On June 19, the United States joins the international community in standing with the survivors of sexual violence in conflict. We mark the fourth International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict and 10 years since the United States under the leadership of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led the international community in recognizing for the first time—via the UN Security Council’s unanimous adoption of UNSCR 1820—that wartime rape is not just a human rights issue but a public health and security issue we cannot afford to ignore. While efforts over the last decade to raise awareness, promote accountability, and support survivors through programming have made an impact, some government forces and violent extremist organizations around the world continue to use sexual violence as a tactic of terror and oppression. We must continue and reaffirm our commitment to preventing and eliminating these horrendous acts once and for all.
Societies afflicted by conflict or violent extremism experience higher levels of sexual violence due to weak rule of law and high levels of impunity, a breakdown of support systems, and displacement. Sexual violence is employed as a tactic of war and repression, with survivors often targeted based on their actual or perceived affiliation with an ethnic, religious, or political identity. It is a crime meant to intimidate and shame entire communities.
Accountability and addressing the stigma around sexual violence crimes are essential to preventing them. Sexual violence crimes in conflict are among the most under-reported crimes. Perpetrators have widespread impunity because of weak rule of law, a lack of tailored programs, and the stigma and fear that prevent survivors from coming forward. And while rape and other forms of sexual violence have been recognized as crimes, these heinous acts too often are not investigated and those responsible not held accountable – from Burma to Nigeria to Iraq – despite widespread reports of such crimes.
The Department of State is working to strengthen accountability, improve access to justice for survivors, increase confidence in rule of law, and empower and provide support to survivors and their families through innovative programming.
An important dimension of this work is supporting civil society actors trying to give voice to victims, advocate for justice, and promote peace. Godelieve Mukasarasi, one of the 2018 Secretary of State’s International Woman of Courage Awardees, mobilized Rwandan rape survivors to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, prompting prosecution for rape as a war crime for the first time.
When President Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, he led the United States in a renewed commitment to the meaningful participation of women in efforts to promote women, peace, and security. After all, societies that fully respect women’s rights are less likely to experience conflict and atrocities in the first place. Furthermore, peace processes with empowered women’s participation are more likely to result in equitable and sustained peace. Empowered women and girls can also be important agents in changing the attitudes that support sexual violence.
Today we recommit to eliminating sexual violence in conflict and securing accountability and lifesaving support for victims. We must continue to champion women like Ms. Mukasarasi, who work tirelessly to ensure that all members of society, regardless of gender, receive equal protection under the law.
About the Author: Stephanie Mulhern Ogorzalek serves as Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Global Women’s Issues.