“The World Could Look Different”: Monika Hauser on Tackling Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones
June 6, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
The Fresh Outlook looks at Foreign Office plans for a team to combat and prevent sexual violence in global warzones.
On May 29, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced a UK initiative to deploy a team of experts to overseas conflict zones to gather evidence and testimony of mass rapes. The team is to be part of a wider initiative aiming to prevent the use of sexual violence as a weapon as seen in conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. The initiative will be part of the UK’s presidency of the G8 in 2013.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) team will include doctors, lawyers, police and forensic experts. Launching the initiative, Mr Hague said: “We want to see a significant increase in the number of successful prosecutions for these crimes, so that we erode and eventually demolish the culture of impunity and establish a new culture of deterrence in its place.”
Only 30 people have so far been convicted for the estimated 50,000 rapes which were carried out during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. The UN estimates that at least 250,000 women were raped in the genocide in Rwanda. In Liberia, 49% of women between the ages of 15 and 70 reported experiencing at least one act of physical or sexual violence by a soldier or fighter.
Although Mr Hague said tackling sexual violence could not be separated from the wider issues of women’s rights, the FCO’s approach has been questioned by some groups who have campaigned on the issue of sexual violence.
The Gender Action for Peace and Security group (GAPS) called for violence against women experts to be part of the FCO’s team.
“Prevention of sexual violence is key. The most successful prevention initiatives have been where work addresses root causes of violence and promotes empowerment,” GAPS said in a statement.
The German women’s rights organisation, medica mondiale, has been working with traumatised women and girls in war and crisis zones since 1993. The NGO was set up by gynaecologist Dr Monika Hauser who was appalled by the mass rapes of Bosnian women by Serb soldiers in 1992 and by the subsequent media coverage.
When her concept for exclusively helping raped women and girls was met with indifference from international aid organisations, Dr Hauser joined forces with female Bosnian psychologists and doctors and established a women’s centre in Zenica during the ongoing conflict.
Since then, medica mondiale has developed an integrated approach to helping victims of sexualised violence in conflict, providing gynaecological care, counselling, legal assistance, human rights and advocacy. The NGO is active in Afghanistan, Liberia, Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and other areas.
Speaking to The Fresh Outlook, Dr Hauser said much of the framework for combating and preventing sexual violence in conflict zones already exists in the form of UN resolutions and grassroots work.
“Of course it’s great that the UK government has the money for this important issue but during the last 20 years a lot of women’s initiatives have been founded on the international or national level in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and all these initiatives try to support women who have survived sexual violence during war time. We already have a lot of initiatives but they are chronically under-resourced.
“Why does the UK government not support such initiatives?
“I think it would be much better if the UK government did their homework concerning UN resolutions 1325 and 1820. These two resolutions concern security, participation, prevention and so on for women and girls in conflict zones. The UK government is already taking some action for resolution 1325 but there is much, much more to do.
“And they could put pressure on other European governments like Germany, for example, which are not at all interested in supporting resolution 1325. For us as an NGO it would be great if the work of the British government would support our work and they could do a lot among their colleagues in Berlin and other capitals in Europe to coordinate their activities with them.”
The Foreign Office has said that its expert team could be deployed at short notice to gather evidence and testimony to support investigations and prosecutions. Dr Hauser said a situation where a team swoops in for a short period of time could cause more problems for traumatised victims.
“What about language, cultural approach, society, stigmatisation, taboo, the trauma situation of the women, confidence, stability and so on? … To work in a trauma centre this way you need local staff and we are building up such projects or supporting partner organisations. This means years and years of building trust, of providing qualification training and awareness-raising within the communities. This is nothing that you can do in a just short time.”
Dr Hauser is also concerned about how the evidence and testimony of victims gathered by the Foreign Office’s team is going to be used.
“What is the benefit for the women for speaking with this team? We do not have enough psycho-social trauma centres in all these areas so just to come there to speak with women and to leave is not how traumatised women should be treated. You need trained people and you have to provide some counselling after these interviews because you can be sure that women are re-traumatised after this.”
“Our principal is that women are the owners of their own story,” she said.
“We have been working for many years with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and we also cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. We see many unsolved practical and conceptual problems. We do not see any consistent systematic concept for procedures of investigation concerning indictments of sexual violence. We just see that there are indictments by chance.
“For example, Carla del Ponte dropped indictments of sexual violence, actively dropped them because she said, if we integrate indictments of sexual violence within the trials, it will take too long… There are still many unsolved problems and why should I tell these survivors that they should speak with a British team coming for 14 days or however long to speak with them if they have no control about their own stories and if the team cannot say what they are really doing with the testimonies?”
However, Dr Hauser welcomes the UK government’s aim to end the culture of impunity in sexual violence in conflict.
“This is something that I welcome very much because our fight against impunity from Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan, DRC at the moment, Liberia, this is a long fight of women, including medica mondiale, against impunity.
“And do understand me correctly, I think documentation and evidence gathering is very important. In UN resolution 1820 or UN resolution 1960, it’s a clear point that the UN and others are obliged to find ways to record testimonies and to gather evidence but how should this be done?
“[The UK team] should speak with the initiatives and the women’s organisations we already have. They are the experts in this field – medica mondiale for 20 years and there are also others, of course. For example, in northern and southern Kivu in the DRC we have several grassroots organisations such as PAIF (Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines), a partner organisation of ours, which for many years has been doing this painful work every day with raped women.”
While Dr Hauser says that she welcomes the fact that a European government is highlighting the issue of sexual violence in conflict she says that the FCO shouldn’t supersede existing initiatives.
“They don’t have to invent something new. They should consult with local initiatives and international women’s organisations who are working in this field for many years. They know the real concrete situation of the survivors and they know what these people need and how they could be supported. And then they can spend their money in this field which I would really welcome because it’s still not the priority of international donors,” she said.
According to the Guardian, the FCO’s team will have a budget of £20m.
“One eurofighter costs €57m,” said Dr Hauser. “The budget of the ICC is €107m for one year. For trauma work you don’t need so much money.
“If each government in Europe would give the money for just one eurofighter to local initiatives or the ICC the world could look different.”
By Anna Foden
[Image courtesy of © Sybille Fezer/medica mondiale]