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Sexual violence in war: ‘Not a second-class crime’

Kim Thuy Seelinger, director, Sexual Violence Program, Human Rights Center | February 26, 2014

At Boalt Hall last week, I had the opportunity to interview Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nation’s Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law organized the event, which was co-sponsored by the International Human Rights Law Clinic, Human Rights Center, and Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights.

As the director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, I was personally gratified to share the podium with someone who speaks so frankly and forcibly about what has often been dismissed as part and parcel of war—unfortunate, inevitable, unavoidable “collateral damage.”

Ms. Bangura founded and directed one of the largest humanitarian organizations in her home country of Sierra Leone, leading significant work to document wartime atrocities including war rape. Now, she leads the global effort to address and eradicate conflict-related sexual violence. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What do you hope to accomplish in this term as the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict?

My biggest wish is to make sure we prosecute people and send the message that it is a crime. It’s not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens. It’s a war crime. It’s a crime against humanity. If you commit it, irrespective of who you are, or where you are, we will go after you.

How do we define conflict-related sexual violence?

I won’t give you the whole technical UN definition. Basically, the perpetrator and the victim have to have a relationship to the conflict. It’s in the form of rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization . . . . [The definition] has helped me to be able to do my job because it is very specific. You know, we have violence happening in South Africa but I can’t get involved, because . . . you have to have the legal opinion that it is a “conflict country.”

But we do believe that if you don’t protect your women in peace, you will not be in a position to protect them in conflict. Obviously, the issue of sexual violence does not happen by accident, it is related to the social structure in the society and community.

We have more and more evidence and reporting about men and boys being victims of rape and other types of sexual torture in conflict. How does your office deal with this issue?

It is different than with women, in a sense, because it happens often during interrogation, when [perpetrators] want to solicit information, under detention, checkpoints. Basically, it’s used as a tool to intimidate and force information from these men—and on occasion, to humiliate them. In Bosnia, we only learned quite recently that men were sexually abused. I met a man who was forced to sexually abuse his own son . . . . It’s something that has been so hidden.

The challenge we have is that the whole structure and the mechanism of the UN was geared toward protecting women. We still believe that 95 percent of the victims or more are women—but more and more evidence is coming out that we have men who have been sexually abused.

I remember there were a few studies that came out in the past few years with data about a surprising number of men who mentioned that they had been violated and that there had been female perpetrators involved in some cases. It’s such a nuanced problem. We’re just starting to understand the whole spectrum of harm that happens and to whom. How can the UN move in that direction?

How do we re-orient ourselves? We’re getting people to accept that it’s not just a women’s issue. It’s a development issue. It’s a human rights issue. It cuts across gender and age . . . . My youngest victim as I sit here is 3 months old; I’ve seen a 75 year old blind woman in Somalia; I met an old man in Somalia who saw his two daughters—4 and 6 years old—being raped. . . . No continent has a monopoly on it.

Often the perpetrator is a state actor or a military agent. I was wondering if you could comment on the particular challenges to accountability that arise when it’s actually the state that is implicated in perpetration.

In some cases, the key perpetrators invariably are the security forces. It’s the weakness of the state that leads to conflict in most cases. So the government’s reaction, from my personal experience in Sierra Leone, is to increase the military. They don’t give them adequate training. They don’t even know where they are. They deploy them for long periods of time without following up on them.

And when I spoke to military leaders in the DRC, I asked why they have so much sexual violence. They said it’s because there’s no accountability. They said, “If people commit the rape and they are investigated and prosecuted and forced to serve their sentences, we would control the rape.” And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with governments—to go into agreements with the military and get a plan of action to support military prosecutors. The rule of law has collapsed. If the police commit the crime and you ask a police officer to handle the investigation, what do you expect?

As you say, each conflict has unique features. On the other hand, the UK Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative is underway and they are hoping to draft a protocol for the documentation and investigation of sexual violence related to conflict. Can you tell us about the initiative, the protocol and its key features, and how it can actually be useful on the ground?

First, I need to commend the British government. . . . The leadership has been tremendous at the global level. One of the biggest challenges we have in terms of sexual violence is prosecution. How do you prosecute without collecting the evidence? If you don’t collect the evidence in time and don’t do it extremely well, you destroy the case.

To actually get a protocol that puts the standards in place that would [establish] how you document and collect the evidence . . . how you protect it . . . how you use that evidence to prosecute . . . . It’s fantastic . . . . We have the legal framework. The next step is implementation. How do we make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted, witnesses are protected?. . . We will use that tool to train in countries to work with judiciaries, the police, from country to country.

What is the possible contribution of academia to help with this work?

By doing a lot of research and work on it, we tell the right story. It will help us to put faces and names and identities behind stories.

We need to generate more information to understand the scope and characteristics of sexual violence . . . . When does it happen and how? [There is] so much information we still don’t have in terms of [male victims]—we still don’t have the statistics, so it’s very difficult to convince partners to put aside services for men . . . . You don’t send a man to a gynecologist or a midwife. It requires resources, planning.

That’s why we need to develop a relationship with the academy, to help shape our response.

Please share some of your experiences in Sierra Leone before you became the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General:

The reason why I became a women’s rights activist is because I was discriminated against . . . . My father was a Muslim cleric and my mother was illiterate. By the time I was 12, my father wanted to marry me off to some grandfather. My mother refused and so he kicked us out of the house.

My mother was not allowed to go to school, but my mother insisted that I go to school. She knew what happened to her. The male members of the family were educated and she wasn’t educated. . . . And I think by virtue of education and the position I came to accept . . . . everyone realized the value of the girl child.

In my village, they still don’t have a school; they don’t have water supply, a health facility. It’s the real village life. But today, I am head of that family. In one generation I have moved from being a chattel, a property, somebody who cannot make a decision, to being the head of a family. Today no decision is being made in that community without reference to me. What changed this was education. All of a sudden, they realized: She’s educated. And because of that education she has been able to achieve one of the highest positions in the country. Now she’s respected in the country and around the world. She’s our daughter.

The society in which I was born and the society I grew up with and the society in which I see now in my country in are completely different. And the war, one way or the other, helped. In the area or region where I come from, we didn’t educate the girls. When people went to refugee camps, they saw humanitarian workers who were women…and it changed their perception. When we came back after the war, the enrollment of the girl child in school increased by 300 percent. They now realize that we have to educate our daughters . . . . It’s changing. I feel proud because now I am like a role model. Everybody has seen that if she can do it, so can we. I take that as an opportunity to be an inspiration and hope to young women and to tell them, ‘I did this so that you can.’