexts where the leaders of the armed opposition have laid down instructions that raping people is absolutely prohibited. If we could get more non-State armed groups to commit to prohibiting sexual violence, that would be a strong deterrence mechanism and an incentive for others to follow suit.

There must also be sanctions and discipline, and those who commit these crimes – because they are crimes under international humanitarian law – must be punished. Perpetrators should be prosecuted, and individuals must be held responsible and accountable for their actions. More broadly, governments must ensure that rape is criminalized in national legislation. That said, the safety and protection of victims must be paramount as they seek access to justice.

And those who might encourage or endorse such an abhorrent practice need to understand that when you destroy the fabric of a community, you will pay for it one day. Just like when people are tortured or disappear, sexual violence is profoundly traumatic and carries long-term consequences for communities. Individuals can find a way to get back on their feet if given the right support. Victims can become very resilient survivors. But the societies in which this happens will bear the wounds for generations. If you're trying to take over an area or a village, do you really want that to be your legacy?

What other lessons have we learned from working in countries like the DRC?

Giving the victims the space to come forward is key to everything. It's key to meeting their psychological and medical needs, and it's essential to sensitizing communities to the fact that the victims are not the ones at fault and that sexual violence is a crime. We support around 40 "listening houses" in DRC that are run by local staff, who provide direct support to the victims and are specially trained in community sensitization.

The people we talk to tell us these are unique spaces that have made a significant difference to the communities. In the past, victims might have been taken to see a local priest or healer, who would dismiss them as possessed or prescribe a useless potion. The victims would be seen as untouchable outcasts. But by going door-to-door and explaining the services that are available – from emotional counselling to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases – it helps break the taboo.

What we've learned in various contexts – not just in Africa but elsewhere in places like Colombia – is that when you provide a safe space for people to seek psychological and medical care, it opens a door to understanding what's really going on. In turn, this enables us to adapt our dialogue with the arms carriers accordingly in an effort to halt these reprehensible acts.

By talking about it and bringing sexual violence out of the shadows of war, it empowers communities to take a stand and protect themselves, while shifting the blame squarely where it belongs, which is with the perpetrators.

What can law and policy makers here in Washington do to support the ICRC's efforts?

Funding is always extremely important but beyond that, the attention that donors, diplomats, lawmakers and others have dedicated to this subject as of late is really encouraging. We need to galvanize as much support and momentum around this issue as possible. It's also important to have a healthy dialogue and to be asked difficult questions because it helps us focus our efforts.

For humanitarians, it's always challenging when you see the need to develop new ways of tackling a problem. Sure, we innovate every day, but as an organization, you need the time, energy and resources to go beyond the crises and emergencies that already fill your plate, and look at a problem from a totally new angle in order to come up with even better solutions. That's what we're doing with sexual violence.