The idea that sexual violence in wartime and its aftermath is avoidable is such a new concept that ceasefire and peace agreements almost never included any mention of it, according to speakers at USIP’s Missing Peace Symposium.
Ceasefire, Peace Accords Rarely Address Sexual Violence

The idea that sexual violence in wartime and its aftermath is avoidable is such a new concept that ceasefire and peace agreements almost never included any mention of it, according to speakers at USIP’s Missing Peace Symposium.

The three-day event, hosted by USIP’s Center for Gender and Peacebuilding in partnership with more than a dozen organizations, ended Feb. 16 and brought together presenters including Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams and the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura. The aim was to discuss ways of more effectively documenting, preventing, and mitigating the effects of sexual violence in conflict, whether against women and girls or men and boys. The symposium also launched a Young Scholars Network to support new research efforts and disseminate doctoral research on the topic more widely.

The issue has drawn increasing attention for the long-term effects not only on the women who survive the abuse with mental and physical scars but also on the ability of communities to recover from war because of the debilitating societal impact. The U.N. Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions since 2000 addressing aspects of the scourge of gender-based violence in conflict.

“In the history of ceasefire agreements up until about a month ago, only three ceasefires ever listed sexual violence,” said Gina Torry, an expert in the field who helped the United Nations finalize guidance issued last year for mediators on including considerations related to sexual violence when negotiating accords to halt conflicts. An exception was the Democratic Republic of Congo, but even there, no mechanism existed to verify the terms. “There’s a question about how you think about addressing sexual violence from the beginning of the mediation process to signing the ceasefire agreement and then to figuring out” how to monitor and enforce the provisions, Torry told the audience.

Most ceasefire or peace agreements make rules for weapons, tanks and so forth, but not necessarily for methods and tactics such as sexual violence, she said.

“If you don’t make a rule for this, it can go on outside of ceasefire and peace agreements without being monitored for,” Torry said. When the terms are included, carrying them out depends on command responsibility within the military forces involved, which can be addressed in security arrangements that are negotiated as part of the accords.

In issuing its guidance, the U.N. cited the destructive role of sexual violence in conflicts including Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. The guidelines are provided to U.N. mission chiefs and mediators and included in training and briefing materials for envoys.

“Key principles for mediators include an obligation to engage parties in discussion on this issue and to work towards firm commitments in peace accords to cease all acts of conflict-related sexual violence,” the U.N. said at the time. “The guidelines also require sexual violence to be included in the definition of acts covered by a ceasefire and monitored for.”

Emilio Ovuga, a psychiatrist and a peacebuilding activist based in northern Uganda, talked about the effect of sexual violence on survivors. “Sexual violence has serious psychological consequences,” including the shame and humiliation felt by victims, said Ovuga, who is part of what he called a “forgiveness project,” now in a pilot phase before it is rolled out across Uganda. When victims speak out and forgive perpetrators of sexual violence, he said, they can feel freed by forgiveness, and it is an empowering process versus living as a victim.

Guest speakers and panelists at the symposium addressed topics ranging from national and international responses to perpetrating and surviving sexual violence.

“Gender-based violence, sexual violence is a human rights issue. It is a human security issue,” said Colonel Birame Diop, director of Partners Senegal: Center for Change and Conflict Management, an organization that brings together civil society and the security sector to combat gender-based violence. That makes the issue complex and ambiguous and requires an approach that harnesses the efforts of government, civil society and the military, he said. In western Africa, it’s also a trans-national issue, and countries can share knowledge about what practices work best to prevent and mitigate sexual violence during and after conflict.

And women must be integrally involved in devising solutions, he said. Senegal began recruiting women into its armed forces in 2008 and in 2010 adopted a National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for nations to adopt a formal process for involving and protecting women and girls in conflict and in peace and security operations. The U.S. only adopted its own national plan in December 2011.

“There is nothing we can do in this region if the women are not at the heart of this work,” said Diop, a former adviser for the Senegalese Air Force chief of staff.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams also emphasized the need to strengthen connections among organizations to bolster the voice of women in such discussions “from the grassroots perspective and the perspective of people pushing governments to do what they should be doing anyway.”

Civil society can play a significant role in forcing change and making governments accountable, partly by calling them out and embarrassing them into cooperation, Williams told the USIP audience. She and her International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the Nobel in 1997 after successfully linking more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations in more than 60 countries to work on the campaign and coordinating with international bodies from the U.N. to the International Committee for the Red Cross. She’s now co-chair of the Switzerland-based International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict.

“If words are not translated into concrete action, they are useless,” Williams said. “It’s our responsibility to participate in the change we want to see.

Patriarchal attitudes among officials and community leaders are among the challenges facing those seeking justice for victims of sexual violence, said Jean Nimubona, the gender and diversity advisor for Cooperative and Relief Assistance Everywhere in Burundi. He also faulted lack of implementation of some laws against sexual violence.

In Afghanistan, women activists and civil society organizations pushed for new laws against sexual violence that were enacted in 2009, said Hossai Wardak, who joined USIP this month as a senior Afghanistan expert and works with the group EQUALITY for Peace and Democracy.

“It took us a lot of struggle,” Wardak said. More recently, victims of sexual violence and their families have been more open about publicly revealing their stories and demanding justice than they were in the past, she said.

Julissa Mantilla, an international advisor on gender and transitional justice in Colombia, said women there also found it difficult to approach investigators. That made it particularly difficult to seek justice after sexual violence in Colombia, said Mantilla, who advises the country’s Truth, Justice and Reparation Program for Women.

“Sexual violence was not a priority. Gender was not a priority, and thus had very important implications for women,” Mantilla said.

Are you hearing more about the issue of sexual violence in conflict than you heard in the past? If so, what do you think accounts for the change? If not, what can be done to accelerate the discussion? Tell us what you think by submitting a comment below.

Viola Gienger and Thomas Omestad are senior writers at USIP and Liz Harper is senior editor.

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