Conflict-related sexual violence “not just violates the physical, but the mental and social integrity of societies.” To address this crime, USIP’s Kathleen Kuehnast says we need a survivor-centered approach: “Survivors are experts, they need to be [present] at every part of our understanding and … policy-shaping.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: Joined now by Kathleen Kuehnast, who is the director of Women Peace and Security portfolio at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Kathleen, thank you for joining me this morning.

Kathleen Kuehnast: Thank you.

Laura Coates: And Kathleen, we have some very bleak news coming out of Israel and Palestine. Of course, the devastation in Gaza. We're also hearing the Secretary of State and others talk about gender-based violence in the context of the hostages. What do we know about Hamas is use of gender-based violence against Israeli hostages?

Kathleen Kuehnast: Thank you very much for the time this morning. Indeed, these are bleak, bleak times and times that we've all gone through as a human society, the situation with Hamas, and the reports that are coming out, tend to reflect a lot of what we have been working on for years at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Through the Missing Peace Initiative. This initiative is trying to get an understanding of how and why inter-ethnic conflicts and other forms of war, human beings continue to use sexual violence in war. And one reason we know is that it is unfortunately, an effective way to break apart a community. These are acts that are so beyond the informal and formal rules of a human society, that the disruption of these rules really set a population into a freefall in their horrific acts of violence. And we see today that these acts are happening throughout conflicts, whether it is in Israel, we've seen it recently in Ethiopia, [inaudible], Sudan, Ukraine. And I'm just back from the Democratic Republic of Congo, probably one of the longest ethnic conflicts that we have seen this use of conflict related sexual violence used to not only really violate the physical, but also the mental and social integrity of the societies. It breaches all international human laws and human rights principles as well.

Laura Coates: You are talking to us about the awful realities of what it means to be human, and to be human in an elevated state of violence and conflict. What are some of the tools that we have to combat gender-based violence in moments of conflict?

Kathleen Kuehnast: Yeah, that's a very good question. And one of the efforts of USIP, over the last 12 years, is to both do research and support scholars who are taking on these very, very difficult questions. And up until probably a decade ago, we assumed that these forms of sexual violence are just inevitable. But we know through research, that in many conflicts, the armed actors do not resort to this horrific crime, it is a crime. And one of the things we know is that we can intervene, both in we see it in leadership of military, leadership in even armed groups, and even in extremist groups, that leadership can make a difference, making such crimes illegal, making such crimes accountable. And certainly, indeed, the impunity that this crime has been, you know, accepted through time, really, since the Old Testament, we say enough, and we begin to approach this as a criminal act. I think the other thing that's really critical in the change going on, as we gain more knowledge about these forms of violence, is that we have really begun to address it through survivor centered approached? Yes, there are victims. And we know in any kind of criminal act, we must address the victimhood of such forms of violence. But even more, so we have to see a way out that these are survivors with agency who know what happened to them. And they can bring us often the best information, and the best way forward. And that is very much how the field of conflict sexual related sexual violence is moving forward. Survivors are experts, they need to be at every part of our understanding, and at the policy shaping movement as well in our government efforts to end this kind of violence and war.

Laura Coates: Kathleen, you just returned back from Congo, where you were there for the award of a Women Building Peace Award, which is given to one woman peace builder, who has made a major contribution to preventing conflict and combating violence. The peace builder award recognizes that women in conflict spaces are also more than victims, that it's not about just the victimhood narrative that women can be leaders as well. Tell us about this year's awardee?

Kathleen Kuehnast: Oh, yes, thank you so much for asking, Pétronille Vaweka is from a village outside of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, which is where I just returned last evening. And indeed, Vaweka is someone that I think we're going to study for a long time. She is somebody who has negotiated, as I was sharing with my two daughters last evening, with the meanest human beings on earth. And she has, in her mediation, really taken on these individuals, most of them who are men, with a kind of respect, bringing into the mediation and negotiations to free people to free many women and children who were hostages in various conflicts in the DRC. She's done it, as she says, through respect, she approaches them with respect, and with the sense that we are all going to come out of here better people. This kind of leadership happens truly every day around the world. But we don't often look into it. And so, the Women Building Peace Award from the U.S. Institute of Peace is about finding these type of civilians, who aren't looking for an award, who are looking to truly be a civilian in war, and making a difference. She had a beautiful story about her grandmother, who wants as a child was walking through a huge area where leopards, one of the leopards jumped out to confront her. And she sat and talked to the leopard with a very calm voice. And after several hours, the leopard just walked away. She thinks that this really inspired her to confront our fear, because one of the things she sees in these individuals who are terrifically out to make other people fearful, is that they themselves are fearful. And so she says she never shows fear, she looks them straight in the eye, and she speaks in calm voice. And in that way, she approaches the mediation to end these forms of violence. Many of these forms include horrific sexual violence of women, men, children, and she approaches her lives in this way, was a great honor to spend time to make the announcement at the U.S. Embassy there in Kinshasa, with her her husband and her family standing by. She said it was the first award of her life. And Pétronille is 75 years old. She stands strong and ready to take on the next issue in her country.

Laura Coates: Kathleen Kuehnast, director of the Women Peace and Security portfolio at USIP, speaking to us about hope that comes out of conflict as well and thank you for sharing with us the story of Pétronille.

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