International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Confronting rape as a weapon of war

Today, International Women’s Day, Elisabeth Roesch writes about Margot Wallström’s recent meeting with aid agencies including the International Rescue Commiitee.  Wallström is the UN’s first ever Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, tasked with leading the UN’s efforts to mobilize the international community to address sexual violence.

Margot Wallström’s open style, hands-on attitude and good sense of humor are refreshing for one of the most powerful women in the United Nations.  Not to mention, critically important tools for someone whose job is to confront one of the toughest and most important challenges of our time: rape in conflict.

Over the last decade, the world has woken up and been moved to action by the horrific violence that women and girls often face on an almost daily basis in countries torn apart by strife and war.  Wallström, a former Swedish politician, media executive and member of the European Commission, is the leader for this action.  Appointed by the U.N. Secretary General as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict a little over a year ago, she is tasked with mobilizing the international community to respond to sexual violence with the same seriousness and commitment used to respond to any other threat to our world’s peace and security.  

Wallström is outspoken about her belief that sexual violence is a criminal act – often a war crime – and that perpetrators should not be allowed to walk free.  Proof of her seriousness has been her relentless advocacy to bring some of the worst offenders to justice.  Callixte Mbarushimana, for example, is a leader of one of the main rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Accused of raping women and girls, he was recently brought to justice for his crimes. He and other offenders can thank Wallström’s practice of “naming and shaming” for a portion of the international attention they have received.  Yet recently Wallström met with aid agencies including the IRC in Washington, D.C., and she was candid about the challenges she faces in working toward her primary goal of ending impunity.

Wallström’s office, though growing, remains small.  Having recently received generous support from the US government, she now has the ability to expand her team to 9 people.  But her list of priority countries is almost as long as the size of her staff – Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan and Liberia.  With less than a year left in her term, she will need to engage where she can have the most impact.  While sexual violence in the DRC receives much attention, it will take fierce determination to shine a spotlight on its neighbor, CAR.   The situation in CAR has long suffered from neglect even though the violence committed against women and girls there is equally grave.  And in Ivory Coast, where a disputed election endangers a fragile peace, Wallström is one of the few voices speaking out to condemn the attacks on women and girls that have been reported in recent months.  There, a critical opportunity to prevent violence is being missed.  Can one person reverse the tide?

On my most optimistic days, I see Wallström as one leader in a growing movement of people that realize women’s security is important for international security or, to quote the famous words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recognize that “women’s rights are human rights”.  When a more cynical mood overtakes me, I wonder if world leaders have opened their eyes to the atrocities being committed against women in places like Sudan or Congo only to close them again as the same scenario plays out in other countries.  It is easier to recognize a problem when it is bounded by the borders of a far-off war-torn nation.  Far more difficult is waking up to the fact that violence against women and girls is global in scope, vast in scale and requires not a discrete intervention but a wholesale change in the way we respond to the needs of women and girls affected by conflict.  My hope is that Wallström can leverage her time with the UN to catapult the international community to the next stage in confronting this violence. This would mean not only bringing perpetrators to justice but also changing the widespread practice of allowing the basic human rights of women and girls to be violated in silence. 

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about three goals that I think are critical to this fight.

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Margot Wallström writes about her recent meeting with the aid agencies and the challenge of rape in conflict in an opinion piece published today in The Huffington Post.

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