This past week, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) wrapped up a three-day roundtable discussion in Nairobi, Kenya, where we brought together 45 of our colleagues from both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya to discuss successes, challenges, and new opportunities created by our innovative Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. Among the attendees were leading doctors and nurses with expertise in conducting forensic examinations of rape victims, distinguished judges, police officers who specialize in sexual violence investigations, lawyers and advocates who support victims through court proceedings, and survivors who have become advocates.
When PHR began this program four years ago, we were responding to a critical gap in access to justice for survivors of sexual violence – particularly in places where mass atrocities or war crimes were being committed. We recognized a need for a link between the medical response of treating survivors and the legal response of prosecuting perpetrators.
For almost 30 years, PHR has used its expertise in forensic medicine and science to support prosecutions of the most serious crimes. We do this work out of a deep conviction that as long as there is impunity, these crimes will continue and proliferate; out of a commitment to the rule of law; and because we understand that achieving justice is a significant part of healing and recovery, for both individual victims and society.
We are all too aware that prosecutions for the crime of rape – everywhere in the world – are among the most difficult, if not the most difficult, cases. While our colleagues in Kenya and the DRC have remained dedicated to ending widespread impunity for rape, they struggle with how to appropriately bring about justice for victims.
PHR’s program has developed and expanded beyond our early vision and is succeeding in creating a new model for collaboration among doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, lawyers, and judges. We have developed a collaborative and interactive training curriculum, stimulated critical connections between professionals at the local level, supported the creation of standardized and more effective medical evidence forms, provided technical assistance and equipment to rapid response teams, trained hundreds of specialists, and developed mentoring relationships.
However, our goal is an ambitious one, and we face numerous challenges every day: survivors are often unable to reach medical and legal assistance in a timely manner; equipment for care and for conducting investigations is lacking; too many victims cannot afford their legal or medical fees; there are not enough professionals who are properly trained in conducting forensic exams or carrying out comprehensive criminal investigations; and too many prosecutions are halted, even when evidence is collected and submitted to the judicial system. Within our own network, doctors and lawyers have also received threats as they pursue prosecutions and speak out against these atrocities.
During the roundtable, our dedicated colleagues demonstrated a passion for improving their work and overcoming such obstacles. As the discussions went on, I realized that a key reason for our program’s success so far is our model of local, cross-sectoral collaboration, which enables us to break down the barriers that prevent accountability, including the hurdles survivors face in accessing the legal system; the disconnect between doctors and police, and doctors and lawyers – all of whom normally operate in silos and use different languages in their work; and the obstacles between urban and rural areas, public and private sector institutions, and between men and women.
The roundtable discussions demonstrated that our colleagues in Kenya and the DRC face similar hurdles and that by working together, they can implement creative solutions in order to successfully prosecute rape – and other countries can learn from their model.
In the next few years – with commitment, hard work, courage, and strong communication across these burgeoning networks – we can make a lasting impact in the long struggle for justice in the face of the most brutal assaults on human rights and dignity.