‘The man who repairs women’. ‘The brave doctor’. ‘Our hero!’. ‘A feminist’. The gynecologist Mukwege is widely praised for his work in his hospital in the war-torn Eastern Congo. But Mukwege not only saves lives. He fights for the recognition of sexual violence as a war crime and participation of women in peace processes: No Women, No Peace! Mukwege is therefore a face of an important but still unknown UN directive: the UNSCR 1325. Today, October 31, 2016, this directive celebrates its 16th birthday and is more relevant than ever.
Who is the man who repairs women?
Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist and founder / director of Panzi Hospital in Bukava, in eastern Congo. The hospital is a refuge for female victims of sexual violence. In Congo a civil war has been raging since 1994. A principal driver of the conflict is greed for Congo’s natural resources. These include commodities such as gold, copper, coltan and diamonds: also known as ‘conflict minerals’.
The conflict in Congo is the deadliest war since World War II, with millions of victims. The violence is rooted in the aftermath of the massive genocide against the Tutsis by the Hutus in neighboring Rwanda. Many Hutu militias fled to Congo and imported the practice of rape and ethnic cleansing. The warring parties in Congo (the aforementioned Hutu rebels from Rwanda, the government army and countless militias) have adopted this ‘habit’. As a consequence Congo has been described as the ‘rape capital of the world’: in 2012 48 women were raped every hour. The rapes are extremely violent and often take place in a public space or in front of the family.
Since 1999 Mukwege and his staff have helped to care for survivors of sexual violence at the Panzi Hospital. Often the physical and mental damage is so severe that women literally need ‘repair’. The hospital’s specialization is reconstructive surgery: more than 40,000 women overall received treatment in the past 15 years.
Besides being a honored doctor Mukwege is a well-known human rights activist. He travels around the world to draw more attention to the situation of women in Congo. He appears on stage at conferences and in the media (see eg. the recent interviews in Dutch tv shows College Tour and RTLLN), but also speaks at gatherings such as the meeting of the United Nations. Here he addresses the economic causes of the conflict in the Congo and the lack of action against / the impunity of sexual violence. Mukwege considers mass rape as a weapon of war: cheap, accessible, but very destructive. And he often emphasizes: ‘to use rape as a weapon of war is not just an African problem’.
Global issue: sexual violence as a weapon of war
Mukwege is right: worldwide, sexual violence is used as a tool of war. Or as formulated by Zainab Hawa Bangura (UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in conflict): ‘no single continent, culture, region or religion has a monopoly on this scourge.’
The context is a war or an occupation; the perpetrators are government soldiers, other combatants or citizens and (unarmed) girls and women make up for the majority of the victims. It is an eternal phenomenon (check the Bible for example) and as old as war itself. Infamous examples of the Second World War are the use of sex slaves (‘comfort women’) by the Japanese and the rape of German women by the Red Army.
And today? The map below of conflict-related sexual violence after 1945 shows that the Congo case does not stand on its own. Closer to home, in Bosnia, in the early 90’s Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped by Serb soldiers as an act of war. Contemporary terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Isis generate headlines because they use sexual violence as a strategic weapon. In 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, to keep them as slaves. Isis did something similar after the conquest of Sinjar in Iraq: they kidnapped 5,000 Yazidi women, which they sold as sex slaves. In an article in the NRC about escaped Yazidi women you can read about the horrors they experienced and the lack of warm welcome given on their return. The latter is often only one of the many consequences victims have to face.
Map of conflict-related sexual violence since 1945
A weapon of war with a huge impact
The impact of sexual violence as a weapon of war is enormous. The consequences for the victims are often lifelong and comprehensive. First, the mutilations may cause severe physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, fistulas or even infertility. The latter is disastrous for women in cultures where the value and future of a woman is equal to her ability to produce children. Also victims are more likely to be infected with HIV and STDs.
Besides, sexual violence can lead to long-lasting psychological impacts. Victims may suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, low self-esteem or suicidal tendencies. In addition there are social and economic consequences. In many (former) conflict areas a social stigma is attached to sexual violence. Victims become isolated or might even be rejected by their family or spouse. This exclusion also has an impact on children. Especially children who are conceived during rape, are vulnerable: they are at particular risk of not being accepted or neglected. As a further result of the violence and / or the social ban many women become refugees or end up (with their children) in a poverty trap.
Finally it seems that conflict-related sexual violence may lead to an increase of ‘citizen’ sexual violence during or after ending of the conflict. Experts speak of ‘normalization of sexual violence’ or ‘hyper-masculanity’. For example, figures from the aforementioned Panzi Hospital show a disturbing increase in the number of rapes between 2004 and 2008 by citizens.
In short, sexual violence as a weapon of war does not only affect individuals but may also disrupt families and entire communities for generations to come.
