Dr Mukwege delivers the keynote speech at the 1st International Conference on “Action with Women and Peace.” Together with survivors of the SEMA network, he urgently advocates for justice and reparations for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.  This topic is important for the Republic of Korea in light of its history where Korean “comfort women” were used as sexual slaves. Until today, these women and their (grand)children still gather every Wednesday to protest against the assaults that happened against these women.

Foreign Minister of South Korea,

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, distinguished representatives of the United Nations and international organizations, dear activists around the world, distinguished guests,

It is with great interest that I am participating in this important conference on the situation of victims of sexual violence around the world.

Let me pay tribute to all women who are survivors of sexual violence in times of war and peace.

I think of the women taken from their homes to satisfy the sexual needs of the military. I think of sexual slaves taken as “spoils of war”.

I think of all the women whose bodies have been martyred simply because they are women. I also pay tribute to all the women activists of all generations, who have transformed their suffering into strength to become actors for a better world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Twenty years ago, my country was the victim of an external aggression. Since then, wars have followed one another, resulting in more than 6 million deaths, more than 4 million displaced people fleeing violence and hundreds of thousands of survivors of sexual violence, who continue to go to the Panzi hospital to this day.

Rape with extreme violence is used as a weapon of war. This monstrous weapon has had the effect of traumatising entire communities, forcing them to leave their lands for the benefit of mineral for predators, including coltan, used in the electronics industry.

All the women are affected, the youngest of whom I operated was only 6 months old and the oldest older than 80 years.

Despite the denial of this plague of sexual violence by the leaders of my country, we have been defending the cause of victims for 20 years. Our advocacy began initially in my own country – of course – but then spread to the whole world, given the similarity of the suffering of all survivors of sexual violence.

It was almost at the same time, on the other side of the world, the “comfort women” began to fight for their victim status to be finally recognised. As a result, they have contributed significantly to putting the issue of sexual violence on the international agenda. We applaud them for their courage and the inspiration they represent for other victims.

During these 20 years of struggle, we have repeatedly addressed the members of the United Nations Security Council, including, quite recently, at its meeting held on 23/04/2019.

Germany had initiated an ambitious draft resolution in the Council, but encountered very strong resistance from some permanent member states.  

After a few regrettable amendments, which were seen as a setback to what had been achieved, Germany’s proposal resulted in the adoption of a resolution to step up the fight against sexual violence in conflict.

There were 4 major advances that we had noted: the victim-centred approach; the protection of children born of rape; the encouragement of states to establish a Global Fund for survivors; and the requirement for greater accountability and targeted sanctions for perpetrators of rape and their instigators. 

It is the duty of all of us, ladies and gentlemen, to ensure that survivors benefit from the achievements of Security Council Resolution 2467, and to translate these concepts into concrete actions.

With regard to the support and protection of children born of rape:

In the DRC, armed groups start rapes with extreme violence, leading to the destruction of genitalia and the reproductive system of women. Many women and girls become pregnant with unknown men.

This situation has resulted in the emergence of a new generation of children without clear kinship, often rejected by society, sometimes by their own mothers, who can be as young as 12 years old – and who have lost their lives as children prematurely.  

Unfortunately for some people, these innocent children are a curse. They all have nicknames that reflect that rejection. Yet they did not ask to be born: they are the result of a violence that we have not been able to stop.

In Panzi, we took in children born of rape who were rejected by their mothers. These children are called “Dr. Mukwege’s children” and they call me Papa. But once they get to the age where they can ask questions, they understand that I’m not really their dad, so they ask me:

“Papa, why are you not my dad?” It is very difficult to answer this question.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We should take responsibility and take care of these innocent young human beings. Otherwise, they will turn against society.

Indeed, these children who have lost their identity and are abandoned, grow with rejection and hatred, and fall easy prey for recruiters of bandit groups and even extremists.

Last week, I was in Nigeria where the Governor of Borno State talked about 6,000 orphans in his constituency who are left to their own devices and living on the streets. Borno State recognises that these orphans who live on the streets are the start of a new generation of terrorists.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is the duty of all of us to defend these children of women who are victims of sexual violence.

States must take measures to prevent these children from being without identity and living on the streets on their own. They should make an effort to identify these children, recognise them as “children”, give them access to education and psychological care. The training of child psychologists in conflict areas is a priority in order to support children through their social integration.

In many countries, rigid laws about adoption procedures prevent any initiative to transfer these children to families that would provide them with a home and a future. Therefore, it is urgent that our regulations will be more flexible. It is about the safety of all of us.

What perpetuates the massive rejection of these children is also the patriarchal systems. Yazidi children, born of rape, are not accepted by society because they cannot practice the Yazidi religion.

Other children may not receive the father’s name, resulting in the exclusion from family structures and inheritance systems. Others become stateless.

But ladies and gentlemen, a child is conceived and born of two people. It is not normal that he or she should be rejected because his or her paternity cannot be determined. These patriarchal rules perpetuate the abuse of the rights of these children and their mothers. A woman should decide for herself whether the child will bear her name, her religion, her ethnicity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Security Council resolution highlighted for the first time an approach focused on survivors. But what does that mean?

