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Sexual Violence in conflict, recognizing two heroes who combat it

Originally published

by Luay Shabaneh*

The Royal Swedish Academy granted the Nobel Peace Prize this year to the Iraqi-Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and the Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, for their efforts in combatting sexual violence as a weapon of war. This comes ten years after UNSC Resolution 1820/2008, which identified sexual violence during armed conflicts a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. Nadia Murad is one of nearly 3000 Yazidi girls and women who suffered sexual violence at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Iraq between 2014 and 2016. Doctor Mukwege is a gynecologist who dedicated his life to treating and defending thousands of survivors of sexual violence. He criticized the Congolese and other governments for not doing enough to put an end to sexual violence prosecute violators.

“Sexual violence” is a term used to describe acts of sexual nature, imposed by force or coercion, which may include rape, sexual slavery, and/or enforced pregnancy or sterilization. It could lead to the death of the victim, or to severe physical or psychological trauma. Sexual violence can also lead to HIV/AIDS, survivors may be stigmatized in the eyes of their communities, thus increasing their feelings of rejection and exclusion.

Medically, sexual violence is an emergency that can lead to fatal consequences in some cases, and to long-term physical and psychological impact in most cases. Legally, rape and acts of sexual violence are violations of International Humanitarian Law, since the Geneva Conventions prohibit parties in armed conflicts to resort to sexual violence. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court listed rape and other types of sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity when committed systematically against civilians during conflicts.

Legally or medically, the definition of sexual violence is clear, but the issue is still difficult to discuss in public, how social norms tend to suppress public discussions on sex, even if to shed light on the crime of sexual violence.

Let’s imagine Nadia fleeing her torturers in Iraq, to find refuge in a clinic run by Dr. Denis Mukwege, as if her fate decided that the Congolese doctor would save her from ISIL. A young woman who suffered unimaginable harm to her body and soul, who is unable to face the way people look at her meets a doctor who risks his safety to defend women and girls plighted with the worst violations possible. Not only does he provide medical assistance, but he also exposes these heinous crimes to push policy-makers in his and other countries to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence and to hold them accountable.

Nadia will enter the clinic shivering, she will not look in the eyes of the employees or fellow patients. Everyone will look at the frail young women while she tries but fail to hide her face and body with her two little hands. Nadia will scream when the female health worker puts her hand on her shoulder: she cannot bear the touch of strangers after what she has been through at the hands of ISIL over the last few months. The worker understands Nadia’s hardship, having dealt with many girls and women with similar horrific experiences. “You are safe here, nobody will reach you”, the worker says, “We will take care of you. No worries. We will not do anything to upset you or add to your pain”.

The Congolese doctor will talk professionally to Nadia, describing the necessary steps to secure her health after what she had been through: she needs emergency clinical care to limit the risks of STIs, and HIV/AIDS, and she needs emergency contraception after the incident.

The doctor knows fully well that Nadia might think of resorting to unsafe practices in case she turns out to be pregnant and tries to talk her out of that. The doctor will refer Nadia to his psychiatrist colleague in the same clinic, as together, they try to heal physical and psychological wounds.

This scenario is imagined, but not much different from many similar ones that have unfolded in Iraq, Congo and other countries where UNFPA, the UN agency for sexual and reproductive health, established safe spaces for women survivors of violence. There, they will find medical and psychological care in a quiet and appeasing environment, away from the kind of pressure they might face in their communities.

The world was shocked when the sexual crimes of ISIL came to light, but actual interest in the girls and women faded shortly soon afterwards. Talking about sexual violence is difficult, especially as it may happen within communities or at the hand of family members and loved ones, as health workers try to remind people. While Nadia’s broke out, thousands of others heavily weigh down on survivors who fear shame and stigmatization. This is exactly what Nadia and Dr. Mukwege tried to change: survivors cannot be asked to pay the price of the crimes faced. The Nobel Peace Prize this year reminds us that all kinds of sexual violence are crimes, and that all violators committing sexual violence are criminals, regardless of how close they are to their victims.

  • Luay Shabaneh is the Regional Director of UNFPA in the Arab States