Women's rights organization Medica Mondiale, founded by Cologne-based gynecologist Monika Hauser, helps victims of rape during war. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has honored Hauser for her humanitarian work.
DW: Ms. Hauser, you founded Medica Mondiale 20 years ago in response to media reports of the systematic rape of Bosnian women by Serb soldiers. A few years ago, these rapes were officially recognized as human rights violations and the victims were awarded compensation. What does this recognition mean for these women?
Monika Hauser: These rapes were recognized by the war crimes tribunal at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. For many years, women's organizations have fought for this recognition. Now, these rapes can no longer be trivialized and dismissed as so-called collateral damage. This recognition is crucial for the women who survived these atrocities, because they live in societies where they are always marginalized and stigmatized just because they experienced this particular form of violence.
For the victims, it's a compensation for their suffering and it gives them new opportunities in life. In fact, we must remember that only a few perpetrators have been convicted of these crimes. The courts still a lot of work to do.
What changes have taken place for the women in Bosnia?
The few who spoke as witnesses, either in The Hague or the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo, have experienced these crimes being publicly acknowledged and judged by the rule of law. These women were able to find some justice.
But the price they pay for this justice is very high. When they make their statements before the court, they relive all the painful things that happened to them. This is sometimes very bitter, especially when they see that rape complaints are dropped. In fact, former chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte did this time and time again, despite the fact that the women testified. Del Ponte wanted to speed the process up. There is still much to do.
Punishment instead of stigmatization
Helping the victims is essential, but often a difficult task. Certainly, the prevention of sexual violence is important for women in conflict situations. How can someone protect themselves from rape?
We can protect women. But we must also show society the behavior of men. Sexual violence is a crime done by men against women, and we need to shine a light on this sensitive topic. The disastrous consequence is impunity. When so many men, whether a top commander or a soldier, go unpunished then that's a signal to men: "You can do whatever you want with women.' Therefore, education and raising awareness are the most important factors.
The international community has ratified a number of resolutions and signed treaties to support and protect women. But there's still a lack of the necessary political will to implement these regulations. On the other hand, it must be made clear to men that the crimes they commit have lifelong consequences for women. We have to point the finger at the perpetrators and ensure that the men are punished, and not the women, who are even further marginalized in their own societies.
Medica Mondiale has built centers in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Liberia and other countries around the globe. What work do you do in these countries?
Our aim is to build these projects with local professional women. In the Balkans and Afghanistan, local women have now taken these projects into their own hands and also run the organizations independently. This really helps them to help themselves, with projects that they can continue to work on in the long term.
The women who have survived rape and sexual violence don't need just one or two therapy sessions or a medical examination. They also need opportunities to really talk, so they can get back to living somewhat of a normal life. They also need an economic perspective to return to live with dignity.
We always combine this work with political education. Women will receive more justice only when we change the structures that allow for gender inequality.
Foreign policy neglected women's rights
German foreign policy claims that the protection of human rights is of paramount importance. In your experience, what is the importance of the special needs of women in German foreign policy - in Afghanistan, for example?
Unfortunately, I'd have to acknowledge that the human rights of women don't play a large role in foreign policy. Afghan women have not really received the support that they needed. For years, we've been saying that supporting women and their participation in the political process has to be one of the cornerstones of Germany's foreign policy. We've also called on Germany to treat the occurrence of rape in warzones seriously. But unfortunately, that's not happening. That's why we are always trying to push those issues when talking to the German government.
You've received an award from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for your humanitarian efforts. You've also received the alternative Nobel Prize. What significance do these awards have for you and your work?
They are a great appreciation for the decades of work in the field, for me and for my colleagues in Cologne, but also for the women who are fighting for the same issues every day around the world.
But I also view these awards as a political sign. Those who have honored us take sides with the surviving women and fight together with us for an end to discrimination so that society will have to realize how important it is that this injustice finally has to end.
What are some concrete examples of the success of your work in the last 20 years?
Once success is that Medica Mondiale has been going for 20 years. We are an independent organization. When we founded the group, it was by no means clear how long we'd make it.
The topic, supporting war-time rape victims, is no longer being ignored; it's being discussed in the media. That, in part, is certainly thanks to our relentless efforts. The international organizations have the issue on their agendas. We have, together with other organizations fighting for women's rights, reached important UN resolutions. But there still remains a lot of political work to do.
But our most important achievement is that we have supported many tens of thousands of women worldwide, helping them not only to survive but also giving them the chance to rebuild their lives with dignity.
What are your future goals?
First and foremost, we want to continue with the project in Afghanistan. Seventy women work there under the hardest conditions, and the situation on the ground is getting worse day by day. We want to support them so they can continue with their important work. We also want our project in Liberia to eventually be able to run itself. There, too, our colleagues are working in a very difficult post-war situation.
Interview by Mirjam Gehrke / crl, ai