Women as Leaders in the Fight against Sexual Violence

Friday marks 14 years since the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1325, also known as the first resolution on Women, Peace, and Security. The resolution acknowledges the disproportionate effects conflict has on women and girls, and urges all actors to take special measures to protect this group from sexual violence in conflict. However, the resolution does not stop there, going on to express the significant and undervalued role women should play in peacebuilding and stressing the importance of their full participation in conflict resolution and prevention. The resolution affirms that in the story of sexual violence in conflict, women are not only victims, but also survivors, leaders, activists, service providers, and advocates.

The Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) recognizes the crucial role that women play as first responders to survivors of sexual violence. In Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), PHR has developed partnerships with women who are at the forefront of the fight against sexual violence. They include women like Dr. Sandrine Masango, who spoke in June at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London about a family of four who came for treatment at her hospital in Uvira, DRC, all of them survivors of sexual violence. As a doctor, she serves as both a medical provider and a critical documenter of forensic evidence of violence that can later be used in court. In these capacities, she provides a vital link in the survivor’s personal path, assisting not only with physical and emotional healing, but also helping the larger community to reckon with such crimes – an essential condition for sustainable peacebuilding.

Dr. Masango’s role is not unique as a female first responder. Women’s involvement in responding to sexual violence was highlighted at a recent training on forensic documentation conducted by PHR in Nairobi, where 22 of the 34 participants were women. These professionals came from the medical, legal, law enforcement, community advocacy, and media sectors, representing a range of ways in which women are engaging in the fight against sexual violence.

Internationally, the appointment of figures like Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, and Zainab Bangura, special representative to the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, reflects the recognition of women’s ability to serve at the highest levels of global leadership on sexual violence. Bensouda has affirmed her obligation to make crimes of sexual violence a priority for future cases, and Bangura has drawn attention to the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, including in places like Iraq, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka, and has called sexual violence the "great moral issue of our time."

Both have also spoken about what it means to be a woman doing this work. On becoming a lawyer, Bensouda has said: "I realized that there were not many female lawyers [but that there] were a lot of issues affecting gender and children. I thought I should be able to play a huge part in…standing up for them." Bangura has noted that her path has been difficult in certain ways because "as a woman, you have to set…your own standards. You have no female role models, and you carry a huge responsibility." Luckily, individuals like Bensouda and Bangura are changing this reality.

Resolution 1325 recognizes in no uncertain terms that women’s voices must be heard and their skills must be utilized at every step of peacebuilding, including caring for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and supporting the survivors’ search for justice. While it is tragic that women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence in conflict, this is by no means their only role. On the anniversary of Resolution 1325, let‘s celebrate the diverse and important contributions of women as active participants in the fight against sexual violence and the search for justice and accountability.

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