United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura advocated for the increased participation of women in international affairs and presented strategies to combat sexual violence in conflict zones during an address in Gaston Hall on Monday.
The Office of the President, the Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the Global Futures Initiative and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs hosted Bangura. During the event, Bangura also received the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security, an award established by GIWPS and Clinton in 2014, during the event. The New York Times Paris Bureau Chief Alissa Rubin moderated the discussion.
Bangura began her conversation by outlining her role in the U.N. and her work addressing the misconception of sexual violence as an unavoidable consequence in conflicts.
“My mission is to make sure sexual violence is no longer sidelined as a stigma to be borne in silence but is brought into the center of international relations,” Bangura said. “We all know that rape in war is as old as war itself. Historically the issue has been framed as a byproduct of war — merely collateral damage and simply boys being boys.”
Bangura argued that sexual violence is used deliberately by terrorist organizations as a means to control and subjugate local populations during conflicts. Bangura said such violence is a form of terror that is ineffectively addressed by institutions seeking to combat terrorist groups.
“When we think of terrorism, we tend to think of destruction, killing, kidnapping and abduction. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are not mentioned in any national counterterrorism [agendas],” Bangura said.
Sexual violence is also used to instill fear in conflict-torn communities. Bangura said women and girls in contemporary conflicts often find themselves constantly under assault, whether at border crossings, checkpoints or in places where they seek refuge. She cited examples of atrocities committed by military forces in South Sudan.
“For instance, in South Sudan in July 2015 military offenses by the national army resulted in at least 30 women and girls being raped, gang-raped and burned alive in their homes. One survivor of this atrocity reported to the United Nations, ‘If you look them in the eye when they are doing it they will kill you,’” Bangura said.
Bangura highlighted the multitude of current global conflicts in regions ranging from the Middle East to Africa to South Asia.
“More than 30 active armed conflicts, levels of civilian displacements not seen since the second world war … threatens to stall or even reverse the progress of recent decades towards the developments in human rights,” Bangura said. “In addition, war has unleashed a wave of sexual violence, sexual slavery, forced marriage and trauma both to individual and collective that will take generations to heal.”
Bangura said she recognizes the atrocities of sexual crimes at a global level and understands the long road ahead in the process of healing and remediating ongoing sexual violence.
“Against this bleak backdrop, my mandate to steer a global effort to end the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence has become more urgent than ever,” Bangura said.
“Over many months and years of working on this issue it has become crystal clear to me there can be no security without women’s security and no peace without peace of mind for women and their families.”
Bangura visited the Middle East in April 2015, and since her trip she has formulated a multifaceted strategy to combat sexual violence in the region. Bangura expressed hope about recent progress made to fight sexual violence on a global level.
“Over the past five years, we have seen a dramatic evolution in serious [attempts to combat] conflict-related sexual violence including by security stakeholders [and] military institutions,” Bangura said. “To date, over 2,000 survivors of sexual violence have received reparations, including economic compensation, rehabilitation, land restitution [and] employment opportunities.”
Bangura concluded by emphasizing the important role women must play in international relations to ensure their own security.
“It is also clear to me that women’s protection is indivisible from their participation in peace, security and justice processes. Wartime rape has been a condition of history because women have never held the pen with which official records of war and peace are written,” Bangura said.
Rachel Palmer (GRD ’15) said she appreciated Bangura’s past and current efforts to bring the issue of sexual violence to the international community. She hoped attendees understood the unsatisfactory attention the issue receives at both domestic and international levels.
“It’s people like Zainab who have been pushing and pushing and pushing against all odds and against an international community, against domestic communities that don’t believe that rape is actually a strategic move,” Palmer said.
Rebecca Marrow (SFS ’16), who also attended the event, said Bangura’s explanation of sexual violence used as a method to instill fear in populations is still not as accepted and discussed in the international community as it should be.
“I still don’t think we adequately address the fact that rape and sexual violence toward women in times of war is not just an ugly byproduct of violence; it is a systematic systemic tool used frequently and purposefully and I think that’s something we’re very easily blind and deaf to,” Marrow said.
Miranda Tafoya (SFS ’18) also praised Bangura’s talk, adding that she hoped communities will continue to address the fact that women still lack a voice when it comes to sexual violence.
“The main thing that I took away was that these stories aren’t really told because women don’t get to hold the pen,” Tafoya said. “Women don’t get a lot of agency in sharing their stories with the world, and [Bangura] said that women need to have a bigger role in telling these stories of peace and these stories of war so that you can hear all sides of the story.”
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