What is Justice in the Eyes of Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence?

In a remarkable side event to the World Justice Forum, the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation held a public meeting during June with members of the Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence (SEMA), at the Humanity Hub. The Mukwege Foundation is an international human rights organisation working together with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from around the world.

It was a joyous occasion, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the network’s establishment, but also a sober one, entitled “Survivors’ Perspectives on Justice & Accountability”. The event centred on speaking truth to power about the failures of the international community to protect the most vulnerable during conflict and to hold perpetrators to account.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate 2018, told the meeting that “Victims [of conflict-related sexual violence] need to be recognized by society…We also need to restore their lost dignity…and [justice can] restore the social fabric.”

In addition, he reiterated that “states have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their citizens and ensure perpetrators are held to account. Sexual violence as a weapon of war is considered a war crime, a crime against humanity, and can amount to genocide. In international law, and in the national laws in many countries, there is legislation recognising crimes of sexual violence in conflict, yet perpetrators of these crimes largely go unpunished, and judicial processes do not meet survivors’ needs”. Dr. Denis Mukwege, who works at the Panzi Hospital and Foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has established a golden standard of holistic care for victims and survivors of CRSV – known as the Panzi Model.

The meeting heard from a range of survivors: extraordinary stories of courage and resilience against a backdrop of violence and indifference; the importance of peer support; a commitment to lobby for a survivor-centred physical and mental healing processes; and the needs for greater actions to hold individuals accountable for their crimes. States and institutions are accountable for their lack of protection of the rights of those caught up in conflicts.

Jaqueline, a member of the SEMA Network from Kenya says: “Sexual violence leaves you with invisible scars. This crime needs to be punished and the survivors should be treated with similar attention as those who have lost properties. Justice means different things for survivors. Some need acknowledgement for closure. For others, they need reparations. For survivors with children born of rape, they need recognition and acceptance. Without it, there is a risk of passing on intergenerational traumas and it is never good for any country. We need to heal, and healing begins with acknowledgement.”

Angela, a victim from Colombia explained that justice must be victim-centred, and should focus of countering the weight of silence, guilt and stigmatization that many victims bear: “In Colombia, victims are still very stigmatized. Whether you speak or not, you are still stigmatized and stigmatization is one more form of victimization. What then is the benefit of speaking out for victims if nothing changes? We need guarantees of non-repetition so that these atrocities do not happen again to other women”. Angela has been campaigning within her capacity as a SEMA Member, Board Member of the Global Survivors Fund and National Coordinator of the Network of Women Victims and Professionals in Colombia.

The members collaborate to create collective memories – in songs, films, poems – so that their stories will not be forgotten. Facilitated by the Mukwege Foundation, the members of SEMA from more than twenty countries, they advocate and demand accountability for the atrocities committed against them.

During its five years of activism, SEMA members have spoken to the leaders/ representatives of the United Nations, Human Rights Council, NATO, and the wider diplomatic community. Members of the network have also contributed to the drafting of the Murad Code and other advocacy documents that help guard law-making and peacebuilding processes. However, the journey towards justice is still far from the finish line. 

“We have also been very successful on several fronts, for example reparation,” said Dr. Mukwege, “this is very important. Only justice can determine reparation. Some people wrongly think that some victims go to court in order to get money…but what they really ask [is for others to never go through what they went through]…reparations are important for all victims of sexual violence. Reparations can be material or immaterial, and they can be collective or individual as well. Each victim should be able to determine what they want as reparation, so that they feel that they were understood and they can go forward in their lives. And I think that justice can give victims the confidence that what happened will never happen again [due to the criminal conviction]. Justice is not about revenge. Victims [of CSRV] seek justice [to] make sure that their healing process is complete.”

Sexual and gender-based violence has been identified as one of the cheapest yet most effective weapons of war. In multiple countries affected by conflict, sexual violence inflicts lasting consequences within the communities, further disintegrating the society, and harming peacebuilding efforts. Risks of HIV/AIDS transmission, children born of rape, social exclusion, and financial discrimination are just some of the challenges these survivors have to brace for as they are trying to rebuild their lives. Through the SEMA Network, survivors find peer support and organise themselves to demand accountability from individuals, institutions, or states who have the responsibility to protect their rights as civilians and ensure perpetrators are hold to account. Stay connected with the Mukwege Foundation and listen to survivors.