Justice via Empowerment
By Kelsea Wallman
Despite its widespread use as a tactic of war and terrorism, sexual violence is often an overlooked component of conflict. It was not until last year that International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence was adopted by the United Nations in order to raise awareness, honor victims and survivors, and pay tribute to those who work towards the eradication of these crimes.
On June 21, 2016, I attended a panel discussion at United Nations Headquarters entitled “The Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.” The broad range of panelists discussed the stigma that surrounds sexual violence, and how it contributes to these crimes, as well as how it affects survivors.
Not only is sexual violence a violation of human rights, but it also takes an enormous mental and physical toll on its the victims. Conflict-related sexual violence is often perpetrated by members of armed forces and other political leaders. In the eyes of many victims the idea of justice remains unattainable. The stigma surrounding these crimes makes it hard for victims to reintegrate into their societies and families. This stigma is also one of the largest contributing factors as to why victims rarely speak out. According to a report of the Secretary General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, “For each rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented.” If perpetrators know that they will not be held accountable, these heinous acts will keep reoccurring, leading to a never-ending cycle. So, how do we put an end to this cycle?
A solution supported by many panelists, is empowering women on the grassroots level. Juliene Lusenge, Director of the Fund for Congolese women, stated “It is imperative to help survivors reintegrate in their communities. This can for example be done by teaching women specific trades.”
This is exactly what has been done by 2015 VGIF grantee Vocational Training Centre for Youth in Distress, Centre dé Encadrement Professionnel des Jeunes en Detresse (CEPROJED) in French. By starting a chicken-farming project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, female survivors of sexual violence were able to obtain a source of income, improve their health, as well as reintegrate into their societies. The project helped 84 women and girls whose ages ranged from 8 to 70 years old. By using the profits from selling eggs laid by the chickens, many of these women were even able to pay for school fees for their children’s education. Furthermore, some women’s husbands, who had previously shunned them, wanted to take them back following the success of the project.
Not only is this project a success for the women but it is also a clear example of how VGIF’s projects align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By empowering women (SDG 5), we are also getting closer to meeting SDG 4 on education, and SDG 2 on hunger.
Projects like CEPROJED’s chicken-farming project are empowering women and giving them the courage to speak out against their perpetrators. As a result, perpetrators are being more frequently convicted than ever before, and the stigma surrounding rape is slowly fading.
At the panel discussion, speakers gave several examples, listed below, of convictions in the last year that would not have been possible without the help of victims.
- In February 2016, Guatemala convicted two former military officers for sexual violence during the country’s civil war.
-In March 2016, The International Criminal Court convicted Congolese Jean-Pierre Bemba of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape. On the morning of June 21, 2016, Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
-In May 2016, Hisséne Habré, the former president of Chad, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity including sexual slavery and rape, by an international jurisdiction in Dakkar, Senegal.
Zerrougui concluded her statement with these inspiring words, “When we empower the victim, we can ensure conviction. When we have more and more convictions, we will have more people who will be afraid that they will be accountable today.”
 Juliene Lusenge, President of Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development and Director of the Fund for Congolese Women, oral statement at “Panel discussion on the Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict” UN Headquarters, NY, June 21, 2016.
 Leila Zerrogui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, oral statement at “Panel discussion on the Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict” UN Headquarters, NY, June 21, 2016.