After curving through miles of Quebec’s countryside, the road to Montebello arrives at an enormous log cabin along the Ottawa River. Busloads of women pull up, from Rwanda, Colombia, the Congo, Mexico, Bosnia, Burma—women who think they can change the world.
The plan isn’t to change the whole world. Just the most violent and despicable parts, parts that many of them—too many—have experienced firsthand. They carry with them experiences they seek to erase forever, if not from history, at least from any possible future.
On the grounds of this turn-of-the century resort that usually hosts heads of state and leaders of industry, more than 100 women from all over the world gathered in late May to make a joint commitment to end sexual violence in war. A safe place, with food and fellowship, allowed many to share tragic accounts of their own rape. These women did not come as victims, but as leaders in an international movement to bring the criminals to justice, repair damaged lives and societies and, most of all, prevent the use of women’s bodies as battlegrounds in conflicts.
Although estimates vary, the statistics are overwhelming: half a million women raped in Rwanda, 64,000 in Sierra Leone, some 40,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nearly two million in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), untold thousands in other parts of the world.
“Numbers are numbing,” warns Jody Williams, one of the women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who organized the meeting. “There are women in here who have experienced sexual violence in conflict.” Many nod. Throughout the four-day event, participants, including Jody, will tell their stories. Because of their strength and commitment, the women’s testimonies do not end with the horror of their suffering. Instead, they serve as the prelude to detailed descriptions of how each one is organizing against sexual violence in their countries and in international forums to create a world in which no woman suffers what they and their countrywomen have suffered.
The use of sexual violence against women to submit, terrorize, and dominate entire populations is, in the 21st century, common in many parts of the world. International law has only begun to recognize and codify the fact that sexual violence is not a byproduct of war or an uncontrolled act by rogue soldiers, but a war crime committed against women, against races and sectors of society, and against humanity. It is also a calculated strategy of war.
Three Nobel Prize winners open the meeting to define terms and describe the task at hand. Jody Williams won the prize after organizing a successful international campaign to ban landmines, Shirin Ebadi was recognized for her work as a defender of human rights and particularly women’s rights in Iran, and Mairead Maguire formed an organization to bring peace in Northern Ireland. Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma sent taped messages of support. Their organization, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, aims to use the prestige of the prize to bring attention to, and fortify, women’s rights movements throughout the world. They convened the May meeting to share experiences and strategies and begin to design internationally coordinated actions to end rape in war, punish perpetrators, and heal survivors and their communities.
War is by definition violence—violence against women, men, children, the environment. Genocidal campaigns and militarism are universally reprehensible. Why the gender-based focus?
Williams put the effort in context. “This is not an attempt to make war safe for women.”
Maguire also emphasized that fighting sexual violence in war goes beyond the focus on rape and requires a commitment to say, “No to war, no to militarism, no to killing. Yes to peace, yes to conflict resolution, yes to non-violent peacekeepers, yes to human dignity, human rights and justice.”
Using International Mechanisms
The goal of ending sexual violence in conflicts first focuses on making the problem visible and then on building societies that quickly condemn and stop what have been referred to as “epidemics” of rape in conflicts. It also relies on creating and implementing international law such as Security Council Resolutions 1820, 1888, and 1690 that “demand for the complete cessation with immediate effect by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence,” among other mandates.
Joanne Sandler, deputy director of UN Women, the UN entity charged with gender equality, noted that the UN system has advanced in recognizing rape in war as a specific international crime. She noted four reasons for a women-led civil society effort: to identify where sexual violence in conflict exists but has not yet surfaced, to go beyond legal mechanisms that exclusively address rape in specific situations, to increase monitoring and press for justice, and to build survivor-centered responses that place women’s rights in the center of peace talks.
The conference brought together a wide range of women activists, including survivors, service providers, representatives of security sectors, legal experts, and movement builders. Participants found common ground in their solidarity, empathy, and commitment to do something. Beyond that, the differences posed challenges and enriched discussions. For example, some conflicts involving widespread sexual violence have been formally recognized and perpetrators are being tried in international court, such as the genocidal campaigns in Africa and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others, including Latin American drug wars and post-coup Honduras, have not been recognized and the use of sexual violence to undermine opposition remains beneath the radar of the international community. Others involve specific outbursts, such as the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2008. Some involve state actors, others non-state actors, and most a combination of the two.
The backdrop for the violence in all cases is impunity, the lack of justice, and a patriarchal system that enables the treatment of women as tools of conquest and rape as a weapon of war.
Tears and Songs
At this gathering, hope and horror walk hand in hand.
In working groups, at meals and on long walks in the Quebec forests, women from 30 countries talked about their own experiences and their efforts to treat and prevent sexual violence. Many rape survivors have become international leaders through their efforts to help others. Although they’ve told their stories many times before, that doesn’t prevent the tears from flowing as they recall, yet again, the attacks that changed their lives.
Rose Mapendo is a survivor of the massacre in the DRC in 1998. A member of the Tutsi ethnic group, she was forced into hiding with her seven children, but police discovered the group. Her husband was killed and soldiers took her and her children to a death camp where she gave birth to twins. A U.S. team rescued her family from the camp, and Rose now lives with her children in Phoenix. Today she works to support resettlement and refugees. The rape crisis in her country continues. When she speaks to us about her work and experience, she combines tears and song.
Godelieve Mukasarasi works in Rwanda with women survivors of the 1994 genocide. Her organization SEVOTA helps women rape victims with HIV-AIDS and carries out courses in reconciling women with their children born of rape. Many women reject these children. As we speak, she begins to tap my face, my arms and shoulders lightly. The translator for our conversation explains that she is demonstrating part of the therapy she uses to break down the pain and resentment in these women. Armed groups killed Godelieve’s husband and daughter in the violence that left nearly a million ethnic Tutsis dead.
The last story I heard before heading home came from Bakira Hasecic. A Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) from Visegrad, she and her daughter were repeatedly raped by Serbian forces; her sister was raped and killed and her house converted into a rape center.
Hasecic is, in a word, implacable. She says she will not rest until every person responsible is brought to justice. Many of them are neighbors who have returned to the town.
On the top of her list is accused war criminal Ratko Mladic. Mladic, a general of the Bosnian Serb army, had been in hiding for 16 years, thought to be protected in Serbia. Hasecic’s steely blue eyes show her determination to see him and the others punished for their crimes. Her erect posture reflects her military training — she and her daughter joined the Visegrad Forces of Territorial Defense following the rapes.
In the Montreal airport that same day, a television screen flashes the news that Serbian police had finally apprehended Mladic. I imagine Bakira’s reaction. She will not smile. She will sternly cross him off her list and continue to seek punishment for him and the rest.
From Reaction to Action
The survivors’ stories bring the issue into the heart; the strategy discussions bring it to the table. Most of us have more questions than answers: A reporter asks what do you do when your local audience tires of interviews with rape survivors and the problem just keeps getting worse? How do you simultaneously confront the need for reconciliation and the desire for justice for offenders in communities? How do we overcome the obstacles and limitations of legal processes?
All the participants had experiences and knowledge to share and the brainstorming resulted in a wide range of proposals. Implementation will depend on the alliances forged and the follow-up by each of the participants. Every woman at the conference struggles for peace, within themselves, their communities and their nations.
It’s the combination of these efforts and daily acts of courage that will form the foundation for “women forging a new security,” in the words of the organizers. Although the gathering didn't come up with a definitive solution to the huge challenge of ending rape in war, we left with the strength of collective effort and deep commitment. Each woman made personal commitments to continue toward the common goal—difficult but not impossible—of ending sexual violence in armed conflicts throughout the world.
This article was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.