The Role of First Responders in Attaining Justice

In the first half of 2014, nearly 3,000 people have fallen victim to sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to the medical group Heal Africa, which treats survivors of sexual violence in the eastern part of the country. In a recent statement, the United Nations condemned the Islamic State for the “barbaric acts of sexual violence” being committed against minorities in Iraq. As violent conflicts continue to dominate world headlines, these reports serve as a stark reminder of the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict.

Behind these headlines are the first responders, like those working for Heal Africa, who support survivors every day by serving the immediate medical and safety needs of victims. The Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) works to assist such first responders in conflict by helping them promote justice for survivors and accountability for perpetrators in an effort to prevent future abuses.

In the DRC and Kenya, PHR’s program provides training for doctors, police officers, lawyers, and judges on how to collect and document forensic medical evidence and preserve it for future use in court. Two members of PHR’s delegation at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which took place in London this past June, spoke about the training PHR provides. A police officer and a doctor from Nakuru, Kenya, stated that they are now able to coordinate their efforts across sectors and provide more comprehensive support for survivors of sexual violence. The doctor currently travels twice a week to court to present medical evidence that bolsters the case of a survivor – a case that was investigated and built by the police officer. PHR’s trainings foster collaboration between professionals in order to achieve justice in difficult environments and in places that suffer from weak judicial systems.

Given the number and scale of the violent conflicts around the world, we must remember victims of sexual violence and keep international attention on and devote resources to this important issue. The London Summit, where representatives from 123 countries and well-known names such as Angelina Jolie and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that it was #TimeToAct to end sexual violence in conflict, was a promising start. But the work must continue. Their call to action is increasingly significant in light of conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza, as well as longer-standing ones, such as in the DRC. Many survivors of sexual violence in conflict continue to suffer without reparation; it is vital that governments and other international actors invest in the legal, judicial, police, and health systems to achieve comprehensive justice.

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