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Last Monday evening, Sept. 24, the Women’s Media Center and Physicians for Human Rights presented a panel discussion titled “Is It Possible to Stop Rape in Conflict? A Conversation with Nobel Laureates and Activists at the Forefront of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.”

Before the panel itself got under way, author and activist Robin Morgan offered some comments. She began by saying that women live in an alternate reality of normalized violence. She mentioned the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s Akayesu decision, which ruled for the first time that rape, if committed with the intention to destroy a group, could be considered a component of genocide. It also marked the first time an international court punished sexual violence in a civil war. Throughout the world, especially in conflict-prone areas, women are subjected to female genital mutilation, untenable living situations as internally displaced persons and refugees, sexual slavery and prostitution, unpaid labor, and suffer disproportionately from illiteracy. She concluded by pointing out the direct correlation between violence in the family and violence in the state. For more on this topic, Morgan recommended reading Sex and World Peace, by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett.

The next speaker was Susannah Sirkin, deputy director at Physicians for Human Rights, who focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She discussed the case of Bosco Ntaganda, who despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court continues to travel freely between the DRC and Rwanda, which has the effect of encouraging rape and other grave crimes. On the topic of medical treatment for rape survivors, Sirkin said that while clinics exist, their cupboards are bare. In addition to ending impunity, she also noted the need for survivors to tell their stories.

Sirkin then acted as translator for Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, located in eastern DRC. Dr. Mukwege said he has treated 40,000 women who are victims of rape and has performed 15,000 surgeries to repair women’s bodies damaged by rape and sexual violence. Compounding the problems of silence and lack of capacity surrounding these issues, Dr. Mukwege said that rape in DRC is not just a weapon, but a strategy of war—well planned, well organized, and systematic. Women and girls of all ages are victims and mass rapes are methodically carried out. There are instances in which public rapes are used to demonstrate power and destroy genitalia; one cannot go to the press as with a mutilated hand or ear. Consequences of rape in the DRC include a massive displacement of the population, as well as a demographic impact, since young women often develop obstetric fistulas that make it impossible for them to reproduce. There’s also the risk of contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. These are consequences that are transmitted to the next generation and lead to the destruction of the social fabric and economy.

After Dr. Mukwege, Patricia Guerrero spoke. She is director of the League of Displaced Women in Colombia, where displaced women live undercover because there are no public policies in place to address their plight. When conflicts come to an end and a peace process starts, Guerrero noted that violence against women often increases. Other social problems adversely affecting women in Colombia are the development and control of natural resources and the war on drugs. Because of the stigma these women face, they often speak in code.

The next-to-last panelist was Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran. Ebadi said she believes sexualized violence can be ended by addressing impunity through the ICC, although it is a problem that the ICC has no jurisdiction over half of the countries in the world because they are not state parties to the Rome Statute. She noted that while it is true the UN Security Council has the authority to refer cases to the ICC, as it did with Sudan, there is also the fact problem of the abuse of veto power within the Security Council. She cited Syria as an example, where crimes against humanity are being committed but China prevents the Security Council from taking action. Ebadi pointed out that children born from rape and what their destiny will be is often forgotten. In traditional cultures, as she called them, such children are hated and cast aside. So protecting victims has to include protecting these children. Punishing the perpetrator is the ideal but culture can dictate that the victim be killed or have other rights violated. During the Iran–Iraq war, she said, a vast amount of rapes were committed in southern Iran, which is tribal. Twenty years later, those who contested the 2009 election results were arrested and raped in prison. To bring an end to such atrocities, Ebadi suggested that a good starting point is naming and shaming those who commit them.

The final speaker was Jody Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her achievements with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Williams noted that although a campaign to ban landmines is obviously very different from a campaign to stop rape in conflict, they both speak to the power of the collective, of civil society. She also talked a bit about her experiences working with the women’s human rights group MADRE.

The evening concluded with a Q&A session led by the event’s moderator, Lauren Wolfe. The event’s main takeaway was that rape in conflict isn’t something that happens “over there.” Rather, it is a continuum of the violence that happens in homes and between states. One of the contributing factors is the glorification of war, and the root cause is patriarchy, meaning a cultural mindset, not just the male gender. Because of the shame attached to it, victims of rape must overcome the obstacle of silence. For their part, men who aren’t responsible for these heinous acts also need to speak out. Political leaders must address this issue as they do unemployment or the economy. And in order to achieve true justice, women must participate in peace negotiations.

Related links:

UN Guidance for Mediators Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ceasefire and Peace Agreements

The Missing Peace Symposium 2012: Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings

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