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/Cristina Silveiro

1 February 2013 – Conflict-related sexual violence has been used as a tactic of warfare in many armed conflicts around the globe from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone – affecting both women and men, girls and boys. In June 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Zainab Hawa Bangura as his special envoy on this issue. Upon taking up her post, the former Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone declared that the elimination of this scourge is possible, and outlined six objectives she intends to pursue.

These are addressing impunity and justice for victims; protecting and empowering affected women; strengthening the political will for implementing Security Council resolutions pertaining strategies to combat and prosecute sexual violence; coordinating the response of the international community to sexual violence; understanding rape as a tactic of war, and encouraging local and national ownership of the problem and its solution.

Ms. Bangura recently spoke to the UN News Centre on a range of issues, including her priorities going forward in her post, what it will take to eliminate sexual violence in conflict, and her first field mission.

UN News Centre: What are your impressions of the job so far?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: I think it’s an extremely challenging job; challenging in the sense that the problem is huge. It’s a global problem. It’s not just specific to one continent and that means that you have to abreast of what is happening. In a lot of areas there is a culture of silence and a culture of denial because most people don’t want to accept the fact thI have to speak for them. I have to make sure that their stories are told. I have to be able to make sure that they have the opportunity to rebuild their lives...at this is happening. They don’t want to own up to it. We also have the problem of stigmatization. The victims themselves are being stigmatized and so they don’t want to talk about it. In some societies, when you do talk about it, you are isolated. You’re treated as a prostitute.

So there are a whole lot of challenges but I think that for me the important issue is that you’re actually helping to rebuild people’s lives. You are a voice to people who under normal circumstances cannot protect themselves because a lot of the victims are women; poor women in remote areas where they don’t have a say. It also has to do with the issue of empowerment. These women who are sexually abused become frustrated and actually do not have support. So you see yourself as the person who has to speak for them, to let it be known that this is happening and to ensure that action is taken.

It’s very interesting because you get to meet a lot of people. Recently, I completed my first field trip. It was very disheartening... some of the women, in telling me their stories, actually broke down. It brings you very close to the reality of what is happening in a lot of countries. That spurs you and gives you the commitment and determination to do something for these people. I have to speak for them. I have to make sure that their stories are told. I have to be able to make sure that they have the opportunity to rebuild their lives because in certain areas they just seem to have lost hope and you’re bringing hope to them.

UN News Centre: Did you receive any advice when you took up the post, including from your predecessor, Margot Wallström?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon administers the oath of office to Ms. Bangura. UN Photo/Davide Bellucca

Zainab Hawa Bangura: Yes, she actually, which was very kind of her, flew over to New York specifically to sit down with me and talk to me. It was very kind of her to give me her own experience on the job, what she saw, things she should have done better, or that she was not able to do in retrospect. In addition to that, before I took up the appointment, the staff put together a very elaborate briefing. They made sure I had enough orientation even before I arrived. Also, when I came, we had a series of meetings. It gave me a soft landing. I had worked on this issue when I was working as a civil society activist in Sierra Leone... so I had a basic idea of what the problems are because I had experienced the problems firsthand myself.

UN News Centre: How has your own country’s experience with conflict influenced your views and your work on sexual violence in conflict?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The fact that I had knowledge – I had dealt with victims of sexual violence in conflict; I had documented, reported atrocities committed in Sierra Leone; I had written the reports for the Special Court [trying war crimes during Sierra Leone’s conflict] on the issue of forced marriage and testified at the Court as an expert witness – gave me basic understanding. Of course each conflict is different. But at least the broader issues are the same. But then you have to go to the specifics and the way that these issues are handled is different. So that helped me to some extent... We were able to stand up, rebuild the country and now it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. And we’ve dealt with the issue through the truth and reconciliation commission. We’ve dealt with it through the Special Court for those who bear the greatest responsibility. Sierra Leone has set up a reparation fund for victims. So all of that gave me an experience of how these issues were handled.

