While in Addis Ababa, I met an amazing women and leader from Sierra Leon. She is also the UN Special Representative of Secretary General on Sexual Violence. Zainab Hawa Bangura opened my eyes on what I usually read in both studies and media reports – they call it culture of rape. I suspect i could have regurgitated such words before.
Listening to Bangura, her zeal, passion and dedication caught me. I am finishing this post coincidentally in Goma, Eastern DR Congo a place which one the high UN ranking officials dared to call the “rape capital of the world.”
And the words of the Bangura were directed at the continued description of African regions where there’s sexual violence in conflict as having “rape culture.” Often a description slapped on Eastern Congo where more than 5 million lives have been lost in wars since 1990s.
Too often this crime has been portrayed as one that can only happen in African countries, that there is a “culture of rape” that exists that cannot be changed. I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as a “culture of rape”. No culture in the world wants to see its women brutalized, dehumanized and humiliated. To say that this is part of African “culture” is an affront to the people and governments of this continent, and we must stand together to call it what it is – a lie. To say that this is part of our culture, is to say that our values and norms are based on a disdain for our mothers and sisters and daughters, a disregard for rule of law, a disrespect for international human rights norms, indifference to the pain and suffering of others and contempt for peace. It is time that we come together to dispel the myth that there is such a thing as a rape culture, and to say this is not who we are or what we represent. We as a people must stand up to those who commit these acts and make it clear that they will not tarnish our cultures at home or abroad.
When we concentrate on labelling places having “rape culture” and not a crime with power behind it especially in African conflicts sort of presents it as something locals invest in and not the power dynamics of stat and non-state actors that use this systematically to wipe out communities . Mass rape in eastern Congo started in late 1990s when after the Rwandan genocide Hutu fighters set camp in Congo and African nations, including my own Uganda, followed to dig in and get a share of the resources and assert themselves, supporting various groups. So to call rape in Eastern Congo a culture is an is limiting and sometimes an insult to the people and and communities that have been terrorised for many years by different rebels groups and they still are.
Bengura reminded us that sexual violence in conflict is a global problem and a crime!
It is a global problem. In the last 50 years alone, we have seen sexual violence being committed in Europe, in Asia and the Pacific, in the Americas and in Africa. The sad truth is no part of the world is immune from this scourge and no continent holds a monopoly on this crime.
And she wasn’t just concerned about the labelling of this crime as a culture but also went on to call on governments and communities in Africa to do more to ensure there’s no amnesty for those responsible for sexual violence in conflict.
Here are some of the powerful quotes:
“We have the tools we need to dismantle the old system in which sexual violence is treated as a second class crime that happens to second class people. Now we need to set to work building a new foundation for this new century, in which women’s rights are respected, and conflict-related sexual violence is treated as the international crime it is.”
“We must end impunity for this crime. At the local, national, and international level we have to make sure there is no amnesty for the perpetrators.”
“We must change the public consciousness so that the shame and embarrassment becomes that of the perpetrator. Survivors should not be punished for someone else’s crime and the failed policies that allowed them to be targeted in the first place.”
We must improve access to justice for survivors. In so many countries, the laws – or the lack of implementation of these laws – are stacked against women so that even those who find the courage to name their attackers and file criminal charges against them find the road to justice littered with obstacles. In some communities women must pay the equivalent of $100 to obtain a medical certificate before they can file a criminal complaint. In other places rape victims must pay for the incarceration costs of their attackers while they are in jail awaiting trial.
In some cases, “justice” is served by making the rape victim marry her rapist. Women who have endured sexual violence in conflict should not be re-victimized by the State.
If you don’t protect women and girls and give them their full rights there will be consequences, none of them good and all of them long lasting.
The focus must be on upholding dignity of victims, ensure prevention mechanisms as well resolve the larger conflict that enables such mass violations to continue todate!