This week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit has had a huge focus on conflicts since Bosnia in 1992. There have been numerous events focusing on Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, the Balkan War and Afghanistan. Many of these nations are recovering from a major conflict and are in the process of adjusting to peacetime, whereas Congo is, though technically in peacetime, still in the grip of conflict.
I wanted to explore the similarities that these conflicts had, but also the differences. Why do some of these areas get more coverage, awareness and support than others- and did the international community prioritise some conflict nations over others? The conflict in DRC is the deadliest conflict since World War Two. But casualty estimates are often conservative, and sexual violence figures that are under reported.
All conflicts are, obviously, different. Their origins are different, and the obstacles to resolution are different, too. However, the exclusion of women from resolution and community stands in the way of community peace-building. This situation is built on gender inequality before the conflict – patriarchy is a worldwide problem, before, during and after war.
I spoke to Carron Mann, Women for Women International UK‘s Policy Director about these areas.
JW: What are the reasons between the different manifestations, beyond cultural differences?
CM: We see sexual violence in many different ways in the various nations. For example, in Afghanistan and South Sudan, forced marriage of women to their rapist so their families avoid shame is a common issue. The commonality is the role of women being treated as commodities. A woman’s sexual virtue is her value, as opposed to women being valued as human beings. Women are targeted to target communities.
What role does a crisis of masculinity or hyper masculinity play in sexual violence in conflict?
I’m not sure how I feel about crisis of masculinity or hyper masculinity. Masculinity, like characteristics we have as women can be positive or negative. I think hyper masculinity implies you can be too manly, when actually you can be manly in a good way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself.
I think it’s a reinforcement of positive masculinity and negative masculinity that have real roles to play in both helping a situation and making it worse. What they’re trying to say is that those gender stereotypes that reinforce that men need to be sexually active, they need to sleep with as many women, what it means to be a man and how they treat women. We have this here as well. You only have to walk past some lads coming out of school.
How much support do you think the international community gives in terms of tackling sexual violence through an educational basis? I know that Women for Women International run some great programmes in terms of teaching gender equality and tackling gender inequality in conflict nations, but do you feel the international community is fixing enough support to those programs?
I don’t think women’s rights organisations on the ground are getting enough funding. We struggle for funding, but we can fill out a Department for International Development application form. They can’t. One of the things I noticed about the summit is that there’s a lot of focus on the UN, and what the UN is going to do. There’s talk about financing, and the UK announced increased funding yesterday but again, it’s how does that funding get distributed? Who benefits from it? is it all going to International non governmental organisations or is it going to local organisations? In fairness to International NGO’s, they work closely with local community partners, so when they benefit the communities do too. You can never have too much funding.
Why do you think sexual violence in some conflict nations tend to get more awareness than in others that may have higher levels of the crime?
Broadly speaking, I don’t think we like talking about sexual violence. I think that’s our first challenge. Secondly, I’m always really intrigued about why some conflicts get picked up and some don’t, like the Boko Haram kidnappings. Human Rights Watch and lots of organisations were documenting this last year. In 2012 [there was an] increase of incidents, [but] nothing happened. Then 270 girls were kidnapped and it finally got noticed. But not immediately.
Away from charities who obviously take an interest, what do you think are the reasons the media tend to pick and choose what they report?
I think it has to be that kind of grotesque shock to register with people. There was a report this morning about a girl being gang raped in India because she couldn’t afford to pay a bribe. Or the girls in Nigeria. It’s the shock factor. But actually, we’re hearing more about it. I spoke to a person before travelling to Congo who believed the rape levels were higher. So there are people who think there’s higher levels than what the UN are reporting, but that’s because the issue is getting more attention, so people think it’s happening at an accelerated rate. So there is an initial silence. Ultimately, it’s massively complicated and very difficult to get into a sound bite, which leads to it not being reported.
Do you think it’s ever going to be possible to end sexual violence in conflict?
Without gender equality?
No, because sexual violence in conflict sits within a much broader range of violence against women and girls which is a result of gender equality.
I agreed with Mann on many of her points, but I think there are further reasons why some conflicts are prominently highlighted in the media and international community over others. I believe it’s something to do with resources, something to do with power. Will the conflict affect our ability to get resources from DRC? Will it affect our ability to export coltan? Only when it does will we see the international community increase scrutiny on DRC. I also believe the complexity of the situation in Congo hampers the ability to report on it. People can’t understand the conflict, as it has so many layers, and it has gone on for so long. A conflict like that of Rwanda, with warring ethnic tribes over 100 days is simple to follow. The same can be said with Bosnia. Congo, at the moment, tends to go back to the Rwandan genocide and subsequent overspill as a starting point- yet a lot of the issues have blighted the region for decades, and possibly centuries.
To end our interview on a positive note I asked one final question:
JW: What should the public take away from the summit?
CM: I hope they listen to survivors and survivors’ needs. I think they key starting point is listening. I think it’s also about recognising that [sexual violence] is not an inevitable part of conflict, and it’s also not an alien concept, much as we’d like it to be. No woman or girl ever deserves to be raped, regardless of how drunk she is, how short her skirt is, her ethnicity, her sexual orientation or her political affiliation.
Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr
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