During a fact-finding mission in CAR, Ms. Bangura meets with President François Bozizé in Bangui. UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

And it’s also a story of hope to other women, to say ‘Listen, if we can do this, so can you’. I know in countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda – women who have been sexually abused who today are holding important positions in their societies. They’ve been able to build their society... hold political offices at the local level, build their economic base to a level where financially they are independent, which helps them to make independent political decisions. That is what I take forward to the victims I meet now, saying that ‘Your story is not new. There are people like you who have gone through this problem. But this is where they are today. And therefore, our job is to be able to walk with you so that you get there tomorrow’.

The question is how to empower women who have become victims and ensure that services are provided for them – psycho-social, health, trauma counselling – so they can regain their self-confidence and rebuild their lives and move on... As much as we are going after the perpetrators, we want to shine a light on the survivors. We want to make sure these women get up from the ground and stand up and move forward.

UN News Centre: You recently carried out your first field mission. Can you describe your visit to the Central African Republic?

After spending time listening to their plight, Ms. Bangura bids farewell to the women in Bria, CAR. UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The visit was extremely wonderful for me. I think the important issue is that I’m able to bring out from CAR to the world, to the UN, and to the international community the reality on the ground and what needs to be done. The success of the visit is, first and foremost, we spent enough time. We met everybody and for me that was extremely successful – from the President to the Prime Minister to the armed groups to the military to the political opposition to women members of Parliament to victims and survivors to the donors to the international and local NGOs to the UN Country Team. We went out of the capital city. We met women who had been captured by armed groups and have been sexually abused, and they told us stories of their colleagues who are still there. So we were able to come away with very rich information and to understand what the challenges are. And now we’re working together to get an implementation agreement.

By engaging the Government and the armed groups, we came out with very concrete agreements with them. For example, with the armed groups, we agreed with them that they will release all the women and children who are under their control. We also had a commitment from them that they will give the command instruction that their people should no longer commit sexual violence, and if they do, the commanders should be able to investigate the issue of sexual violence and be able to make sure action is taken.

A women's group in Paoua, CAR, join Ms. Bangura to 'Stop Rape in War.' UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

We also agreed with them to be able to make sure in the DDR [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration] programme that they work very closely with the ministry that is responsible for the protection of women to ensure that they mainstream the sexual violence issue. You don’t just physically disarm the combatants; you also have to mentally disarm them. Because experience shows that after war, there usually is an increase in rape at the community level. The reason being that when you are disarming the ex-combatants, you just take away their arms and when you reintegrate them, either into communities or into the security forces, they take with them that culture of abuse against women. So you have a problem in the military on how to control them. After the conflict in Sierra Leone, the combatants were absorbed into the military forces. And it was a troop-contributing country in Somalia. So imagine, those people who were fighting as rebels are today in the forces that are going to Somalia. This is where you have the problem of sexual exploitation.

So if you don’t deal with it at the beginning when you are doing disarmament, you will end up having people in your military that have committed atrocities. They should work with the Government to ensure that proper vetting takes place. People who have committed atrocities – massive human rights violations as well as sexual violence – cannot be absorbed into the military and cannot occupy leadership positions. We need to vet. We need to get these people to know that you cannot commit this crime and get away with it. With the Government, we agreed that you have to make sure that, in embarking on security sector reform, on justice sector reform, on DDR programmes, you have to include and take into consideration the issue of sexual violence in conflict. And we also asked them to be able to work very closely and appoint the minister that is responsible for gender promotion as the focal point to work with the UN. My team of experts is going back in mid-January to put together an implementation plan and strategy on the communiqué that we signed both with the Government and the DDR committee. So I think that’s a huge achievement.

