Interview with Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

14 April 2015 – Sexual violence is being used as a “tactic of terror” to target religious and ethnic minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, according to Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations official dealing with the issue.  

This is among the findings of the latest report by Ms. Bangura, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. In an interview with the UN News Centre, the envoy previewed the findings of the report, which also highlights the crimes committed by non-State actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram and Al-Shaabab, including abducting, raping, and selling into slavery women and girls. These groups are also using sexual violence as a method to forcefully displace large numbers of people in order to exploit resource-rich land or use it to groSexual violence is being used as a tactic of terror and this is because of the rise of extremists and terrorist groups.w narcotics.

The international community does not yet have the tools to deal with these non-State actors, Ms. Bangura says, emphasizing the need for the Security Council to work closely with all Member States to figure out how to form the most effective response to deal with the growing threat. For countries where sexual violence is perpetrated, political commitment is key in tackling the scourge. To that end, she notes that progress has been made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Colombia and Côte d'Ivoire. The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Excerpts from interview with Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura. Credit: United Nations

UN News Centre: Can you tell us how you pulled together elements of this new report that you will be presenting to the Security Council on Wednesday?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The report comes through with information from peacekeeping, political missions, and United Nations country teams. It’s an elaborate process, very intense, and scrutinized because we also include information from Member States and sometimes from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The information we collect needs to be verified because it’s very difficult and very delicate to be able to specifically state that sexual violence has taken place in a certain country. So the information we collect is a combination of UN peacekeeping and political missions, Member States and the UN’s NGO colleagues.

UN News Centre: And what are some of the trends you found this year? What’s new in the findings?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The first and most important and difficult trend that we have experienced is that sexual violence is being used as a tactic of terror and this is because of the rise of extremists and terrorist groups. They move across countries, and are transnational and trans-regional in nature. This is very challenging for us to address. We’ve seen it in Mali. We’ve seen it in Nigeria with Boko Haram. We’ve seen it Somalia with Al-Shabaab and now in Yemen, Syria, and of course in Iraq.  

Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura meets with women's groups and victims of sexual violence in Bria, Central African Republic during her first official field visit (December 2012). UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

The second trend we found is that religious and ethnic minorities are being targeted, as well as members of the LGBT communities, and these crimes are increasing. The third trend, which seems to come in a much clearer way, is that sexual violence in conflict is being used to forcefully displace people. People are forced out of their communities and off their land because the land is rich in natural resources or because groups want to use it to grow narcotics as is the case in Colombia. Some groups forcefully drive people off their land because they just want to occupy it as in the case with ISIL.

UN News Centre: As you have mentioned, this recent upsurge of non-State actors involved in sexual violence – Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and ISIL – makes it difficult to hold someone accountable for the crimes. What can the United Nations do to help victims?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: I think the biggest challenge we have is a lack of understanding about the strategies that these people use and I think that has made it extremely difficult to access them, to engage them, to understand what is driving them and what they do. The most important thing is to make sure we have more community engagement, make sure that communities who are involved in this crime, as well as community and religious leaders give us a better understanding of the extent of the crime, the people who have been targeted and to respond in terms of services for the victims. It’s the biggest challenge we have but that’s what we’re hoping to engage and it’s one of those things that I’m hoping to do.

UN News Centre: What can Member States do on the ground to alieve the situation?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: We have seen an increase in commitment from Member States, a better understanding, the acceptance that sexual violence is a crime, and a reduction in the culture of denial and silence. So what Member States need to do now is actually increase their engagement and support in terms of resources, in terms of taking the necessary action and ensuring commitment.

Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura (right) speaks with other delegates on the margins of the Security Council meeting on “women and peace and security” (June 2013). UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

But it’s also important for other Member States to be able to put in the resources. It’s not easy to deal with sexual violence because it requires capacity-building, providing technical assistance and support, changing laws, working with the judiciary to make sure that this crime is investigated and that the perpetrators are prosecuted. Survivors must be provided with the necessary services, including psychosocial, medical, and legal support and livelihood support.

