The first point I feel compelled to make about the subject matter of this panel is that we should be left in no doubt about the urgency of this issue.
An emergency: Lives are at stake
We need to address stigma prevention as an emergency because lives are at stake.
In addition to the physical injuries, victims of conflict-related sexual violence experience shame and internalize the emotional and mental injury perpetrated.
Many victims who survive sexual violence do not survive its social repercussions – the ostracism, abandonment, poverty, ‘honour crimes’, trauma that can lead to suicide or self-harm, unsafe pregnancies, and untreated medical conditions, including STIs and HIV, that may result.
The effects of sexual violence echo across generations, through trauma, stigma, poverty, poor physical and mental health, including in the plight of children born of war. To add to their burden, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence often face rejection by their families, communities and society at large, perpetuating their misplaced sense of guilt and shame.
Survivors endure multiple, intersecting stigmas, including the stigma of association with an armed or terrorist group, and of bearing children conceived through rape by the enemy.
Stigma knows no gender and has no age restriction. Men and boys, victims of sexual violence also face the stigma and ‘shame’ of assumed homosexuality. Stigma is as cruel to children as it is to adults. Children born of rape are amongst the most hidden, and yet vulnerable to stigma.
Multiple manifestations of stigma
Since I took up this mandate in June 2017, I have met with countless victims in Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia, Iraq, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sudan (Darfur), South Sudan, Niger, Mali.
Survivors described to me the impact rape and other forms of sexual violence has had on their lives, on their physical and mental health, on their livelihoods and lost opportunities, and on their family and community relationships. They described how the stigma and shame has blighted their lives and silenced their voices.
In Bosnia, I understood how the passage of time does not erase the scars of the crimes. The survivors continue to experience significant physical, psychological, social and economic effects and face deep stigma.
In Maiduguri, North East of Nigeria I met with women and girls who had escaped from the grip of Boko Haram. I learned from many of these young women who had returned with babies born of rape, how escape from Boko Haram doesn’t mean the end of their ordeal, as in addition to being rejected and cast out of their families and community who consider them to be tainted by their forced association with the group, even within the camp, they were stigmatized and viewed with suspicion by other IDPs, on account of their so-called “Boko Haram baby”.
My interaction with survivors helped me to understand that:
- Recovery from rape trauma is a deeply personal and highly individualized journey. There are several key elements of healing. Survivors need to be believed and vindicated, not re-victimized. They need to know they are safe and supported. Survivors need to be heard and they need to play a significant role in the justice process. Survivors need the ability and space to express their varied and complex emotions of sadness, anger, and grief.
- The needs of survivors are not uniform even if many face similar challenges, including their limited access to employment, health, education and social inclusion.
- Stigma manifests in different ways with different social, economic and personal consequences depending on the region, context and identities of the victim.
Stigma: a cause and consequence of CRSV
Stigma is a global problem which acts as both a profound cause and consequence of conflict-related sexual violence.
Therefore, ending the cycle of sexual violence in conflict and its associated stigma is not only a moral imperative. It is not just a question of gradual, long-term cultural change but a vital component of upholding international peace and security.
Stigma and CRSV are part of a mutually reinforcing cycle. Shame and stigma are built-in to the logic of sexual violence employed as a tactic of war and terrorism. Rape is still the only crime for which a society is more likely to stigmatize the victim, than to punish the perpetrator. And it is the only crime that casts a long shadow of social disgrace upon the victim.
Victim-blame, leading to social exclusion, is precisely what gives the weapon of rape its uniquely destructive power. Rape is the action of the perpetrator; stigma is the reaction of society. And aggressors understand that this crime can turn victims into outcasts, so it will rarely be reported.
Indeed, for many survivors, whose lives and livelihoods would be destroyed by social rejection, silence can seem like a survival strategy.
Stigma is accordingly a major barrier to the reporting of CRSV, preventing victims/survivors from seeking justice and accessing support. Stigma, compounded by fear of reprisals and a lack of services, is a major impediment to seeking justice for these crimes. Chronic underreporting sets in motion a vicious cycle of inadequate resources, slow responses, and pervasive impunity.
Way forward to end stigma
Ending stigma demands a shift in laws, policies and practice, coupled with a deep and enduring shift in ideas.
It also requires consistent, visible accountability processes to deter would-be perpetrators.
Ending stigma requires governments, regional bodies, traditional and religious leaders, civil society activists, and survivors themselves, to play a critical role in their respective spheres of influence.
- shifting harmful social norms around honor and shame, as well as gender stereotypes and myths related to victim-blame;
- addressing the root causes of CRSV and stigma with gender inequality and discrimination as its invisible driver;
- putting survivors at the centre and ensuring responses are tailored to their individual needs and rights;
- the willingness of community and religious leaders to use their moral authority to support the reintegration of victims.
Stigma is not an inevitable or unavoidable consequence of CRSV. It can therefore, be challenged and addressed through a concerted global effort.
Together we must reverse and redirect this stigma, to send a clear signal that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding or condoning it.