Ms. Bangura meets with a women's group in Bria, CAR, that includes victims of sexual violence due to ongoing armed conflict. UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

Also, we discovered that there was this culture of silence, even though the Government had put some structures in place, on the issue of addressing sexual violence. The country as a whole – among the political parties, among the armed groups – they are very reluctant to accept that sexual violence is taking place. By talking to them, by talking to the media, addressing the people in the newspaper, we raised this issue of sexual violence to an extent that there is no denial because the Government owns up, the President owns up... The commanders themselves deny it but when we put the facts in front of them, they were able to realize that this is a problem that we have to address. I think there’ll be no going back. Once they have acknowledged the fact that it has taken place, the NGOs, the international community will now have to work on how to provide services to the victims. Our focus is how we empower women who have gone through this challenge. To be able to do that, there first and foremost has to be a process of owning up. We have to break the silence.

Then we point the light on the perpetrators, not the victims, because if the victim doesn’t get support, she becomes a victim twice. In the case of CAR, a huge challenge is that a lot of these women have become HIV positive. It’s a big problem. Obviously, they don’t have the opportunity to get drugs. In some of the meetings we had, the women just broke down. It was just too much for them to talk about.

UN News Centre: Are you seeing more instances of men being targeted in sexual violence? Do you deal with them differently than with female survivors?

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Zainab Hawa Bangura: It is becoming very apparent that we have to address it because we are seeing it in Syria. We’re seeing it in Libya. We’re seeing it in Mali, even in DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. At the moment, I’ve asked my staff to put together a concept paper. We’re working with people who have been victims of rape, even though not in conflict, men who are male survivors to help us understand. So we want to work with them to be able to understand and to develop a mechanism where we can respond. The structure that we have built over the years is actually relating to women victims. For example, if you look at the medical aspects, you can’t send a man to a gynaecologist.

We’re now changing our mindset. We’ve spoken to some of the NGOs. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to bring a group of people together – male survivors who are victims of rape. They’re also ashamed to talk because a lot of people who do the interviews, who do the counselling, who provide the health services, are women. So these men find it difficult to come out and speak. Most of the cases have taken place in detention to obtain information from these men. Basically, sexual violence is meant to punish the victim, to degrade them, to humiliate them to a level where they will not be able to pick up the pieces of their lives. That’s why it is done. And it has an effect on both men and women.

Politico-military leader from CAR receives 'Stop Rape in War' decoration from Ms. Bangura at a meeting in Bangui, at which he vowed to help fight sexual violence against women in conflict and put an end to impunity. UN Photo/Cristina Silveiro

One of the experiences we’re having in countries where homosexuality is a crime is that when men talk about being sexually abused, they are looked at as if they’re gay. So one of the reasons why men are reluctant to talk is that they don’t want to be stigmatized as being gay. Then of course, their women say to them, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ What we’re doing now is trying to understand it. We have been in contact with a group of male survivors, and we’re hoping to bring them together with us and other people to sit down and have a discussion. Then we can develop a strategy to be able to know how we can respond to this. So yes, the number [of male victims] is increasing more and more. So it means we also have to develop a response mechanism on how to handle the situation.

UN News Centre: Where is the problem of sexual violence in conflict most prevalent today?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: It is most prevalent in countries in conflict. I think that insecurity is a breeding ground because the State collapses, the police are not working... So it provides an opportunity for these crimes to be committed. So directly or indirectly, it’s tied to conflict. Because once there is conflict, the State apparatus collapses and people can commit these crimes with impunity because they know that they are not going to be caught. The second issue is the structure and dynamics of today’s conflicts, which are within countries – people fighting against each other because they disagree, because they don’t come from the same ethnic group or because they are different. So each party is trying to humiliate and destroy the other, so they target people who are related to the opposite side. That’s why we say that sexual violence is a tactic of war. They use it on the other side to be able to degrade, to dehumanize, to humiliate people.

Because we have more conflicts in Africa, we tend to have more of these things in Africa. But it’s a global issue. It’s in Colombia, it was in Bosnia... It’s not just in one specific region. But because you have more conflict countries in Africa, you have the problem more in Africa.

UN News Centre: What do you think is at the heart of this problem and what will it take to eliminate it?

