TMO: Witness plays an important part of the project, detailing the realities of sexual violence in various conflicts. Is there a danger, though, in being seen to be partial? For example, there’s no mention of sexual violence committed by Western powers like the US – in conflicts like Vietnam, or more recently Iraq and Afghanistan
We launched with what we believe paints a global picture of the massive problem of sexualized violence in conflict. As we move forward from this modest beginning, we will be exploring all the conflicts you’ve named as well as many others. In fact, Iraq is already under way, as is a piece on Afghanistan. I’m also beginning work on the issue of sexualized violence within the U.S. military.
TMO: What concrete steps would you like governments and international bodies to take in attempting to stop the use of rape as a war tool?
As I told a blog called the Political Notebook, I can’t yet say overall that I have an answer to fix whatever has happened in the past. I do, however, believe that there are global legal hurdles preventing healing and justice from taking place. Some countries, like Burma, remain outside the reach of the International Criminal Court, which can prosecute rape as a war crime. Interestingly, the U.S. does not consider itself subject to the ICC either, although it supported the prosecution by the court of rape as a war crime in Libya.
Also, while President Obama has lifted the “global gag rule” that prevented the use of federal funding to assist family planning groups that perform abortions abroad, he left in place a very problematic aspect of the rule: Federal foreign aid is still forbidden for use in abortions, even in cases of rape in war or those that would save a woman’s life. Even speech about these cases is restricted when this money is involved. It’s important to remember that foreign aid is crucial to the survival of women in war zones like DRC. Such restrictions are costing us civilians’ lives.
TMO: In an opinion piece for CNN recently, you wrote: “What happened to men in the past was political, but what happened to women was cultural. The political was public and could be changed; the other was private — even sacred — and could not or even should not be changed.”Can you explain this in a little more detail?
The silence of women is longstanding. We were long expected to remain quiet—like children: seen but not heard. But this silence is tearing apart women who’ve been raped. Imagine never telling anyone that you were violently raped—not a doctor, your husband, a lawyer, or a police officer. Because you would be shunned, re-raped, or laughed at. So you live your whole life with a terrible secret, even blaming yourself for not being able to stop it from happening. This is no way for anyone to live. We must take responsibility for the silence women are forced endure and work to provide them with safe medical and psychological care and a safe way to report what happened to them. This is what we mean by moving women’s experiences into the political realm: We must move them into a space that is public so they can be changed. No one should have to suffer in secret.
TMO: What role can institutions like the International Criminal Court have? How important are convictions against soldiers who rape during conflicts, and how should it be measured against other war crimes?
The ICC plays an essential role in presenting rape as a war crime. But also essential are just the charges themselves, which can be brought in national courts but are often not. In Guatemala right now, you have a former dictator indicted on January 26 on genocide charges that include rape as a war crime. A local group named Women’s Link Worldwide pushed very hard and achieved this important milestone for the country. For women to know that their pain has not been forgotten is crucial not only to their own healing but to the healing of an entire nation.
As Gloria says, Women Under Siege is not trying to create a competition of tears. War is terrible. Torture is terrible. Rape is terrible. All of these crimes are prosecutable, fortunately. Now it is time to ensure there is the political will to bring justice to women as well as men who have suffered in war. Impunity for crimes of sexualized violence has reigned for too long.