Pioneering prevention of conflict-related sexual violence

From Colombia to Uganda, sexual violence goes hand-in-hand with conflict. While many respond to survivors’ needs, few within the humanitarian field seek to prevent it. OCHA and UNICEF are partnering to change that.

The two organizations are engaging combatants through a new project titled Strengthening Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence with non-State Armed Groups. OCHA and UNICEF aim to better understand what drives non-State and State militias to commit this type of violence and how the humanitarian community can prevent it.

The project draws on OCHA's expertise in negotiating with armed groups for humanitarian access and UNICEF's ongoing work in changing social norms that justify sexual violence. It will produce a toolkit for the humanitarian community to conduct prevention outreach among informal and formal armed groups.

A brutal reality
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sexual violence, mostly rape, was experienced by nearly 40 per cent of women and a quarter of men surveyed in the country's eastern North and South Kivu Provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In research by John Hopkins University, one male rape survivor from eastern DRC said: “I was on the route to Walikale when the Interahamwe attacked and abducted us. We were 30 men who were abducted and raped. They killed 15 of us and took the rest of us into the forest. I was abducted for two months and raped multiple times.”

Those who survive conflict-related sexual violence face long-lasting physical, psychological and social effects. “If you are a girl [who has been raped] your parents will start mistreating you, they can't understand that you have been forced and that it was not your fault,” said one woman in research by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “You're not worth anything - you lose all your value because nobody will marry you.”

Until now the response to conflict-related sexual violence has focused solely on responding to survivors’ needs. Prevention measures have barely featured. The OCHA/UNICEF project aims to fill that gap.

Jeanne Ward is an expert on violence against women and girls in conflict-affected settings, and currently works with UNICEF. She explains: “More prevention work hasn't been done with combatants because of the risks of dealing with armed groups. This means that one of the world's main groups of perpetrators of sexual violence has fallen outside the boundaries of humanitarian efforts to curb such violence.”

Understanding differences in ideologies is key to informing approaches to prevent armed groups' perpetration of sexual violence. Some groups, such as the Sudanese Liberation Army, view themselves as liberation armies seeking legitimacy. Other groups, such as the Mai-Mai in DRC, purport to be protecting their communities.

To understand this better, OCHA worked with Jocelyn Kelly, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Kelly conducted research with two Mai-Mai subgroups—the Kifuafua and Shikito—and found potential differences in their levels of sexual violence.

“Sexual violence was one of the reasons that men joined these groups, because it was a threat to the Congo,” Kelly said. “However, soldiers justify sexual violence. When you talk about the war, soldiers create a moral landscape of themselves; they've been able to convince themselves they are still good guys by differentiating between rape that is ‘okay’ and rape that is ‘not okay’.”

Kelly's research found that many combatants underwent violent initiations and social alienation from home communities as part of their transition from civilian to soldier. Many were also disillusioned with disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration. OCHA/UNICEF research identified all these factors as characteristics that increase the likelihood of combatants committing sexual violence.

In 2010 the project completed its first research phase, which looked at non-State armed groups, such as the Mai-Mai. Over the next few years it will expand its research focus to the drivers of sexual violence among formal militaries. It will then pilot separate prevention toolkits for non-State and State armed groups.

A young girl raped in Katanga province, DRC, says: "before getting raped, I was betrothed. But the marriage was of course canceled. As I got pregnant, the most urgent thing to do was to free the rapist so that he could support me during the pregnancy. But it is also important for him to marry me now because nobody wants me anymore." © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/IRIN