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'Stop Rape Now': UN agencies against sexual violence as a tactic of war

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Rachel Bonham Carter
NEW YORK, USA, 5 March 2007 – Impassioned pleas to end the use of sexual violence against women during armed conflict were heard at United Nations headquarters in New York this afternoon. They came as part of a panel discussion kicking off a new multi-agency initiative to investigate and intensify the UN’s response to sexual violence in war.

“What is it about women getting raped that isn’t grabbing people’s imagination, isn’t seizing people’s conscience or isn’t getting people to stand up?” asked writer and activist Eve Ensler, creator of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.

“Part of it, I think, is that rape is so institutional at this point,” she added. “It’s so ordinary and people just expect it to happen.”

Ms. Ensler read an essay she had written in 1994 in response to news of the atrocities committed at ‘sex camps’ in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian war. She appealed to “the powers that be” to move away from bureaucratic terms and focus on the individual stories of the victims.

The panel on sexual violence also featured remarks from Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court; the UN Force Commander in Liberia and Sierra Leone, General Daniel Opande; and the Director of the Forum for Women, Law and Development, Sapana Pradhan Malla.

The discussion was moderated by CNN anchor Isha Sesay, and the new UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, made closing comments.

“I have been impressed and moved by the emotional messages heard here today,” said Mr. Holmes. “Particularly as a father of three girls, I was shocked to discover the extent of the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war.” He promised to do his best to lead the humanitarian community in fighting this outrage.

Taking joint action
The new joint initiative – known as ‘Stop Rape Now: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict’ – involves 10 UN agencies, including UNICEF. Representatives of the agencies asked the audience assembled for this afternoon’s panel to stand with their arms crossed on their chests to show support for the effort.

This pose has been adopted as the symbol of the initiative.

“I think all these UN agencies coming together on a campaign is a fantastically good sign that everyone understands the emergency of it, and that everyone needs to work cooperatively,” Ms. Ensler said in an interview after the panel.

At a separate panel earlier in the day, women’s and children’s rights advocates came together for a dialogue on the inter-connectedness of their work.

Speakers included the Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Ambassador Moushira Khattab; a member of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Shanti Dariam; and Senior Advisor on International Programmes Rangita de Silva de Alwis of the Wellesley Centres for Women, which organized the event with UNICEF.

In opening remarks, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah acknowledged the fears of some women’s rights advocates, who feel that “integrating women’s and children’s rights will restrict women to the role of caregiver of children.

“On the other hand,” continued Ms. Salah, “for the children’s rights advocates, this integration will put the focus only on the rights of the girls – thus resulting in the boy child being left out.”

Tension and dialogue
The tension between these two positions was apparent in a discussion over the provision of free anti-retroviral treatment only to pregnant HIV-positive women. Ms. Dariam said this was an example of motherhood sidelining all other roles a woman might choose, while Ambassador Khattab countered that motherhood should be embraced as an opportunity to seize rights for all women.

The panellists said they valued the opportunity to increase dialogue and regretted that there had not been more time to take the discussion further. Despite their differences, they agreed that they hold much more in common.

Both panels held today were part of the ongoing 51st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which wraps up later this week.

To watch the interview with Eve please click here