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Sexual violence has been used as a tactic of warfare: Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN envoy

Jun 14, 2013

Conflict-related sexual violence has been used as a tactic of warfare in many armed conflicts around the globe, said Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Excerpts from the interview.

Zainab Hawa Bangura

Conflict-related sexual violence has been used as a tactic of warfare in many armed conflicts around the globe from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone – affecting both women and men, girls and boys. In June 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Zainab Hawa Bangura as his special envoy on this issue. Upon taking up her post, the former Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone declared that the elimination of this scourge is possible, and outlined six objectives she intends to pursue.

These are addressing impunity and justice for victims; protecting and empowering affected women; strengthening the political will for implementing Security Council resolutions pertaining strategies to combat and prosecute sexual violence; coordinating the response of the international community to sexual violence; understanding rape as a tactic of war, and encouraging local and national ownership of the problem and its solution.

UN News Centre: What are your impressions of the job so far?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: I think it’s an extremely challenging job; challenging in the sense that the problem is huge. It’s a global problem. It’s not just specific to one continent and that means that you have to abreast of what is happening. In a lot of areas there is a culture of silence and a culture of denial because most people don’t want to accept the fact that this is happening. They don’t want to own up to it. We also have the problem of stigmatization. The victims themselves are being stigmatized and so they don’t want to talk about it. In some societies, when you do talk about it, you are isolated. You’re treated as a prostitute.

So there are a whole lot of challenges but I think that for me the important issue is that you’re actually helping to rebuild people’s lives. You are a voice to people who under normal circumstances cannot protect themselves because a lot of the victims are women; poor women in remote areas where they don’t have a say. It also has to do with the issue of empowerment. These women who are sexually abused become frustrated and actually do not have support. So you see yourself as the person who has to speak for them, to let it be known that this is happening and to ensure that action is taken.

It’s very interesting because you get to meet a lot of people. Recently, I completed my first field trip. It was very disheartening... some of the women, in telling me their stories, actually broke down. It brings you very close to the reality of what is happening in a lot of countries. That spurs you and gives you the commitment and determination to do something for these people. I have to speak for them. I have to make sure that their stories are told. I have to be able to make sure that they have the opportunity to rebuild their lives because in certain areas they just seem to have lost hope and you’re bringing hope to them.

UN News Centre: Did you receive any advice when you took up the post, including from your predecessor, Margot Wallström?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: Yes, she actually, which was very kind of her, flew over to New York specifically to sit down with me and talk to me. It was very kind of her to give me her own experience on the job, what she saw, things she should have done better, or that she was not able to do in retrospect. In addition to that, before I took up the appointment, the staff put together a very elaborate briefing. They made sure I had enough orientation even before I arrived. Also, when I came, we had a series of meetings. It gave me a soft landing. I had worked on this issue when I was working as a civil society activist in Sierra Leone... so I had a basic idea of what the problems are because I had experienced the problems firsthand myself.

UN News Centre: How has your own country’s experience with conflict influenced your views and your work on sexual violence in conflict?

Zainab Hawa Bangura: The fact that I had knowledge – I had dealt with victims of sexual violence in conflict; I had documented, reported atrocities committed in Sierra Leone; I had written the reports for the Special Court [trying war crimes during Sierra Leone’s conflict] on the issue of forced marriage and testified at the Court as an expert witness – gave me basic understanding. Of course each conflict is different. But at least the broader issues are the same. But then you have to go to the specifics and the way that these issues are handled is different. So that helped me to some extent... We were able to stand up, rebuild the country and now it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. And we’ve dealt with the issue through the truth and reconciliation commission. We’ve dealt with it through the Special Court for those who bear the greatest responsibility. Sierra Leone has set up a reparation fund for victims. So all of that gave me an experience of how these issues were handled.

SOURCE: UN News Service

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