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Peacekeepers Must Protect Women

Stephen Lewis warns UN military commanders who gathered on May 27th 2008 at Wilton Park in West Sussex, England to discuss their role in protecting women targeted or affected by armed conflict: peace is a mere illusion wherever bullets have stopped, but rape continues.

Photo by Paula Allen / vday.org
At the heart of this conference there lies an unassailable truth: if sexual violence is not addressed during the course of a conflict, then sexual violence will haunt the post-conflict period, and make of the ostensible peace a mockery for half the population.

Three days ago, I returned from Liberia. While in the country, I met with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, with senior officials of the Ministry of Health, with the Minister of Gender, with the leadership of the Clinton Foundation, with the consultant who drafted the legislation for the special court to try sexual offences, with the UNICEF Representative and significant numbers of the UNICEF staff. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to meet with UNMIL, but the UN Mission in Liberia and its peacekeeping forces were inevitably a part of every conversation.

The context of my discussions is encapsulated in the words of the Deputy UN Envoy for the Rule of Law in Liberia when she said, as recently as May 20th: “We cannot expect the future leaders of Liberia, the doctors, nurses, and engineers of Liberia to be brought up amongst men who are rapists and women who are angry, degraded, frightened, depressed, embarrassed and confused.”

She was speaking about the contagion of sexual violence that currently engulfs the country and causes such intense concern. The statistics are horrifying: a recent study by UNICEF indicated that more than fifty per cent of all reported rapes are brutal assaults on young girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. The gender advisor in UNICEF felt that the percentage was probably on the rise, and it’s feared that increases in the HIV rates among female youth will not be far behind. The Minister of Gender showed me figures for March, 2008, indicating that the majority of reported rapes in that month were committed against girls under the age of twelve, some under the age of five, and she narrated stories of gang rape so insensate and so depraved that it reminded me of exhibits in a Holocaust museum. A further survey, of all fifteen counties in the country, found that girls and boys were united in their conviction that young girls were the most endangered group in Liberia, and incredibly enough, that there was no place and no time of day or night where adolescent girls could be considered safe.

Predictably, President Johnson-Sirleaf is thunderstruck by the force of the sexual violence. In a very real sense she is staking the integrity of her tenure on her ability to confront and subdue the war on women.

But how did it come to this? UNMIL has been in the country since 2003 … it has a large contingent of women peacekeepers: it has an Office of the Gender Advisor and of the Advisor on HIV/AIDS; it has gender mainstreaming built into the mandate; both the UN Envoy and the Deputy UN Envoy are women; and the resolution of 2003 which constituted UNMIL incorporated Security Council Resolution 1325 which — you will agree — was supposed to guarantee the involvement of women in the peace-keeping processes, but more important, guarantee women protection and security from gender-based violence and violations of human rights.

Clearly all that hasn’t worked in Liberia, where things for women and girls are getting worse. Where did we go wrong?

My own view, and the view of the organization to which I belong — AIDS-Free World — is that peacekeepers and force commanders alike have to take sexual violence much more seriously. It is simply untenable to argue that the responsibility to keep the warring parties at bay transcends every other human imperative. It doesn’t. You may succeed in manufacturing a semblance of peace, but for the women of the country, the conflict continues in the most painful and eviscerating of ways.

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