I first worked on sexual violence in conflict in 2005 while working in Darfur. Here I would meet women whose faces held pain and whose hearts held sorrow, women who could speak of their experiences and women who were silent about their experiences. Women who were tired, sad, lonely and isolated because of their experiences of sexual violence, women whose strength inspired me. I met women violated by armed combatants and women whose daily lives were permeated by violence at home. It was at this time that a great sense of injustice was sparked in me, a sense that what was happening to women and girls was simply wrong, unacceptable and that there were insufficient supports to meet their needs. Following this I embarked on a journey of learning, one that would reorientate my career from one of nursing to one of caring for survivors of gender-based violence. Seventeen years on I have learned much, I have seen much change, and I have seen much stay the same.
There is much that I could say about violence against women, but today I will focus on how I see that stories about how women are sexually violated in times of conflict continue to make their way to us as conflicts surge, and how when these stories make their way to us, they often do so divorced from the reality of violence against women at all times, divorced from the reality of the multiple and varied risks and harms that women and girls are exposed to throughout their lives, in times of peace and in times of conflict. With these stories, there is a sense that we have broken the silence on violence against women and that in doing so the issue is solved. In truth though, this issue is still shrouded mostly in silence. A deafening silence that is seeded in a social narrative where we often question what women did to deserve or bring about the violence, forcing them into silence and shaming and stigmatising them when they speak.
Tackling gender based sexual violence against women
Take the story of a survivor raped in the context of conflict, by an armed combatant we rush to represent the experience as something new, something inevitable, a deviant crime, where the perpetrator gets to hide behind his gun, quite literally. Now take the story of a survivor raped while walking home from a bar and think about the narrative that often follows, “Why was she walking alone?” “Had she been drinking?” “What was she wearing?” Now take the story of a woman abused by her partner, raped in their shared bed in their shared home and think about the narrative, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” “If it was that bad, she would have told someone years ago?” “She drives him to it”. Sound familiar? If so, then call it out, question what is happening. In one narrative we present “the helpless victim”, maybe even “the good victim” in the other we present “the bad victim”, “the somehow responsible victim”, when in truth the only person responsible for the violence is the person who commits the act of violence, never the person who experiences it. This narrative reflects violence against women in public and private spaces in society, where women are assaulted, and where bystanders often question what they did, what they didn’t do etc. In this narrative of blame and shame we suspend our empathy for survivors, their families and others impacted by the violence, further victimizing and silencing them. Additionally, we minimise and justify such violence and make perpetrators invisible through our narrative of impunity.
We owe it to the countless women who have told us their stories, to those women who are unable to tell their story, because of stigma, shame and lack of services and to the countless more women who may fall victim to such violence because of the continuing underlying gender inequality to hold this in our collective social consciousness, not just for a moment in time but for long enough to make change. We owe it to women and girls to shift the social narrative on violence against women and girls from one that examines women and girls’ behaviours to one that calls for accountability for perpetrators of violence, one that never minimises or justifies acts of violence and one that locates the violence within the frame of continued gender inequality.
Sexual violence in conflict does not happen in a vacuum and the ongoing conflict is not its only underlying cause. It is part of women’s and girls’ longer story. Our response to it must ensure compassionate care and survivor centered support services, while also addressing women’s wider experiences of oppression, discrimination and abuse. It is only in doing this that we can say we have truly responded in a meaningful to the women and girls that have experienced, and survived conflict related sexual violence.