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Sexual violence in conflict

Non-state actors 'biggest challenge' in conflict-related sexual violence

Sierra Leonean politician Zainab Hawa Bangura is the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict. She has been talking to DW about her work in which she has to contend with stigmas, taboos and insecurity.

Sexual violence in conflict is no longer regarded an inevitable by-product of war, but a crime that is preventable and punishable under international law. This change in attitudes was reflected by the creation in 2009 of the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Confict. The current incumbent is the former Sierra Leonean government minister Zainab Hawa Bangura. DW's Daniel Pelz spoke to her while she was on a recent visit to the German capital Berlin.   

DW: There doesn't seem to be much media coverage of sexual crimes against women in African conflicts these days. Does that mean that the situation has improved?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: Definitely not. First and foremost we have a lot more countries in conflict today than ever before. But the information is very difficult to get. It's very challenging for the women to come out, because of the stigma associated with it. It is also very difficult to monitor the situation, because of the level of insecurity. But it has definitely not reduced. If anything we now know more about where it happens and how it happens.

Conflicts in Africa seem to get more and more brutal, if you take the situation in South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo for example. It seems that in many conflict areas, both governments and rebels have no respect for human rights and they don't listen to international actors. What can you do in such a hostile environment when campaigning for an end to violence against women?

I think you are right to some degree. These conflicts are within countries. People are either fighting for resources or for space. And what happens is that they target the most vulnerable members of society, aiming to inflict the utmost damage on that society. And the most vulnerable members of society are women and children. So the impact of conflicts on women and children increases becasue of the way conflicts are being fought. I think this is our biggest challenge and that's why the United Nations and the international community have become much stronger in terms of ensuring that these people are punished. We work with governments to ensure that these people are punished.

But I agree with you that things are happening in South Sudan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo which are unbelievable, especially in South Sudan. I have just come back from a conference in Abidjan where we brought together national armies of seven countries in Africa to see how we can develop guidelines to foster respect women and children during conflicts.

But the biggest challenge we have is the rise of non-state actors. In the 19 countries I monitor, out of the 45 parties that have committed sexual violence, only five of them are state parties. The rest are non-state actors. We don't understand them, we do not have the tools to engage them. They have no respect for international law, they have no respect for national borders. Take Boko Haram -  [they are active in] Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. That's the biggest challenge we are facing now. We are challenging actors who do not respect the tools we have created or the norms we have developed.

How could one engage these non-state actors?

We are working with groups who have trained over the years to engage them and help them to understand international law and international conventions. But that's extremely difficult. How do you engage Boko Haram? How do you engage al Shabaab? How do you engage al Qaeda? How do you engage ISL? I don't think anybody has the answer. And because they are extremists, they are under sanctions by the UN which makes our job very difficult. Discussions have started in the UN on what we need to do, because these are new phenomena. We are trying to deal with them and address them,,We have to see how we can punish them, but most important of all  is how we can ensure that they obey the rules that we have established at international level on how to engage with one another.

Sexual violence against men in African conflicts is a taboo subject, but sexual crimes against men are committed there nonetheless. Through your monitoring, do you see a certain trend?

Sexual violence against men has always been there, but it has always come under torture. And what we've also learned is that under interrogation, in prison or prison conditions, when people, mostly governments, try to get information from men, they target them. Obviously it is happening a lot, we have documented it in the Democratic Republic of Cogo, in Mali to some extent and a lot in Syria.

Our response mechanism in the UN was created for women. So we have to start rethinking how we respond to the needs of men who have been sexually abused. The challenge we have is that in countries where there are laws against homosexuality, men are afraid to report sexual violence. Once a doctor has such evidence, the first place he goes to is a police station where he says ‘I have a gay person here'. So we are looking for resources to provide support for these men who have been sexually abused.

Zainab Hawa Bangua is the UN Secretary General's special representative on sexual violence in conflict  

Interview: Daniel Pelz  

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