‘Take away the guns,’ women tell UN envoy

Reforms needed to stop war-time sex crimes, says Zainab Bangura
Zainab Bangura, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, speaking after her mission to the Central African Republic.Zainab Bangura, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, speaking after her mission to the Central African Republic.
Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Imagine being charged $100 for a medical certificate issued by a doctor proving that you have been raped before you can go after the culprit — and then during his trial having to feed the man who raped you.

Recounting such stories, Zainab Bangura, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence, allows a glimpse of the passion and energy she is known for. Up until 2002, women and girls in her country, Sierra Leone, were subjected to widespread and systematic sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery. As a women’s rights campaigner and activist, she documented, reported and monitored such crimes and other human rights violations. When the Special Court for Sierra Leone set up jointly by the Government and the United Nations opened, to try those responsible for crimes during the civil war, she testified as an expert witness.

Ms. Bangura’s resume is impressive: She has worked as an international civil servant, was responsible for the peacebuilding commission in her country and served as foreign minister and health minister.

“I come into this job” at the UN, she told Africa Renewal, “with both perspectives — being an activist on one side, knowing what the real experience is on the ground, and at the same time I have been a government minister and the voice of the government in the international arena.”

Gathering evidence

Ms. Bangura is the second person to hold the post. Her Swedish predecessor, Margot Wallström, ended her two-year term in May 2012. During Ms. Wallström’s stint, the office was able to push for a so-called “naming and shaming” list through a UN resolution that authorizes the publication of detailed information on perpetrators. The resolution also gives the Security Council the option to enforce sanctions on groups or nations in order to stop ongoing sexual crimes.

Ms. Wallström also pushed for legal reforms, convincing military courts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to try cases of sexual violence. She got 250 prosecutions. “I am extremely lucky my predecessor laid down a very good foundation for me,” says Ms. Bangura, “and I have extremely capable staff.”

Engaging governments

The UN envoy already has her hands full with the escalating crises in the Central African Republic, DRC, Syria and Mali, where there are reports of increases in sexual violence against women and girls. With a small staff and limited resources, she is actively enlisting the help of UN agencies.

But for Ms. Bangura, sexual violence in conflict is not just a UN issue. The UK recently pledged $1.6 million to support the activities of her office. More broadly, she says, “member states have the primary responsibility to protect the people.” So she works with governments and regional organizations on a regular basis to address the problem. “You need to work with the government to be able to have a very strong and constructive dialogue on the issue and to be able to make sure they provide the political leadership at the national level.” She adds: “It’s only government that will be able to take action to put an end” to sexual crimes.

Biggest perpetrators are in uniform

Ms. Bangura is also trying to establish dialogues with national armed forces and armed groups. Her first fact-finding mission was to the Central African Republic (CAR), a country that has experienced years of political violence and instability and where scores of women and girls are under the control of armed groups. She described the CAR as “one of the worst countries” she has experienced, with very few resources and international actors focusing on the issue. “If we can make a difference in the CAR,” she explains, “I think it will be much easier in the other countries.”

Ms. Bangura’s visit was timely. The recent peace agreements drafted by the main parties to the conflict had a glaring omission: There was no mention of human rights or sexual violence. So she negotiated with the two sides. As a result, “We had an agreement both from the government’s side and the armed groups that they will mainstream the issue of sexual violence. We’ve asked for very specific actions that we expect from them.” She also insisted that sexual crimes be investigated and that commanders send a message to their troops that sexual violence must stop.

The police force is also often guilty of such crimes, Ms. Bangura notes. “We have a lot of evidence where prisoners are sexually violated when they’re arrested and detained, and when they’re being forced to give evidence, or confess. The biggest perpetrators are people in uniform.”

In countries where military and police personnel are seconded to work with the UN, Ms. Bangura believes they should be trained to “detect when and where sexual violence is taking place to prevent it. But also so they do not commit sexual violence when they are in a peacekeeping mission.”

Breaking the culture of silence

Prevailing cultural norms are often an obstacle to addressing issues of sexual violence. Most women in war zones find it difficult to say they have been sexually abused. In these often “traditional societies,” silence prevails, says the UN representative. Women are frequently stigmatized, even threatened. In Libya a law obliges a rapist to marry his victim in order to “save her honour.” Often, Ms. Bangura believes, “culture just wants to forget about it and not deal with it.”

Working amid continued insecurity is also challenging. She says that she cannot stress enough that “insecurity breeds sexual violence.” When a state apparatus collapses, she says, armed elements become the law and use rape as a war tactic.

Ms. Bangura is adamant: One cannot deal with sexual violence without peace or security. So women in war zones often give her a similar message to share with world leaders: “Tell them to take the guns from the armed groups. We don’t feel safe. We are not secure.”