First, there is the real participation of survivors in all areas that concern them: their care, their participation in the society, both in peace negotiations and in the reconciliation process.

To do this, we must invest resources, and build the capacity of survivors through education, support them in building networks of survivors, to share their experiences, and strengthen joint advocacy initiatives.

A survivor-centred approach should encourage breaking the silence. Silence is the ideal tool to perpetuate rape and ensure impunity for perpetrators. We must therefore help survivors to break the silence when they want, and accompany them in the process of free speech, including protection.

Women often had to hide the crimes, out of shame and fear of stigmatisation. This benefits the perpetrators and tortures the victims throughout their lives. This was the case for “comfort women.” The way they are now respected and supported in their struggle should serve as an example for all communities and states around the world. We must assure them that they will not be stigmatised or blamed for the crimes of others.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The hospital and the Panzi Foundation have developed a holistic, survivor-centred model of care. This One Stop Centre provides 4 types of services in one place. The aim is to avoid forcing victims to go to different places to seek services, which leads to re-traumatisation each time the patient is asked to repeat the story of their suffering.

The four pillars are: medical care, psychosocial support, empowerment with socio-economic reintegration and, finally, legal assistance for victims seeking justice. All these services are integrated into our hospital. Because if there is one thing we have learned over the years, health is much more than physical well-being.

The individual care plan for each victim is developed in consultation with the patient and our team of specialists (psychologists, lawyers, economists and other professionals necessary for holistic care). Each pillar reinforces itself mutually and helps not only to restore the victim’s dignity, but also to transform his or her pain into power. I hope that this comprehensive support for victims of sexual violence will not be seen as a luxury, but as a fundamental right to rehabilitation for all victims of sexual violence around the world.

The fourth pillar is access to justice. This is very important. Theoretically, justice sees the perpetrator punished, allows the victim to have some form of recognition and, in some cases, reparations in the form of compensation, which is the key to a complete recovery.

Unfortunately for most survivors, this last part of the healing process is not a reality. In our case (in the DRC), national justice has been corrupted and international justice indifferent. Justice now is not survivor-centred.

All over the world, women face the same obstacle that stands in their way of justice. I wonder: are justice systems failing to meet the demands of victims of sexual violence? How should the international community deal with these victims without justice?

The victim-centred approach should also consider that the victim’s word, when reporting, is already evidence of the crime. The testimony should be taken into account by the courts and not considered as a simple story.

We need to listen to survivors and consider other forms of justice to recognise the harm done to victims of sexual violence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When we talk about reparations, the idea is that it must be done by states and that is theoretically correct. We all agree…

In many countries, there is no state that protects. These are states that mock, deny or implicitly allow sexual violence.

For survivors, adopting a victim-centred approach means trying to put ourselves in their shoes. Are they excluded from the right to reparation since the state does not protect? No. They want their wrongs to be recognised. They also want public recognition of the atrocities committed in their village. They have the right to be compensated for the wrongs they have suffered. And not 30 years later, but when they need it the most. What is the point of an education grant for a girl abducted by Boko Haram when the repair comes 30 years later?

We must question ourselves and push the boundaries.

We must unite so that no one is left indifferent.

Together with my Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, Nadia Murad, we advocate for the establishment of an International Fund for Women Survivors, in cooperation with the SRSG’s Office for Sexual Violence in Conflict, to help achieve an ambitious goal: to enable victims of conflict-related sexual violence to access reparations worldwide. We hope that many governments will support and finance its creation.

This initiative was developed with the survivors and, together, we strongly believe that reparations will help to put shame and stigma on the shoulders of the perpetrators and no longer on the victims. Reparations are about the recognition of harm and the restoration of dignity.

Wherever I go, whether it is among the survivors of Boko Haram, the Yazidis, the comfort women or in Kosovo, it is the same language, the devastation is the same. Whether the rape is recent or old, women are devastated in the same way.

The same deep pain, the feeling that I am no longer a human being after a rape, the same desire for justice for her executioners, are all damage related to rape. Rape as a “weapon of war” sends the same message to victims: “You are not a human being.”

When there is sufficient evidence to establish the existence of rape in conflict, even if major international organisations or the Security Council cannot make decisions, states may decide to take steps and to take action to restore the dignity of its citizens.

We need to do more. Political and military leaders who investigate or allow sexual violence must be held accountable. They must be prosecuted and punished by national or international criminal justice. Sanctions are more than useful even by the Security Council.

If sexual violence is to be stopped, perpetrators should be prosecuted. It is a disgrace to our humanity that men in power get away with committing war crimes. The truth must be told and justice must be done.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In conclusion, let me recall this fundamental and existential truth:

“The similarity between the suffering of women around the world reminds us that our humanity is one and the same everywhere.”

Indeed, the suffering of a woman who is a victim of sexual violence ignores the culture, the language or the colour of the skin.

Also, every man of every culture and colour must stand up and protest every time a woman is sexually abused somewhere in the world.

Every man’s indifference to women’s suffering displays the latent bestial evil in him. But solidarity with women, respect for them, is a testimony to our access to the higher values of refined civilisation, which allows us, men and women, to hold hands, in solidarity with the challenges of the world by saying: “We are equal, we are complementary and the survival of humanity depends on that of women.”

Thank you very much.

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