We support survivors’ demands for a world where sexual violence as a weapon of war is no longer tolerated,and bears consequences for individual perpetrators and states. We work for a future where survivors receive the holistic care and reparations that they need to rebuild their lives. We create opportunities for survivors to speak out and be heard, and where they can organise to create change, influence policies, and demand justice and accountability. We use national and international advocacy and global campaigning in order to achieve lasting and systemic change. Our source of inspiration remains Dr Mukwege and his team at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The impact of their work in DRC motivates us to scale-up their best practices elsewhere.
Sexual violence used systematically as a weapon of conflict is uniquely destructive1: it effectively destroys the life of the victim without killing them, leaving them with a heavy burden of physical and psychological harm for the rest of their life. Beyond the individual, it may aim to destroy the reproductive potential of a group or community, and to spread disease. By committing these crimes in public, or coercing family and community members either to witness or take part in these atrocities, perpetrators impact the whole community, destroying social bonds and relationships. As a weapon of conflict, sexual violence aims to demoralise a community or a whole ethnic group, destroying their resilience and ability to rebuild and recover.
Sexual violence in conflict takes many forms, including rape, gang rape, penetration with objects or weapons, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or abortion, forced marriage, sexual torture, and a host of other horrific abuses designed to humiliate and destroy the sexual identity and autonomy of the victim. Beyond injury and disease, the psychological and social impacts of humiliation and shame are corrosive for victims and their communities alike. Victims are typically excluded from their families and communities, and children born of rape face lifelong stigmatisation and rejection.
Moreover, communities and authorities fail to hold perpetrators to account, preferring to maintain the status quo, enabling impunity and fuelling a downward spiral of abuses. Brutal sexual violence committed in conflict settings is also connected with an increase in all forms of gender-based violence. Domestic violence, child marriage, and sexual exploitation are all exacerbated in humanitarian settings for many reasons, from family separation, to food insecurity and the impunity of perpetrators.
Rape and sexual assault are also committed out of individual opportunism in a lawless context. Sexual violence does not stop when the conflict ends. Armed militias may demobilise or be incorporated in the regular army, but often continue to commit crimes for as long as lawlessness persists. Sometimes entire generations are brought up to believe sexual violence is a common part of life, or that it is the norm. Sexual violence is deeply rooted in a society’s gender norms which determine what society expects of women and men, their roles, privileges and limitations.
Gender inequality exists in all societies, also prior to conflict and displacement. In fragile or humanitarian settings, it becomes a fertile ground for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. We see sexual violence in conflict through a gendered lens. That means we understand that by ‘weaponising’ gendered roles, populations are more vulnerable to sexual violence as a weapon of war, and it is more likely that this type of violence will be committed.
We believe that for change to happen it is crucial to break the silence around sexual violence as a weapon of war.
We are working towards a future where sexual violence in conflict is no longer seen as inevitable and is recognised for what it is: a crime that should have consequences. We want the international community to draw a line against wartime sexual violence and strengthen its accountability mechanisms against states and individuals.
Our approach is survivor-centred, meaning that survivors themselves define their needs and solutions. We work to create the conditions that will allow survivors to take the lead in fighting for their rights. Our aim is to help transform victims into survivors, and survivors into agents of change.
The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation sees three interconnected strategies as essential
for change to happen:
The underlying assumption for all these strategies is that the collective silence around sexual violence is what makes it such an effective weapon. It fuels a sense of shame in victims and their family members, it enables impunity and prevents victims from seeking support. Our strategies reinforce each other, creating an enabling environment where survivors can genuinely become agents of change: • When victims have access to dignified, integrated, quality care, which meets all of their needs, they can recover and heal, and regain their personal agency.
• When victims are given safe spaces to share their experiences, and to have their voices heard, they can support each other and start to reclaim their power. They can reach out to other victims of sexual violence and encourage them to come forward to claim the services that they deserve.
• When survivors know their rights, and can voice their needs, they can become agents of change. They can organise themselves to claim their rights to justice and reparations.
• When survivors and their communities speak out about sexual violence they can break through deeply rooted taboos which place the blame on victims, exclude them from decision-making, and leave them powerless to change their situation.
• When survivors’ experiences and testimonies are documented on their own terms, the harms that they have suffered can be publicly acknowledged, and the widespread denial of these atrocities can be challenged.
• When survivors are supported to participate meaningfully in humanitarian programming and peace negotiations, their needs and voices can be kept at the heart of the laws, policies and programmes that impact them.
• When proper survivor-centred justice mechanisms are in place, survivors will be able to seek formal justice, breaking the cycle of impunity and recurrence.
