The United Nations (UN) has chosen a new voice to advocate against sexual violence on its behalf. Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Zainab Hawa Bangura as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Sexual violence in the context of armed conflict can take many forms; among them are rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage (“bush wives”). Women and girls, who often face discrimination and disrespect because of their gender, disproportionately experience sexual violence. According to the World Health Organization’s 2002 estimates, about 150 million girls and 73 million boys experienced rape or another type of sexual exploitation.
Ms. Bangura is the current Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone. Her career has spanned two decades to date, with experience advocating for affordable health care, discussing sexual violence with diverse actors and speaking out against genital mutilation, says a UN statement. She is the second-ever person to hold the post, which was created only a couple of years ago.
“She is an experienced results-driven civil society, human and women’s right campaigner and democracy activist,” said a UN statement of Ms. Bangura’s accomplishments to date.
Ms. Bangura replaces Swedish women’s rights champion, Margot Wallström.
The out-going Ms. Wallström was in Colombia last month where she met with government officials and survivors of sexual violence. Thousands of girls and women have been sexually assaulted by fighting factions in Colombia’s armed conflict—amounting to five decades worth of fighting between government and paramilitary forces. Afro-Colombian communities and displaced persons are most vulnerable to rape and other forms of sex abuse.
Ms. Wallström, who resigned from her post at the end of May due to personal reasons, urged the country to fight impunity for those committing human rights violations.
Among the other accomplishments of her tenure was the implementation of measures to improve monitoring and reporting, better identify perpetrators and bring victims’ voices to the ears of the UN Security Council.
Earlier this month, when asked in an interview what advice she would give to her successor, Ms. Wallström was cautious in giving out any words of wisdom. She did however, express confidence in her replacement and her former team, as well as hope that the UN Action platform will be used.
UN Action (Against Sexual Violence in Conflict) is a coalition of 13 UN bodies who have a common goal to end sexual violence in conflict. Among its goals are improved coordination and accountability, increased services and advocacy, and support to countries' campaigns to prevent violence and help survivors.
According to UN Women, a member of UN Action, “armed actors have systematically deployed sexual violence against civilians as a means to achieve military and political ends.”
Owing to a combination of impunity and a lack of effective institutions, sexual and gender-based violence can persist well after the end of a conflict, says UN Women.
Rape, condemned in modern human rights and humanitarian laws, has long been used as a weapon of war, from antiquity to present. It has reached disturbing heights in some areas of the world today. Girls and women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for instance, face some of the highest rates of sexual violence on the planet. This infamy has earned the country the moniker, “rape capital of the world."
One study found that 48 Congolese women are raped every hour. About 12 per cent of the country’s women have experienced rape at least once, with rates being highest in the Nord Kivu province. This eastern province is among those worst affected by fighting between the Congolese government and recent mutinied soldiers. This week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay identified the leaders of the mutiny as some of the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the world. They have massacred women and children, recruited child soldiers and been implicated in sexual violence.