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Coordinated and concerted action to stop rape and gender violence in conflict

Susan Tolmay

Friday File: Rape and gender violence in conflict is a problem of huge proportions across the globe.

The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict has been launched to end this wanton scourge. AWID spoke to Yee Htun, Coordinator of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict at the Nobel Women’s Initiative about the objectives and hopes for the campaign.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI) was established in 2006 by women Nobel Peace Laureates who came together to form an organization that uses the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize to support women human rights defenders and women’s organisations and activists in the area of peace, justice and equality. The International Campaign is the first-ever global collaboration between Peace Laureates of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, international advocacy organizations and grassroots groups working at the regional and community levels in conflict areas.

AWID: Why did Nobel Women's Initiative embark on the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict?

Yee Htun (YH): Rape and violence in conflict has been prevalent throughout history and modern conflicts. It used to be that people thought it was an inevitable result of war. The conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) demonstrated that rape and gender violence is used as a weapon of war. Rape is employed as a strategic weapon to destroy people, communities, and entire nations. Gender violence is a tactical weapon used by state security forces and armed groups alike.

The international community has developed various instruments, mechanisms and international laws prohibiting rape and gender violence such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 and other resolutions following this. These confirm that rape and gender violence in conflict are not to be deemed a natural state of things but rather recognise these as coordinated strategic actions, used to pursue genocide or crimes against humanity, that must be addressed head on. Provisions in international laws and instruments prohibit this violence and the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute stipulate three grounds - crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes - on which perpetrators can be charged for participating in rape and gender violence.

However, despite all of the progress in terms of laws and international instruments and the paradigm shift in treating this issue, there has been very little action and it has not translated into changes in the lives of women and men who experience this violence. There is a general awareness that this is a serious issue and that international law prohibits it, but there is still a huge lack of political will to address this in each of the countries where this violence takes place.

We saw that there were many organisations that have worked long and hard advocating for this but there was need for a civil society movement to come together in a coordinated and concerted effort to stop rape and gender violence in conflict. The Campaign is led by the Peace Laureates of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and an Advisory Committee comprised of 25 organizations working at the international, regional, and community levels.

We focused the campaign on three main areas, prevention –how do we ensure that rape and violence is prevented, how do we address governments and civil society and the international community to ensure that rape is prevented. The second pillar is protection – if prevention fails then we need to ensure that there are resources to protect women, be that safe houses, medical treatment or legal assistance to ensure that survivors are able to pursue their cases in a court of law. The final pillar is ending impunity - one of the reasons that rape is so prevalent is because the perpetrators go unpunished.

AWID: You are focusing on four target countries - Burma, Colombia, DRC and Kenya – why did you choose these countries? Do you plan to extend the campaign to other countries in conflict?

For the first year, we are focussing on four countries where rape is a serious and ongoing problem, and where fast action is needed.

DRC is well known for the very high levels of rape that continues to this day. It is estimated that around 200,000 women of all ages were raped during the war in Congo that ended in 2003.

Kenya, because of the post-election violence of 2007-2008 and as they are gearing up for elections next year, the Kenyan government is again expecting high levels of violence, so we felt that this was an opportunity and that we really should to do something before the violence occurs.

In Colombia the war on drugs and the recent changes in regimes has really affected women human rights defenders (WHRDs) many of whom are disappearing and rape is being used as a weapon to silence activists.

And finally, the Burmese military regime has been engaged in the world’s longest running armed conflict. The regime regularly employs rape against ethnic minorities demanding democracy.

But this isn’t to say that we are not concerned about other countries in conflict. We are very much a global campaign working at all levels to ensure that the international community and national and local government’s have the political will to tackle this issue. If they make changes such as passing laws or ensuring that the three pillars of prevention, protection and prosecution (ending impunity) get addressed we are optimistic that this issue, as a whole, can be tackled.

AWID: How does the campaign work, who is involved?

As I mentioned earlier, in addition to the Peace Laureate of the Nobel Women's Initiative, there is an advisory committee of 25 organizations. In addition we have various member organizations and individuals from around the world who have joined the campaign since it was launched on May 6-13, 2012. Currently we have nearly 600 organizations in 125 countries and several thousand individuals, so altogether we have about 3000 members involved with the campaign internationally.

The member organizations on the advisory committee who are from the focus countries are responsible for informing the campaign and deciding what is needed in each of the countries to address this issue. Within each of the target countries there is a campaign committee including groups that have joined up locally. They form coalitions and plan activities in that country. And while that work is being done in country we support and promote their activities at the international level. So we are very focussed on the local but with the weight and support of the international community rallying behind this cause.

AWID: May 6 to 13 was a ‘Week of Action’, what will follow this week of action?

The launch week was our way of announcing to the world that this is an issue that we are going to focus on. It was a kick off which will be followed by activities by the 3000 entities. Launch activities took place all over the world, for example a partner organisations in Bosnia did a week long radio programme talking about the impact of the war in their country and how this campaign is something that they are supporting because of that, in India they held education seminars on rape and gender violence in conflict.

And the week of action in each of the four target countries will lead to future actions in those countries. We are focussing on engaging and presenting our advocacy and findings to governments and parliaments in various countries. For example, in the DRC we met with the president of the Parliament to present our findings and survivors’ testimony and demanded the government to take concrete actions. We got commitment from the DRC government that they would look into approximately 400 cases of violence where women have received guilty verdicts against perpetrators but which have never been enforced.

We are applying pressure to ensure that there is the political will for governments take action. We also work with our multilaterals and developed states regarding the need to allocate resources and support to prevent, protect and prosecute rape in conflict and assist civil society, grassroots activists and other organisations who are on the frontline providing support to women’s survivors in countries like Burma, Colombia, Kenya and DRC.

AWID: How can someone get involved with the Campaign?

The campaign is really about membership organisations taking ownership of this issue and coming up with activities that suit their context and building solidarity with women’s and men’s groups in other parts of the world who they would not normally have a connection with. The activities can be as creative as the organisations make it. There is no directive to member organisations in terms of what they should do, it’s about raising awareness in their communities and it’s up to them how they do it.

People can sign up as an individual supporter and agree to participate in local action or spread the message through your own networks and social media. Or organizations can join and become member organisations that agree to not only to share information about the Campaign through their networks but also undertake at least one activity per year for the Campaign.

We are confident that if we all work together then we can stop rape in conflict! So please join us and go to to find out how you can get involved today.