Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in Conflict

In her opening statement, Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at UK-based charity Freedom from Torture, said:

“I don’t know how many of you have ever been on a demonstration, felt compelled to write to the newspapers or protest in some way publicly. I went to a demonstration last year about the legal aid authority cuts and I could go and stand on the soapbox and say my piece and be identified by my name. I could be photographed, I could stand in the crowd afterwards and when it was time to leave, I could just walk away and go home knowing that nothing would happen to me. . . . What’s so chilling is to find how dangerous it is for some people in other countries to do what seems like such a simple thing.”

Cohen added a statistic which the panel itself found astonishing:

“I don’t think it’s widely known but in this country Home Office statistics show that almost 90% of victims of rape never disclose to the police and around 38% tell no-one at the time of the crime.”

After the opening statements from the four panelists the question and answer session began. The chair of the discussion, Liz Forddeputy editor of The Guardian’s Global Development website, asked why we need this upcoming conference on sexual violence when we have already had six UN resolutions since 2000 in some way related to the issue of sexual violence.

Fiona Lloyd-Davies, a filmmaker who has been working in DRC since 2001, answered:

“Is anything concrete going to be achieved after all this talking, after people have come all this way? Because . . . as all of us know here, whether it’s in Shabunda or Minova . . . there are women and men and children who every night are terrified that the perpetrators will come again. . . . It’s a great opportunity but something concrete has to happen. . . . Is it really possible to make concrete policy decisions about reforming the Congolese judiciary in half an hour?”

In response, Sarah Cotton, the public affairs and communications advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Mission in the UK and Ireland, said:

“Firstly, there’s a lot to be said for continuing to bang the drum. . . . There has to be a degree of realism about what can be achieved but it’s being spoken about and this is going to be extremely high level. There is a lot of energy that’s gone into this conference and its an issue – and we are all here today because it’s an issue – and we’re not dealing with it well.”

When the discussion was opened to questions from the audience, the panel were asked whether systematic rape in countries like DRC is a problem that would be better addressed by tackling the root causes of the conflict there. Serge-Eric, co-founder and member of the Survivors Speak OUT! (SSO) network, replied:

“At the SSO network that is the first thing that we spoke about when it was asked to us. . . . The first thing that the women came up with was, ‘Look, the real problem in the Congo is the conflict going on into the Eastern Congo.’ Because of that conflict going on in the Eastern Congo, we tend to think [rape] only happens in that particular area, yet you found women that live in Kinshasa that’s been the victim of rape as well. . . . By holding the government to account, . . . ending that war means we can have a better way of preventing that happening again to the girls of Congo.”

The panel were also asked about whether the perpetrators of this horrific systematic rape in the Congo were aware of the damage that these actions were inflicting. Lloyd Davis said:

“Of course they understand. Rape has been used as a weapon of war for thousands of years so, yes they do. I think sometimes its opportune. One of the very significant things about the Minova rapes was that some of them said that they were angry that they had been forced to withdraw from Goma leaving their own families vulnerable. So they were worried about the consequences of what was going to happen to their wives and children . . . yet they took their anger and frustration out on the women of Minova.”

Serge-Eric also commented saying:

“I think we already covered that a bit by saying that torture is not by mistake, rape is not by any mistake, it’s not by any coincidence. It’s a very calculated act which tends to either put terror into the person who you might be hurting or trying to silence the person. I will not be accepting that someone, because they feel angry somewhere, will go and just rape someone – it doesn’t just happen but it’s a very manipulative act.”

Cohen also added:

“The intention of the torturer is to destroy their sexuality and their future, to destroy their virginity, their ability to marry, many people believe that they won’t be able to have children after they’ve been raped. Male victims of rape are told, ‘Now I’m making you a woman, so you won’t be able to be a man anymore, now you’ll be gay.’ . . . That’s the intention of this kind of torture, it’s to destroy people’s sexuality and their future.”

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