The scourge of rape during wartime and the impunity with which it is carried out has caused women to fight back and call on governments to take action. Leymah Gbowee is a formidable voice who has been at the forefront of that call since the Liberian Civil War. A Nobel Laureate, peace and women’s rights activist, philanthropist and author, she tells Belinda Otas why governments must wake up and support women in their fight against violence.
Leymah Gbowee is renowned for her fortitude and forthrightness when addressing sexual violence in conflict regions. Gbowee would know – she survived the Liberian Civil War, during which time she and other women found their strength and their voice.
Together, they demanded peace from warring factions, and their “impolite anger” as Gbowee describes it, gave birth to a movement that included daily sit-ins involving songs and peaceful protest. That peaceful movement proved instrumental as it defied warlords and forced sworn enemies to talk, and facilitated peace in Liberia after 13 years of ravaging civil war. Her effort is significantly credited with helping to oust former Liberian president, Charles Taylor (currently serving 50 years in prison for war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone).
Hence, it was no surprise that Gbowee was part of the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, recently held in London. A UK initiative, co-hosted by Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, alongside William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary.
The summit’s aim was to address the devastating impact of sexual violence on women, children and men during conflict, seek solutions to help victims and send the message to perpetrators that their heinous acts will no longer be tolerated. For the first time, governments and world leaders, civil society, survivors were brought together to commit to concrete actions to end sexual violence.
The summit also included leading voices from Africa like Zainab Bangura (Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict), Dr Denis Mukwege (Founder, Panzi Hospital, Bukavu, DRC), Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Chairperson, African Union), Fatou Bensouda (ICC Chief Prosecutor) and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (Executive Director, UN Women).
According to the UN Secretary General, one in three women will be subjected to sexual violence or abuse in her lifetime and, platforms like Women In The World, 1 Billion Rising, and in Africa, the Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (a women-focused and led pan-African NGO with the core objective of promoting women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance within Africa), co-founded by Gbowee – have been dedicated to bringing attention to the issue of gender and sexual violence.
But is the action on the ground matching up to promises often made at summits of this nature, and in what ways can they avoid the trap of becoming another talkshop for declarations? Gbowee is upfront about the achievement of women in bringing attention and change over the years and the potential of a summit like this in moving that work forward: “One of the things I take away from this summit is that when they say it’s time to act, women have been acting for over 10 years on this issue.
So, the summit is a political platform for unveiling all that community and women activists have been doing for the last decade. Hence, I would think one of the major successes, in my opinion, is that governments are finally turning around and saying, whether they want to admit it or not, that all of you have been doing a great job and it’s time for us to partner with you.”
She adds: “In the long term, there are practical steps governments can take if they are really sincere because one of the reasons we have the problems that we have is due to the high level of impunity. There are too many rapes, whether it’s in peacetime or wartime, that go unpunished. It’s time to bring in all of those mechanisms – the legal structure and the practical things, like rape kits and training the police to respond effectively and with compassion.
“Beyond talking, we also need to see a high level of commitment from international government to put resources to address the issue and into civil society so that they too are able to monitor government compliance in dealing with the situation.”