Beyond silence: Ending sexual violence in conflict

Beyond silence: Ending sexual violence in conflict
by Polona ROGINA for Stratagem International
3 December 2015

A selection of conflict resolution practitioners shared their knowledge and experiences on the topic of sexual violence, at an event in London, organised by the Global Diplomatic Forum and chaired by BBC presenter, Sophie Long.

The first speaker was Dr Jelke Boesten, who is a Reader in Gender and Development at the International Development Institute, King’s College London, and has undertaken significant research on sexual violence during the war in Latin America. She talked about the symbolism of women’s bodies and their availability, and also men’s bodies and their power for wrong-doing. She pointed out some questions that we should think about: “What would conflict related violence look like? What is domestic violence within conflict? What happens when women use their bodies to secure information or maybe save their families? What about prostitution?” Dr Boesten talked about the lack of accountability, especially when perpetrators/victims don’t want to talk about it, and quite importantly what should be included in the definition of sexual violence. She ended the talk on structure and equality, and how to involve women in politics. Her final thought was that it’s important to give power to women and involve them, not just empower them.

The second speaker was the Chief Executive of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), Anita Tiessen. She pointed out that sexual violence is usually present in society before an acute conflict, and that it continues after peace agreements. Sexual violence is a war tactic; she questioned why victims don’t report it — mainly because there is a lack of awareness of their rights. “There is one in three women who have experienced sexual violence” she said.

Ms Tiessen talked about her organisation, where they focus on prevention, education about victims’ rights, and providing a safe space. They also involve boys and men, to create behavioural and attitudinal change, with their main goal is to reduce the prevalence of gender-based violence.

Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom from Torture , Sonya Sceats, explained their centre for survivors of torture. As the perpetrators’ goal is to destroy victims’ confidence, their first step is rehabilitation. They use the holistic approach, they offer social and legal help, and help them regain their confidence. Their focus is to see what are the changes that victims want to see in their countries. She pointed out that not only girls and women are victims of sexual violence but also men, and like the previous speaker, that violence does not end with the end of the war.

The last speaker was Quintin Oliver, Director of Stratagem International, who presented the Toolkit on Gender Based Violence (GBV) that was prepared for UNICEF. Quintin highlighted that prevention and building resilience is important, alongside recognising practicalities and building stronger partnerships; with the toolkit it is important that theory and practice mesh seamlessly together. He showed examples of the differences in context between countries the team, so ably led by Anna Wansborough-Jones visited (Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Myanmar, Pakistan, Lebanon), and where the prevention and responses to GBV are different. He pointed out that it’s always about community engagement, and ended on the importance of strategy and not just tactics.

Speakers agreed with what others have to say, where each of them presented their own field of research and their perspective. Speakers converged on points like importance of prevention of sexual violence, empowerment of women or importance of community engagements.

The first post-presentation question was in regards to domestic violence:why is there so much talk about sexual violence in conflict, if there are so many cases of domestic violence in the UK?Isn’t domestic violence also important? All speakers agreed on the huge significance of the issue in UK as well as domestic violence that is going on in conflict areas. Quintin shared the experience of Northern Ireland, and said that in the Northern Ireland conflict, sexual violence wasn’t so recognised or talked about.

Another question was in regards to how to hold governments into account with the tools that are provided by organisations. Sonya Sceats reported the success of their organisation with government of Sri Lanka and some groups in DRC.

One more question explored how to get victims of sexual violence to talk about their experience, where Dr Boesten argued that sometimes the best method is silence. At this point Sonya didn’t completely agree, and argued that victims or perpetrators need to speak up to receive appropriate treatment.

This global event was a great opportunity that gave the delegates and speakers even more topics to talk about after the official programme. For example, we talked about the importance of acknowledgement of sexual violence against men, and how we first think of women being sexually assaulted; Quintin Oliver pointed out an interesting observation that in the crowd were almost only women. We talked about how the definition of sexual violence is different among different cultures, what a strong impact community has, and how important social identity is.

It is really important to have events like this to raise awareness of the problems around us, educate us about the pertinent issues, and to start the prevention in your own house, in your own community.

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