Rising Up: Survivors and the Courageous Responders Who Support Them

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The hallmark image of V-Day is a victim of sexual violence rising from the horror and dehumanization of being targeted to the recovery and empowerment of being a survivor. As millions of people will witness the "risings" this week initiated by playwright and activist Eve Ensler and replicated in film, dance, and other events throughout the world, I want to pay tribute to the courageous experts behind the scenes who are critical to this movement.

These are the men and women with whom my colleagues and I work in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Syria, and here in the United States. They are waging an uphill battle for justice in the face of enormous obstacles, and — because of them — the tide is turning.

These are doctors and nurses who stitch up torn bodies and help heal shattered spirits of those subjected to these heinous crimes; they are the police officers who overcome cultures of callous neglect, corruption, and intimidation to conduct investigations and support prosecutions; they are the lawyers and victims' advocates who are bringing landmark lawsuits to support victims of mass atrocities, including sexual violence, and help survivors obtain a measure of justice and reparation; and they are the judges who have the courage to exercise independence by ruling against influential people in their communities who abuse their power, including politicians and military commanders.

This V-Day, we have a new narrative — not only are survivors moving from silence to speaking out, but we are moving from cynicism about the role of courts to increasing legal successes in the most unimaginable locations. As more clinicians and police are trained to support survivors and collect evidence, more crimes will be prosecuted, more survivors will dare to demand their day in court, and we can end impunity for crimes of sexual violence.

In the DRC, hundreds of survivors have risen up to demand justice after yet another episode of mass sexual violence that occurred in Minova in November 2012 during the armed conflict on the Congo-Rwanda border. The legal process to hold the perpetrators accountable is now underway in the border town of Goma, and — despite the numerous challenges facing the prosecution and a dearth of evidence — these courageous women are looking to police, lawyers, victims' advocates, and human rights defenders to help them fight for justice. And, in what would have been unthinkable two years ago, the notorious Congolese warlord, Bosco Ntaganda, will now face trial on charges of engineering mass atrocities, including sexual violence, which were recently confirmed by the International Criminal Court.

In Kenya, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has teamed up with eight survivors and several Kenyan organizations to hold the government accountable for failing to protect civilians from sexual violence during the 2007-2008 election violence. The survivors we are working with are asking their government to publicly acknowledge the state's responsibility to protect them from violence, and — when they fail — to provide them with access to medical treatment and justice. Failing to support survivors of sexual violence in these basic ways is not only a miscarriage of justice, but also represents the abandonment of those individuals who bravely report these crimes.

I am regularly inspired by those medical and legal professionals who take great personal risk, along with survivors, to advance these cases despite limited resources and little support from the state. These stories demonstrate how people are seeking to develop precedents in order to move these cases forward. It is their determination that will secure justice in the end.

PHR has been supporting collaborative networks of doctors, nurses, police, lawyers, and judges in East and Central Africa and the Middle East, where we train these key people on the best methods for collecting, analyzing, and preserving evidence of sexual violence to support local prosecutions and hold the perpetrators to account. When survivors come forward to seek justice, we must defend these front-line responders so that the legal processes can be improved and courts can deliver justice. It's hardly a big ask of any of us.

As we form a larger and louder global alliance with survivors who are demanding justice, let us reflect on the African proverb: "A single bracelet does not jingle." On this V-Day, let's make some noise.

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