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How We Can Take On Sexual Violence In Conflict

Photo: Getty
Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict; a day to reflect on what can be done to stop the perpetration of rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution, sexual enslavement and all the other acts of barbarity held under that sticky umbrella term.

Of course, the question brings together some of humanity’s most controversial, complex and difficult subjects: sex, violence, war and gender equality. And so the answer is a complicated one; we need to be rigorous yet sensitive, universal yet nuanced, personal and political.

The UN has already put forward a number of recommendations
, including better training in spotting early warning signals, including the end of sexual violence under the conditions of ceasefires and peacekeeping agreements, having a roster of deployable sexual health experts on rotation in conflict zones, more female UN police officers, excluding anyone who has perpetrated sexual violence from a government position such as the army, police and intelligence services, HIV treatment for survivors, accepting sexual violence as a form of persecution and therefore giving refugee status to individuals who have been affected by it, and concentrating on the reintegration of survivors into the community, through legal, medical and psychosocial help, as well as reparations and financial aid.

To discuss the matter, we spoke to Toyin Saraki, the former lawyer and former first lady of Nigeria’s Kwara State about her work as the Founder-President of the WellBeing Foundation Africa, which works to empower across the continent, as well as her work on the board of the Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence. In short, Refinery29 asked her how we can work to protect current and future generations from sexual violence.

Hello Toyin. How do you personally define something as huge as ‘sexual violence in a conflict situation’?
Well, the United Nations uses the term ‘conflict-related sexual violence’; that covers “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancies, forced sterilisation and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is linked, directly or indirectly (temporally, geographically or causally) to a conflict”. When you’re in a culture like mine that doesn’t like to talk ,about sexual violence even in a normal setting, consider what it must be like for those in a conflict setting; for refugees who are already bereft of all their rights. When the empowered ones amongst us don’t like to talk about it, what about the ones with no rights at all? We estimate that for each rape that is reported in a conflict situation, 10-20 go undocumented.

When you say ‘my culture’ are you speaking of Nigeria? Or a wider context?
Speaking as an African woman and a Nigerian, ‘culture’ is a mix of culture, religion and tradition. 50% of women will encounter gender violence in Nigeria. When you take that figure and apply it to a conflict situation you can just imagine the size of the problem. The issue with sexual violence out here is that we don’t really talk about sex. And a lot of people don’t talk about violence. People are suffering in silence.

My journey started because I read a study that seemed to suggest that the first act of domestic violence tended to happen when the woman was pregnant

How did you come to this issue in the first place?
My journey started because I read a study that seemed to suggest that the first act of domestic violence tended to happen when the woman was pregnant. My work is all about keeping women safe during pregnancy and that little fact shocked me. So I dug into it more; it seems that when a family is in distress, and if a man is going to be violent to a woman, it tends to happen when she is between four and five months pregnant. So we have a saying: "If the father is going to kick, it will be when the baby starts kicking."

When I came back to Nigeria I wanted to talk about this, so I commissioned a documentary and was shocked by how many responses I had. We thought maybe I’d get 50 responses, but actually 4,000 women come forward who were happy to be filmed and named. You see, I wanted first person accounts because that is the only way to break the silence.

What is the current situation in Nigeria, in terms of sexual violence?
We know that in some cases women in displacement camps in Nigeria have resorted to transactional sex for survival because of food insecurity. They’re exchanging sex for food or money, so they can feed their families.

I met a girl, a refugee called Amina, who had gone to university near Chibok. When she was at university they had a lecture in one of the faculties quite far from the student hostel. A group of local youth stormed the lecture hall, blocked the exits and started beating the students. The ones who couldn’t get away were raped. Amina managed to escape but was lost for two days and woke up in a hospital. As she told me this, I realised that this had been the very early stages of Boko Haram, before we even knew what Boko Haram was.
Why do you think women are so often the survivors of sexual violence during conflict?
Women and girls are targeted because they are often the repository for cultural identity: We are the first storytellers, we bring up our children, we teach them how to behave. So they are attacked by violent extremists and terrorist groups who want to break that cultural identity.

What can be done for survivors of sexual violence?
Anywhere in the world, if you’ve been raped, there is a stigma. But the victims of sexual violence need rehabilitation, reparations and redress.

The UN has already put forward a list of recommendations, including better training, safeguarding and medical screening. Is there anything else that you would add to that list?
It would be very good if we could invest in women’s groups, to lead grassroots efforts; to engage with traditional and religious leaders, so we can shift the shame and stigma of sexual violence from the victims onto the perpetrators. In the case of Nigeria, the managers of the camps need to improve food security, so women aren’t forced into sexual transactions for survival.

I would like to see counsellors and clinics in every camp so the help is actually where you need it. And I would like to see a formal referral mechanism between the camp authorities and humanitarian organisations so that displaced women and girls can, as standard, access gender-based violence screening services. To ask women, as a matter of course, if they have been the victim of bullying; to start with that, rather than even talking about violence. That way we won’t miss the issue, because someone is far more likely to confess to being bullied or coerced than rape or sexual violence.

Is there a link between gender inequality and sexual violence?
I think the reason we are so ill-equipped to help people in the North East of Nigeria is because our sexual health and reproductive services just aren’t good enough in the first place. We need to ensure that HIV prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infection is universal. And, of course, sexual violence doesn’t only happen to women. But in a culture where women cannot talk about sexual violence, can you imagine a man admitting to having been raped?

If our public health and social safety services – I don’t want to use the word 'welfare' – were strong enough in the first place, then it wouldn’t be that difficult to look after the people in the camps. But they’re not.

The social safety framework in Nigeria isn’t the government; it’s the extended family. And so when that fails, women are left incredibly vulnerable. But if you strengthen the community, then that community is better placed to support those in distress; those who have been the victim of conflict.