19 June: The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly – in A/RES/69/293 – decided to proclaim 19 June each year as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In so doing, it sought to ‘raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes’. Having worked with victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) for several years, and having had the opportunity last year to meet with victims-survivors in Colombia (and Uganda) whose tenacious activism exposes them to death threats and continued insecurity, I fully embrace these goals. Yet, I take issue with the first one. The importance of ending sexual violence in conflict cannot be over-stated, but how realistic is this goal? How feasible is it? Does it create false hope, not least among victims-survivors themselves?

A fundamental reason why sexual violence is committed, and has long been committed, in situations of war and armed conflict is because it is highly useful. Indeed, the UN General Assembly, in its aforementioned Resolution, noted that sexual violence is used, inter alia, ‘as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic or religious group…’. It is this polyvalent usefulness of sexual violence crimes, as well as the fact that they are ‘cheap’ compared to other weapons of war, that makes them so difficult – if not impossible – to eradicate. The key question, therefore, is not how do we end sexual violence in conflict but, rather, how do we make it less useful, less effective?

In April 2019, in Resolution 2467, the UN Security Council reiterated ‘its demand for the complete cessation with immediate effect by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence and its call for these parties to make and implement specific time-bound commitments to combat sexual violence’. It emphasized, inter alia, the need ‘to ensure accountability for those responsible’, ‘to further strengthen the monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on conflict-related sexual violence’, ‘to apply targeted sanctions against those who perpetrate and direct sexual violence in conflict’ and for military and civilian leaders ‘to demonstrate commitment and political will to prevent sexual violence and enforce accountability’. Of course, these measures are important and necessary, but how transformative are they in the sense of stripping sexual violence of its utility?

It might be argued that the possibility of being held accountable will at least make some perpetrators think twice. Maybe, but the reality is that many perpetrators of conflict-related violence will never face justice. In the midst of war, moreover, when morality collapses and when guns and uniforms can imbue a sense of invincibility, are would-be perpetrators contemplating the possibilities of being brought before a court at some point in the future? If military and civilian leaders take a strong stance on the issue of sexual violence and openly condemn it, this creates obvious risks for those who disobey orders – and in this sense sexual violence necessarily loses some of its ‘appeal’. Indeed, Elisabeth Wood's important research demonstrates that when a strong military hierarchy exists and when the orders of the leadership are respected, wartime rape is less likely to occur. In many contemporary conflicts, however, where multiple and disparate armed groups are fighting each other – as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria – it is difficult to identify military hierarchies and the codes of a 'warrior's honour' necessarily break down.

In its aforementioned Resolution 2467, the UN Security Council encourages ‘leaders at the national and local level, including community, religious and traditional leaders, as appropriate and where they exist, to play a more active role in advocating within communities against sexual violence in conflict to avoid marginalization and stigmatization of survivors and their families…’. Addressing stigma is, I would argue, a core part of rendering sexual violence less useful. It is stigma that critically contributes to making sexual violence such a destructive weapon of war; one that can break up families, tear apart communities, leave male and female victims-survivors alone and marginalized. In short, the wide-reaching ricochet effects enhance the cost-effectiveness of sexual violence crimes. It is therefore regrettable that stigma is only briefly mentioned in Resolution 2467, as if it were a side issue. In fact, it is a central issue.

Over the last two years, I have been working to address the problem of sexual violence-related stigma in BiH. During my current and previous fieldwork in the country, the theme of stigma has often emerged – directly or indirectly. Some interviewees have talked about actual stigmatization, primarily in the form of verbal abuse and hurtful/insensitive comments from family members, neighbours or officials – or about being pointed out as ‘raped women’. One interviewee recently told me: ‘I am ashamed… Even though I did not do this of my own free will, you are ashamed, simply, when you say it. And alas, why does someone now have to say: “There she is, the raped one!”’ Very little has been done in BiH to tackle the issue of stigma, notwithstanding the fact that the Bosnian war ended 24 years ago. My own work has sought to address this gap by bringing discussions about sex, conflict-related sexual violence and stigma into the classroom. As part of a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and in collaboration with a local NGO, a series of interactive talks were delivered in 21 different high schools across BiH. Following the success of the talks, a training manual was developed on Sex and Relationship Education. The manual has been formally adopted by the Ministry of Education in Posavina Canton, one of the 10 cantons within the BiH Federation, and I am now working to extend the project into other parts of BiH.

There is also a second way in which my work is addressing the issue of stigma. At the international level, the discourse of ‘survivor-centred approaches’ is now being used. UN Security Council Resolution 2467 recognizes ‘the need for a survivor-centered approach in preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. The idea of a survivor-centred approach, however, is arguably problematic for two key reasons. Firstly, it can potentially reinforce the problem of stigma by ‘othering’ victims-survivors of sexual violence and fuelling resentment towards them when they are perceived as being favoured over other war-affected groups. Secondly, the problems and needs of those who have suffered conflict-related sexual violence do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are part of broader social ecologies. In lieu of ‘survivor-centred approaches’, therefore, my ongoing research – part of  a European Research Council project – is calling for ecological approaches that give greater attention to the social environments in which victims-survivors live their lives. Helping an individual victim-survivor will yield limited results if that person has no support from his/her family, is being stigmatized within the community, is living in an area where there is high unemployment and few opportunities to earn an income, and so on. Ecological approaches are crucial for navigating through these interconnecting layers but also for addressing stigma, by helping to reintegrate victims-survivors back into their communities.

The UN's website states that ‘International days are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity’. The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is also about victims-survivors themselves. Yet, how many of them are even aware of it? As part of addressing the issue of stigma, 19 June should fundamentally be about creating solidarity between victims-survivors of conflict-sexual violence across the globe and helping them to feel that they are not alone. In this regard, it is pertinent to end with the recent words of a Colombian interviewee. Reflecting on the interview (conducted by my postdoc Yoana), she said:  ‘…it has been good to tell my story and to know that… that it will be told in some other part of the world. And to let those other victims on other continents know that… Well, how should I explain? That we stand with them’.