Changing Mindsets Is Needed to End Sexual Violence

By Jane Morse
Staff Writer
Sexual violence against women and girls — both in conflict and in peace — will not end until widespread attitudes toward women are changed and laws against violence are implemented and enforced, says Melanne Verveer, who until recently served as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

The hardest thing in the effort to end violence against women, according to Verveer, is dealing with mindsets and changing social norms. “Women are often not valued; this has to change,” she said in Washington February 14 during a panel discussion at “The Missing Peace Symposium 2013,” hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan conflict-management center created by the U.S. Congress.

Perpetrators of sexual violence, Verveer said, must be prosecuted, or it sends a signal to society that this behavior is tolerated. “Nothing speaks as loudly as paying the price for what you have done,” she said.

Verveer was one of the keynote speakers in a three-day symposium aimed at exchanging information among academic researchers, policymakers, multilateral organizations, government officials and activists about the causes, scope and patterns of sexual violence.

“Beyond a peace and security issue,” Verveer said in her prepared remarks, “we know that sexual violence is also a public health issue, an economic issue, a social issue, and an intergenerational issue. Whether it is rape as a tactic of war, or the rise of domestic violence cases in post-conflict societies, such violence is simply unacceptable. It is a violation of human dignity.”

She noted a series of policies and initiatives launched by the U.S. government to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. For example, in December 2011, President Obama released the first-ever United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (PDF, 7.7MB), which provides a comprehensive road map for accelerating and institutionalizing efforts across the U.S. government to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace, and to protect women, men, boys and girls from gender-based violence.

In April, the U.S. government announced a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable, and to support others who do the same. In August, the Obama administration released the first ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (PDF, 1.8MB), which includes the justice, legal, security, health, education, economic, social services, humanitarian and development sectors.

U.N. Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura

Resolutions issued by the United Nations, Verveer said, “highlight the significance of sexual violence as an issue integral to the protection of civilians.” But she added: “Only when laws are implemented and perpetrators held accountable will we see a deterrence of such violence — especially during and after periods of acute conflict. We must recognize that impunity undermines the resolution of conflict and the building of peaceful societies.”

U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to Zainab Hawa Bangura, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, “have provided the international legal framework for us to begin tearing away at the root causes of sexual violence in conflict, and send a clear message to governments that they have the primary moral and legal responsibility to protect their citizens and prevent this crime.”

In her keynote address to the symposium, Bangura said the U.N. resolutions also put perpetrators on notice “that gone are the days when attacking women in conflict was considered an unpreventable and unfortunate byproduct of war. Now the word is out: If you commit this crime, we will investigate you, we will prosecute you, and we will punish you. There is no hiding place, and we will use all the tools at our disposal to find you and put a stop to your deeds — including through the application of travel bans, asset freezes and other sanctions.”

“We are also trying to develop smarter sanctions for those who do not travel and do not have international assets,” she said.

Bangura emphasized the need for leadership and responsibility within individual nations. “Solutions cannot be imposed from the outside,” she said. “What is required more than anything else is a change in the attitudes of everyone, from political leaders to activists, to journalists, to citizens. Every sector of society needs to understand the devastating impact of this scourge, and be determined to end it. “

Ending sexual violence against women, especially during conflict, won’t be easy, Bangura acknowledged, but she added: “I firmly believe that sexual violence is not unfortunate collateral damage, but a crime that can be stamped out through education, empowerment, equality, justice and security. We have the tools at our disposal; now we need to harness the will to make the end of sexual violence in conflict a reality.”

Learn more about violence against women at the State Department’s blog and the post “One Billion Rising.”

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