Remarks to UNAOC-EF Summer School by Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura
[Tarrytown, New York, 18 August 2014]
Friends, colleagues, sisters and brothers, it gives me great pleasure to be here with you today. I would like to thank the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and Education First for giving me the opportunity to share with the next generation of leaders sitting here, the devastating impact of sexual violence in conflict.
It is my hope that each and every one of you present today will join me in my resolve to see an end to this crime. I know that by standing together we can once and for all make this scourge a thing of the past.
We have in this room, the future of the world. You all come from diverse backgrounds; your experiences are different, your cultures are unique. Yet, none of you here, including me, can stand up and say with conviction that my country, my community and my society has never experienced sexual violence.
Sexual violence in conflict knows no geographic boundaries – no continent, culture or religion has a monopoly over it.
Sexual violence is used as a tactic of war to decimate communities, ruin peace processes, and cause insufferable pain. The terrible reality of rape is that it destroys the bonds of family, creates huge wounds in the psyches of survivors, and impacts upon the economic well-being of societies. It keeps women from safely accessing their fields, markets, water-points, and workplaces, and it keeps girls from safely accessing school. When a man is forced to rape his own son at gunpoint, a six- month old baby is brutally raped, and a 70-year old woman is violently attacked and violated, we know that perpetrators have targeted the very heart of humanity.
Sexual violence in conflict is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as war itself. However, it is only recently that the world has recognized it for what it is, a crime against humanity and a war crime. It is only with various groundbreaking Security Council resolutions that this crime has been elevated from the margins to the mainstream of international criminal law and global security policy, creating the conceptual framework, establishing the infrastructure, and developing the elements of compliance to allow us to monitor, analyze and report this crime.
My office was created as the result of these series of Security Council resolutions in which the international community finally acknowledged the devastating and lasting impact that sexual violence has on communities. Security Council Resolution 1325 was the first resolution to make a link between this disproportionate impact of conflict on women and children and the maintenance of international peace and security.
Resolution 1820 recognized conflict-related sexual violence as a tactic of war and as an international peace and security issue, which required a peace and security response.
Resolution 1888 established: (1) my office to provide high-level leadership to drive forward response efforts and to provide leadership and coordination of UN efforts; (2) the deployment of Team of Experts to situations of concern to assist national governments in justice and prevention efforts; (3) the appointment of women protection advisors for peacekeeping missions to provide support for the reporting of sexual violence and for the implementation of the resolution’s protection mandate; and, (4) assurance that all peace talks address sexual violence in conflict, so that access to justice and reparations can be put in place for sustainable peace.
Resolution 1960 put into place systems to monitor, analyze and report on conflict-related sexual violence and commitments by parties to conflict to prevent and address sexual violence. Resolution 1960 also allows me to ‘name and shame’ countries and armed groups that are credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence in war.
In short, we have the international legal framework we need to dismantle the old system in which sexual violence is treated as a second class crime that happens to second class people. The challenge now is to translate these international norms into reality on the ground. My goal is not to make incremental changes in the hopes that we can diminish this problem. I am fighting for nothing less than the eradication of rape in war.
My Office has developed a six point agenda to accomplish this:
- ending impunity for perpetrators and seeking justice for victims;
- protecting and empowering civilians who face sexual violence in conflict, in particular, women and girls who are targeted disproportionately by this crime;
- mobilizing political leadership to address this issue;
- strengthening coordination and ensuring a more coherent response from the UN system;
- increasing recognition of rape as a tactic of war;
- and, finally, emphasizing national ownership, leadership and responsibility in the fight to put an end to this scourge.
Friends, people often ask me why I am so confident that we can win this fight. I know we can because my own life experience has taught me nothing is impossible.
I grew up the daughter of a woman who had no formal education, but risked everything to make sure that I went to school. I began my career in the corporate sector as an insurance executive. I then became an activist, documenting human rights abuses and taking testimony from women whose bodies and rights had been violated during the civil war in my country, Sierra Leone. I survived an attack on my home and threats against my life and I lived in fear that neither I nor my child would ever be safe. I later worked at the highest levels of Government, first as Foreign Minister, then as Minister of Health. Now I am an advocate against sexual violence in conflict on the international stage.
During all this time, in all these capacities, the one thing that I have learned is that anything is possible. While working as an activist I met some women in the province of Kailahun in Sierra Leone. They were survivors of wartime sexual violence and their lives had been utterly devastated. Many of them had lost loved ones, some of them had been rejected by their families, and all of them faced a future with little or no economic prospects or chance for recovery.
We knew that we had to help these women get back on their feet and move forward with their lives, so we partnered with another NGO, The New Field Foundation, to provide grants to help them start small businesses. I’ve kept in touch with those women and seen the change in them and their community, and it has been remarkable. Today they are not beggars, but business owners. They are not outcasts, but entrepreneurs. Many of the women have been so successful that they have hired staff, including ex-combatants, to work for them. And the changes aren’t just in the economic sector. Last year, Kailahun fielded the highest number of female candidates for political office of any district in Sierra Leone.
In short, these women not only survived, they rallied. This is how real change happens – in every village, every town, and every city where children and our youth see, day in and day out, that women are valuable members of society whose rights are respected.
If we are to build a better future, a future with security, social justice and peace for women, men and children alike, we all have to work together. We especially need young people like you – community organizers, teachers, journalists and activists – to help break what has long been called ‘history’s greatest silence’.
We need your voices to shift the mind-sets of those who treat sexual violence as a private tragedy; and to influence those who believe that what happens in a “private hut” or in a remote village in the rain forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo has nothing to do with security, or that rape is just part of war’s “collateral damage”. Our common enemy is the myth that rape is inevitable. It is a myth which protects the perpetrators, shields their commanders, and allows world leaders to shrug off sexual violence as the random acts of a few renegades.
I call on you to be advocates for the rights of women and girls not just at home, but around the world. Speak out in your communities and online when you see this injustice taking place. Let your elected officials and political leaders know that you want conflict-related sexual violence to end so that they support policies and programs that address this issue.
I ask you to tell the world about this problem and force the international community to take action. If we continue to lift our collective voices we cannot be ignored and we will not be denied. In the words of Laura Liswood, who is with the Council of Women Leaders, “We are like snowflakes; one alone will melt, but together we can stop traffic.” With our combined efforts, we can make rape in war a thing of the past, and I look forward to the day when the only place it will be discussed is in the history books.