An important countermeasure: the UNSCR 1325
Despite the huge impact, for centuries sexual violence was considered as a ‘collateral damage’ of war. Perpetrators were only rarely brought to trial. For example, according to the UN in the aforementioned Bosnia only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted as of 2010. At the same time the horrors in Rwanda and Bosnia have also shaken up the world and contributed to a breakthrough.
In 1998, the Rome Statute was adopted in which sexual violence is recognized as a war crime and crime against humanity. This includes not only rape, but e.g. also sexual slavery and forced prostitution, pregnancy or sterilization. As of March 2016, 124 states have ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute.
Sixteen years ago (October 31, 2000) the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a directive: the UNSCR 1325. The UNSCR 1325 is considered as a milestone in the history of women, peace and security issues, because it is the first UN directive that specifically mentions women and their role in conflicts. The resolution recognizes the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and calls for:
- prosecution of conflict-related violence (especially against women)
- additional protection of women in war zones
- appointment of more women in peacekeeping operations
- and participation of women in conflict prevention, peace negotiations and peace building.
The provisions are also summarized as the four P’s of prevention, participation, protection and peacebuilding and recovery. The resolution is binding towards all UN member states. The Security Council is encouraging all member states to translate the directive into national action plans in conjunction with NGOs and other local parties. Some 60 countries, including the Netherlands, have realized an action plan.
What is the effect of the directive?
At the 15th anniversary of UNSCR 1325, a committee conducted an investigation into the results achieved. The conclusion is that there has been slow progress.
Successes are the first prosecutions of sexual violence and associated jurisprudence; the appointment of a special UN representative; establishment of research and monitoring of sexual violence in conflict situations; the growing number of references to women in peace agreements and an increased awareness among governments of the interests of female victims in punishment, reconciliation and recovery of sexual violence.
On the other hand, the committee states that much of the progress should be considered as ‘a first’, and by no means as standard practice. One of the obstacles is that two-thirds of the Member States do not have a national action plan. This includes the four countries (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan) which make the largest contribution to peace missions. This is alarming because figures show that sexual abuse by peacekeepers is still increasing. At the national level there are very few prosecutions of perpetrators and participation of women in peace processes is still limited. Last but not least, the budgets for implementation programs are marginal. As a result especially reform of the security sector and improved access to justice do not get off to a good start.
An important principle in the committee’s recommendations is: ‘prevention of conflict must be the priority, not the use of force’. Zainab Hawa Bangura appoints the lower status of women as a major cause of sexual violence. She regards more participation of women in peace processes, security operations, economics and decision making as major prevention. According to the committee governments should also invest more money in the ‘women, peace and security agenda’ and end impunity: calling to account/ punishing the perpetrators and strengthening the victims (eg compensation and medical and psychosocial assistance).
Actions speak louder than awards
The UNSCR 1325 is an anonymous directive. Mukwege has become a familiar face and gets a lot of recognition for his work. He was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, the Olof Palme Prize and the Sakharov Prize (which in 2016 was awarded to two Yazidi women). Famous politically active actors like Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck literally join him on the stage.
Also for several consecutive years, Mukwege has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mukwege puts the Nobel Prize into perspective. In interviews, he openly questions whether the price and the corresponding one day ceremony can really change something about the situation of women in Congo. Because that is what it is all about: commitment to effective change. ‘In our hospital we still treat a big number of women who are raped.. (..) Why can not it stop here if we have this support?’ .
According to Mukwege the international community fails to act. In 2012 Mukwege addresses the UN: ‘What is missing is the political will. (…) We need action, urgent action to arrest those responsible for crimes against humanity and bring them to justice. (…). We need your unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts. We also need concrete actions with regard to member states [ie Rwanda, BW] of the UN who support these barbarities from near or afar.’
Mukwege’s concerns are justified. In the Panzi Hospital he fights against the consequences of conflict-related sexual violence. At the same time root causes must be tackled. In addition, sexual violence is not confined to the borders of Congo and it’s the national governments and government forces that are partly responsible for this violence.
Therefore the problem requires an international approach. Awareness on and wider, global implementation of the UNSCR 1325 can contribute to a better position of sexual violence in conflict situations on the political agenda. I am thinking of coordination of activities through National Action Plans; more resources for local (education) programs for civilians, military, police and justice sector and international pressure on governments to punish perpetrators of sexual violence. And a bigger role for women in decision making and peace processes, which is also advocated by Mukwege: ‘the voices of women shouldering be heard at all stages of the peace process.’
The work of Dr. Mukwege and his team is inspiring and absolutely qualifies for a Nobel Peace Prize. However his efforts and the suffering of the victims above all deserve a focus on the fight against conflict-related sexual violence. After all, prevention is still better than cure.