To heal from the harms of sexual violence, victims need to regain agency and control over their lives, their decisions, and their bodies. Their needs are complex and interconnected, and the solutions need to be designed with this in mind. In order to reintegrate into their community, it is essential their dignity and humanity are recognised. We promote the model of holistic, integrated care for survivors of wartime sexual violence pioneered at Panzi Hospital DRC as a human rights standard globally, and we facilitate its implementation in other (post) conflict zones. Wherever possible, we promote an approach where these services are integrated into existing healthcare systems, and we work with local actors to embed the model sustainably in the local context. Panzi’s model of holistic care is structured around four pillars that deal with the interconnected consequences of sexual violence. Each survivor of sexual violence has a social assistant assigned to him or her from the start. Together they design a tailor-made healing pathway that includes:
• medical care and, where needed, surgery for severe gynaecological injuries
• psychological support through oneon-one support and/or group counselling
• legal representation, and assistance in obtaining forensic evidence
• socio-economic assistance such as literacy training, small business management, and microcredit programmes.
At Panzi, all four pillars are integrated in a one stop centre, accessible at one location, with coherent referrals and co-ordination between services. For survivors this means receiving holistic care without the risk of stigmatisation, as anybody could be visiting a hospital for a variety of reasons. Coordinated services avoids survivors having to retell their story to multiple professionals and enables them to choose from the services as they feel they are ready.
Survivors face crippling social stigma that prevents them from seeking justice, excludes them from their communities, and often leaves them to care for themselves (and their children) without any support. Many survivors suffer alone, unable to fight for their rights, or to influence programmes meant to support them. We believe this needs to change. We bring survivors of conflict-related sexual violence together in a global action network, and strengthen national survivor networks for mutual support, in order to break the silence around these crimes, and to call for a proactive political response from the national and international communities. Our support for survivor-led movements aims to tackle stigma, and to enable survivors to access the care and justice they deserve. We take a multi-pronged approach, giving different levels of support depending on survivor’s needs and their personal healing process:
• We organise regional and global retreats, giving victims and survivors a safe space where they can speak out, share with each other and receive support. We support local survivor networks with capacity building and resources, enabling them to develop solutions and actions according to their own context.
• We connect local and regional survivor networks with SEMA, our global network, for mutual support, inspiration, learning and growth.
• We facilitate survivor-led advocacy and awareness raising at local, national and international levels.
• We enable survivors to document their testimonies through creative approaches, to enable them to express experiences which are beyond words.
Wherever possible, we connect survivor activists and networks with the wider civil society ‘landscape’ at a local level for mutual learning and sustainability, and to coordinate joint advocacy towards service providers and authorities.
We advocate for an end to the complicit silence and tolerance of sexual violence crimes committed in conflict, pushing for changes in policy and institutional behaviour to end impunity, and tackling the obstacles to justice that allow perpetrators to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.
Rape 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. Procedures may be slow or be influenced by corruption, the burden of legal costs might be placed unfairly on the victim, and proceedings often compromise confidentiality. Perpetrators often get minimal sentences or are not punished at all.
These crimes, committed across entire communities, spread diseases, destroy family ties and inflict harm over generations. Their consequences are further exacerbated by poverty and stigma. Survivors live with the double burden of the violence and of being shunned by their communities. Only a tiny minority of survivors of sexual violence worldwide ever receive reparations awarded by a formal justice mechanism. In addition to the sheer absence of a judicial infrastructure in many contexts, numerous hurdles prevent survivors from initiating proceedings, including widespread corruption, high legal fees, fear of reprisals and stigmatisation.
Moreover, survivors can rarely identify their perpetrators, as attacks often happen at night by armed militias, unknown to the community, or because individuals have been gang raped. Even in the rare cases where survivors have successfully brought proceedings against their attackers, and reparations were awarded by the courts, the procedures for obtain reparations is often transferred from the criminal to the civil courts, a time-consuming and expensive procedure that prevents most survivors from ever receiving compensation. Access to reparations and other forms of redress for survivors of sexual violence has not been a high priority on the policy agenda at the international, national or local level. The lack of formal acknowledgement and justice contribute greatly to survivors being unable to reintegrate into society. Sexual violence has an extremely negative impact on communities’ ability to heal and prosper after wartime violence.
To change this situation, we collaborate with other actors to undertake actions including:
• Capacity building of judicial and law enforcement actors, and promotion of survivor-centred procedures
• Advocating for various forms of reparations and redress
• Increasing survivors’ access to justice by raising awareness on their rights and on procedures for reporting, by providing legal aid and financial support, and by addressing possible repercussions
• Advocating for perpetrators to be held accountable, building on existing laws and accountability mechanisms
• Seeking innovative solutions at the local and national level which are capable of providing a sense of justice to survivors and victims.