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Ms. Bangura brief journalists in New York (25 Sep 2012). UNTV

Zainab Hawa Bangura: I think at the heart of it is the issue of people fighting among each other within a particular country... It’s about how you overpower your opponents. So you want to subject them to a level where you can take ownership of their lives and control. That’s basically what it is about. I do believe that to be able to eliminate it, we have to be able to ensure that it’s not only a UN issue. It’s a Member States issue. Therefore, we have to allow the countries themselves to be able to make sure that they take ownership and responsibility. When sexual violence is committed, the bulk of the people who commit it are the foot soldiers.

We have, as the UN, as the international community, built the legal framework. We have built the mechanisms to be able to have a form of global accountability. What we now need is for the ownership to be taken by individual countries. If you take for example some of the countries where we work, the police don’t even know how to investigate sexual violence. You need to train them. The judiciary doesn’t know how to prosecute it. Because the bulk of the people are foot soldiers, you can’t take everybody to the ICC. It’s not possible, you don’t have the resources. So governments have to build a framework at the national level. This is why we are insisting that there has to be national ownership, leadership and political will at the highest level in a country. Then you can make sure that, within your army, you have zero tolerance of sexual violence. The police must be able to adequately investigate the issue of sexual violence to build a case.

In some countries, women have to pay $100 to get the report to be able to take action against the perpetrators. Where can a poor woman in a village get $100 to get the medical certificate? Sometimes she has to travel miles and by the time she comes back, the evidence is lost. In some countries, when people are arrested, the victim has to feed the prisoner, who is the perpetrator, while the case is in the courts. All these are the issues. So we have to work within countries to build a legal framework, implement what has been agreed at the international level, bring it to the country level, discuss with the government, find out what they don’t have, what they don’t have, what can be done, what support they need.

UN News Centre: What are your priorities as you go forward in the post?

Celebrities take a stand against sexual violence in conflict by adding pictures of themselves with crossed arms to the global Stop Rape Now campaign.

Zainab Hawa Bangura: We have to make sure we end impunity. Secondly, we have to empower women, especially the victims. And third, we have to make sure there is political will across the country. Then, we’re trying to make sure there is cohesion within the UN, so that we harmonize our response. And last, but not least, this issue of national ownership, responsibility and leadership. A solution cannot be imposed from above. This is why we are now engaging more and more with national governments to see what they’re doing and what we’d like them to do and how we can support them. But they have to lead from the front because this is their problem. We believe that national governments have the primary moral and legal responsibility to provide security for their citizens... So those are some of our key priorities but at the end of the day, it’s all about making sure the message is sent very clearly to perpetrators that wherever you are, when you commit this crime, whoever you are, we will get you.

UN News Centre: What motivates you to do this work?

Ms. Bangura and former US president Bill Clinton - Stop Rape Now campaign

Zainab Hawa Bangura: I come from a background where I have also been a victim, one way or another. I live in a country that’s had conflict. I ran and went as a refugee on a fishing boat to Guinea... So I know what it means to run away from your own country. I know what it means to be under threats because they came and said to me, ‘When we get you, we’ll rape you’. I was able to run away before they did arrive and when they came to my house, because they missed me, they destroyed the house. The second time they tried to come, they came 100 or 200 yards from my house. I only survived because the Nigerian military actually brought a tank almost 200 yards from my house and for three days that was the battlefront until the Nigerians succeeded in driving out the rebels... So I’ve been through that experience and I think the fact that I survived it and I’ve been able to rebuild my life means that I have to give something back. And that’s the reason why I really and sincerely want to make sure I do my own bit to contribute. Because I have experienced it myself, I knew what it felt like, I know what it means to be in that position, the vulnerability of not knowing if you’re going to survive tomorrow or not. And what will happen when they get you. That’s what inspires me. The fact that I was able to survive and I need to be able to be telling other women my story to be able to give them the support and hope that, if I can do it so can they.