Sexual Violence: When enough is enough 


The scourge of rape during wartime and the impunity with which it is carried out has caused women to fight back and call on governments to take action. Leymah Gbowee is a formidable voice who has been at the forefront of that call since the Liberian Civil War. A Nobel Laureate, peace and women’s rights activist, philanthropist and author, she tells Belinda Otas why governments must wake up and support women in their fight against violence.

Leymah Gbowee is renowned for her fortitude and forthrightness when addressing sexual violence in conflict regions. Gbowee would know – she survived the Liberian Civil War, during which time she and other women found their strength and their voice. 

Together, they demanded peace from warring factions, and their “impolite anger” as Gbowee describes it, gave birth to a movement that included daily sit-ins involving songs and peaceful protest. That peaceful movement proved instrumental as it defied warlords and forced sworn enemies to talk, and facilitated peace in Liberia after 13 years of ravaging civil war. Her effort is significantly credited with helping to oust former Liberian president, Charles Taylor (currently serving 50 years in prison for war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone).

Hence, it was no surprise that Gbowee was part of the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently held in London. A UK initiative, co-hosted by Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, alongside William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary.

The summit’s aim was to address the devastating impact of sexual violence on women, children and men during conflict, seek solutions to help victims and send the message to perpetrators that their heinous acts will no longer be tolerated. For the first time, governments and World leaders, civil society, survivors were brought together to commit to concrete actions to end sexual violence.

The summit also included leading voices from Africa like Zainab Bangura (Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict), Dr Denis Mukwege (Founder, Panzi Hospital, Bukavu, DRC), Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Chairperson, African Union), Fatou Bensouda (ICC Chief Prosecutor) and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (Executive Director, UN Women). 

According to the UN Secretary General, one in three women will be subjected to sexual violence or abuse in her lifetime and, platforms like Women In The World, 1 Billion Rising, and in Africa, the Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (a women-focused and led pan-African NGO with the core objective of promoting women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance within Africa), co-founded by Gbowee – have been dedicated to bringing attention to the issue of gender and sexual violence. 

But is the action on the ground matching up to promises often made at summits of this nature, and in what ways can they avoid the trap of becoming another talkshop for declarations? Gbowee is upfront about the achievement of women in bringing attention and change over the years and the potential of a summit like this in moving that work forward: “One of the things I take away from this summit is that when they say it’s time to act, women have been acting for over 10 years on this issue.

So, the summit is a political platform for unveiling all that community and women activists have been doing for the last decade. Hence, I would think one of the major successes, in my opinion, is that governments are finally turning around and saying, whether they want to admit it or not, that all of you have been doing a great job and it’s time for us to partner with you.” 

She adds: “In the long term, there are practical steps governments can take if they are really sincere because one of the reasons we have the problems that we have is due to the high level of impunity. There are too many rapes, whether it’s in peacetime or wartime, that go unpunished. It’s time to bring in all of those mechanisms – the legal structure and the practical things, like rape kits and training the police to respond effectively and with compassion. 

“Beyond talking, we also need to see a high level of commitment from international government to put resources to address the issue and into civil society so that they too are able to monitor government compliance in dealing with the situation.” 

Gbowee’s outlook is shared by Rainatou Sow, founder and executive director of Make Every Woman Count. She says: “We had a platform to talk about sexual violence in conflict. Over the last few years, people at the grassroots level have been talking about it but it wasn’t being talked about at the international level. For people who are making the policies to be able to convene in one place is already a step forward in the fight against sexual violence in conflict.” She admits that she did not see much concrete outcome but added: “I’m hoping is that the conference will lead to action.”

The summit took place at a time when there is continued disbelief at the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian school girls’ in Chibok, Borno State, back in April, by the militant group Boko Haram. A story that gripped the World’s imagination for weeks, it was a reminder of the atrocities of the group, which since 2009, has terrorised citizens of northern Nigeria, and has reportedly killed over 2,000 people so far this year, while demanding the implementation of Sharia law.

The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau can be seen on video after the girls were kidnapped, threatening to sell them off. Gbowee describes this kind of mental, emotional and physical trauma on women and girls as nothing new, and cites the example of the Aboke School Girls kidnapping in Northern Uganda in 1996 by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Of the Chibok girls, she said it is “a continuation of the objectification of women as sex objects, the marginalisation and discrimination against women in peacetime, and a continuation of women as second and third class citizens. It’s that entrenched thing that makes young boys think women are there for the taking.” 

Her view is shared by Michele Rickett, founder and chief executive officer of She is Safe, and author of Forgotten Girls, which chronicles the experiences of victims, who adds the plight of victims is exacerbated by conflict. Gbowee says the situation in Nigeria is going to become a trend by Boko Haram and “it’s going to be a major strategy for them. They have taken more than 200 girls, [and] if people don’t watch out they will continue to take because they are trying to make a point to the government of Nigeria: that you lack the capacity to protect your girls, let alone come after us.” It is her view that the abduction of the girls is for one reason, “sex”. “If you go back into the history, women are kidnapped during war not as trophies or as a means of gaining something but for massive sexual slavery,” she adds. 

A staunch advocate for education, she runs the Gbowee Peace Foundation, which offers young women full scholarships to go to university. Gbowee tells New African that she still believes in the strategic approach of using education to empower women in order to fare better and escape the margins of inequality.

“I think education is one of the keys and most times I tell people, it’s not just formal education but informal education too. Any kind of knowledge transmission that will enable a woman to get from a place of poverty to a place of empowerment, and live a good life, we need to persistently focus on and invest in,” she says.

She explains that what happened to the Chibok girls in Nigeria is an example of an ideology that believes in the repression of women’s voices and adds that Boko Haram’s tactic of abducting the girls while at school is “beyond sexual slavery.

It’s trying to send a message to say we don’t need you in power, we are not going to encourage any form of empowerment of women, all we want to see is people going back to how it used to be – women being mothers, bearing children and not doing anything for themselves. I mean, they are really sending a message that we want to keep women in captivity.” One of the many areas the summit’s agenda wants to tackle is to ensure women’s safety and freedom to lead normal lives.

It is worth asking what lasting impact the summit could potentially have on victims like the Chibok girls and women around the World caught in a web of violence; and how the positive energy and outlook of the conference could be better harnessed?

Gbowee is keen to point out that “the energy has always been harnessed – and I refuse to concede that this conference in London and Angelina’s voice is the beginning of [addressing] this issue because women have always been doing this even before Leymah. Access to justice has been a problem and women have been advocating for justice. The immediate need now is the capacity and resources to move on.” 

Sow agrees with her when she too says that what is needed now is for governments to deal with the root causes of sexual violence, end impunity and bring more women’s voices to the peace negotiation table. “Governments need to make resources available, fully engage, take this seriously and provide support for victims of sexual violence,” she adds.

Source: New African Magazine


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