So I think the countries where these crimes are being committed have to make sure they have the political will and commitment. The donors who are supporting them need to make sure they provide the resources to support these countries so that they take the necessary action.

UN News Centre:  We hear the stories, ISIL in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Africa, they kidnap, rape and sell into slavery girls and women, and most of the time, if not all of the time, they do it with impunity. They discount international treaties and norms. Does the international community have the tools to deal with these non-State actors?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The last couple of years the Security Council and United Nations have engaged on this issue, it has been with States and Governments. We know them; we have been working with them for so long; we understand their strategies; we know their command structures. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. The non-State actors we are used to working with at the UN are local militia, so it is easier to fight them. For example, in the DRC we call them negative forces, and a special response was developed by the Security Council to deal with these forces.

Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura meets with a women's group in Paoua, Central African Republic (December 2012). UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

But these new non-State actors are different. They are very sophisticated; they are well-organized; they have developed structures; they are controlling [massive amounts of] land; and they are not just in one country. They communicate with each other and they are using modern technology tools to actually implement a medieval mentality against women. So we don’t have the tools and that’s why we are working very closely with the Security Council to be able to better understand who they are, where they come from and how we can respond. So to answer your question, we don’t have the tools and we need to develop better ones to engage them. It’s a lesson we are all learning together.

UN News Centre: There is some good news. Your report says that some countries have made strides in tackling sexual violence in conflict and have also provided support to survivors. In which area has the most progress been made?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The biggest gains have been made in the area of increasing political commitment, ownership and national leadership by countries where these crimes are being committed.  The most progress has been made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Colombia, and Côte d'Ivoire. And that is because leaders in those countries have decided and agreed that sexual violence in conflict is a crime that is happening and that we must take the leadership to deal with these crimes. In such cases, progress has been really moving forward.

UN News Centre: You travel to these affected countries and meet with a lot of survivors of sexual violence and you hear their heart-wrenching stories. How do you stay inspired and encouraged? 

Zainab Hawa Bangura:  What astounds me is the resilience of the survivors and the victims I meet with. I think my visiting all of these countries provides hope by me trying to understand the crime. And I think lots of the time the women just want somebody to understand. I visited Colombia about a month ago and I sat around the table and had lunch with some survivors, after telling me all the stories, and listening to them and talking to them, literally each one of them started crying and they said you know, you are the first person who has taken time to listen to us, now we know we can fight. And they are prepared to get up and move on with their lives. So for me that is what is important.

Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura's visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (March 2013)

We cannot stop the crime taking place as long as there is conflict so we need to end the conflict but in the meanwhile we also need to give hope to these women. I have seen them getting on, picking up the pieces of their lives, going into business. I’ve even seen in my country, Sierra Leone, survivors hiring the people who have committed crimes against them. So these are for me the stories that really move and give me the inspiration to continue doing the job.

UN News Centre: Sexual violence in conflict doesn’t just affect women. Your report warns about the dangers of underreporting sexual violence against men. Why do you think there is still such stigma attached to that?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: Sexual violence generally is a stigmatized crime and the victim is left to bear the brunt of the stigma. Sometimes they are ostracized, abandoned by their own community. So for men, for women, for boys, and girls, it is a crime that is stigmatized. However, because we have worked so closely with dealing with sexual violence against women we haven’t paid a lot of attention to sexual violence against men.

But it has always been there. In the Bosnian war, I met a victim who was raped and forced to rape his own son. Sexual violence against men is usually done in prison, in detention facilities, and men have been reluctant to come out and talk about it. We have found out that when you talk about men being targeted in prison, it is sexual violence but we have always looked at it as torture.

The one thing I can say for sure, for men or women, victims of sexual violence in combat have become much younger. I have met a three-month-old and a six-month-old victim. But I have also met 70- and 80-year-old women survivors. So we are hoping that because it’s coming out in our report, our response will be better coordinated.



Read related news story:

DR Congo: UN welcomes ‘milestone’ declaration aimed at combating rape in war