Your Excellency Mr. Alejandro Verdier, Deputy Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations,
Under-Secretary-General, Ms. Virginia Gamba,
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
A warm welcome also to our guest panelists, Honorable Emile Béatrice Epaye, President of the Women’s Parliamentarian Caucus in the Central African Republic, and Ms. Amanda Nguyen, CEO and Founder of Rise, a non-governmental civil rights organization.
Thank you all for gathering here today to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.
With widespread sexual violence still a devastating reality in too many conflicts around the world, this annual commemoration is an opportunity not only to raise awareness of the need to end conflict-related sexual violence, but also to stand in solidarity with, and pay homage to, the survivors – women, girls, men and boys – who, despite the horrors they have endured, show the determination, resolve and unflinching courage to stand up and speak out against this scourge.
In 2015, when the General Assembly proclaimed the 19 June as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, following the visionary leadership of Argentina, it reminded us that the plight of all survivors should be the moral compass that guides our actions.
Indeed, since my first day in office, I have emphasized the importance of a survivor-centered approach and made it a strategic priority of my mandate.
What do we mean by “a survivor-centered approach”?
First and foremost, it is an approach that seeks to empower survivors by prioritizing their rights, needs and wishes. It means treating survivors with dignity and respect, and ensuring they have access to high-quality multi-sectoral services in conditions of safety and confidentiality, including medical care, sexual and reproductive health care, psychosocial support, economic assistance, legal advice and access to justice.
It also means enabling survivors to seek justice and reparations as an integral component of a comprehensive response. In fact, reparative justice is the intervention survivors want most, yet receive least. As victims of sexual violence are often rejected by their families and cast out of their communities, the payment of reparations can be an essential step toward rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.
And yet, my field missions over the past two years have consistently revealed major gaps in service-delivery and resources for survivors.
When I visited Iraq, I noted that specialized interventions for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) were virtually non-existent. I met with Yezidi survivors of brutal sexual slavery who had received no medical or psychosocial support, three months after their release from Da’esh captivity. Some of these women and girls were in a semi-comatose state. Others were suicidal. And what was the response? At best, only basic psychological first aid was available to them.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, survivors of sexual violence told me how they could never truly have physical security without economic security. I learnt from these survivors, most of whom had been rejected by their families, how economic support bolsters their self-esteem, fosters resilience and self-sufficiency, reduces their exposure to risk, and increases their perceived worth and value in the eyes of their community.
During my field missions, I also noted how in many areas of conflict where rape is used as a tactic of war and terror alongside bullets, bombs and blades, the victims face stigma and discrimination not only from their families and communities, but also, at times, from first-responders.
In this respect, I vividly recall the words of a young survivor in Maiduguri, Nigeria, who had been released from the grip of Boko Haram after a grueling 15 months in captivity. Having survived this ordeal, she was then raped by a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a group of local militants operating in support of the Nigerian security forces, while she was collecting firewood outside of a displaced persons’ camp. She recounted how she was repeatedly questioned by a healthcare provider before receiving treatment. She was asked: “Why did you leave the camp to collect firewood?” “Why did you go out alone?” “Why did you not fight harder and scream louder?”
Victim-blame and other judgmental attitudes from medical personnel, police officers and judicial authorities are commonplace, and often subconscious. This unfortunately contributes to the chronic underreporting of these crimes, and to the silence that shields the perpetrators and further isolates the victims.
In the camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, I saw how journalists and certain NGOs insisted women and girls tell their stories of rape in great detail, sometimes producing reports that revealed the identity of the survivor.
In their desperate search for solutions and justice, some women and girls agreed to provide testimony without fully understanding how it would be used or the risks it might entail. Both Rohingya women in Bangladesh and Yezidi women in Iraq told me that they had been interviewed so frequently, and by so many actors, they could not always distinguish between humanitarian service-providers, journalists, NGO workers, and academic researchers. In addition to the fact that repeat interviewing can trigger re-traumatization, raise expectations, and add to survivor frustration when justice remains elusive, it can also render the evidence inadmissible in court. This is because the manner in which it was collected may fall short of legal standards, and because victim and witness accounts can easily be discredited by even the slightest inconsistencies between the multiple interviews on record.
Conversely, a survivor-centered, rights-based response requires that all efforts to document, investigate and address conflict-related sexual violence are well-coordinated, safe, confidential, based on informed consent and include referral pathways to services and support. Such efforts must also guard against and minimize the risk of re-traumatization, social ostracism and reprisals.
My recent visit to the Central African Republic was yet another haunting reminder of what is at stake if we fail to pursue a survivor-centered approach. In the locations I visited, countless victims continue to be left behind due to severely constrained resources, collapsed institutions, and prevailing insecurity in territories controlled or occupied by armed groups. What does a survivor-centered approach mean to someone forced to walk for several days to reach the most basic healthcare facility? When it comes to post-rape care, distance can be a matter of life or death, as HIV post-exposure prophylaxis and emergency contraception are most effective within 72 hours of an incident. In this respect, I am glad that Honorable Epaye, who I met in Bangui, has accepted my invitation to be here today to share her perspective on this subject.
When we speak of a survivor-centered approach, we must remember that survivors are not a homogenous group.
Sexual violence has many victims – women, girls, men and boys. The fact that men are targets of sexual violence is often shrouded in shame, stigma and stereotypes around masculine invulnerability. This means that male victims have been largely ignored, and their needs left unmet.
Other vulnerable groups that risk remaining invisible include rural women living in remote and isolated areas; ethnic minorities; indigenous women; widows; female heads of households; women’s human rights defenders; journalists who report on sexual violence; children born of wartime rape who are often shunned as “children of the enemy”; forced wives and captives of terrorist and violent extremist groups who are often viewed as affiliates, rather than victims; and members of LGBTI communities who have been targeted on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. All survivors have a right to tailored assistance that meets their specific needs without discrimination or adverse distinction on any grounds.
Over a decade since the issue of conflict-related sexual violence was elevated onto the Security Council’s agenda, on this day in 2008, the United Nations system is reaching and supporting thousands of survivors who had once been invisible and inaccessible.
Dramatic normative, institutional and operational progress has been made. The two operational arms of my mandate, namely the interagency network UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law, are supporting survivors through projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, the DRC, South Sudan, and elsewhere. Moreover, in April, the fifth in a robust series of Security Council resolutions was adopted, resolution 2467, which calls for a holistic, survivor-centered approach in the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence.
Allow me to end by emphasizing that a survivor-centered approach is one that gives voice and choice to the survivors, restores their agency, builds their resilience, and enshrines their experience on the historical record. At the same time, it should deprive the perpetrators of their liberty and means of doing harm. By shifting power dynamics in this way, a survivor-centered approach can also be a profoundly transformative approach that reaffirms the status of the survivor as a holder of rights that will henceforth be respected and enforced.
While I have visited many diverse, war-torn corners of the world, the survivors I have met with, consistently demand two things above all else: firstly, that the perpetrators be brought to justice; and secondly, that they be provided with the means to support themselves and their families. If the survivor is truly to be at the center of our response, these demands must be heard and heeded.