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One in three women will suffer sexual violence at some point in their lifetime, according to UN Women, but in reality the numbers are likely much higher. In the midst of a veritable humanitarian crisis, recent reports of horrific sexual crimes against women and girls in South Sudan have once again emerged.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence and Conflict, we ask Susannah Sirkin, an expert in sexual violence and conflict zones and Director of International Policy and Partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), how these particular crimes proliferate and what is being done to ensure survivors receive justice.

Susannah, how have prosecutions against crimes of sexual violence evolved in the past 20 years?
A lot has evolved since the early nineties, when there was a distinct lack of prosecution or accountability for rape in war. Now we’re breaking the silence, reducing the stigma and, in a very careful way, empowering the voices of survivors to achieve the full range of forms of justice for sexual violence.

Although a lot has changed, these problems persist on such mass levels, yet never seem to sustain the attention they need.
Sexual violence presents challenges like no other human rights violation due to the stigma—often self-inflicted or community-imposed shameand the fear of a range of repercussions.

One of the big challenges we face in relation to the full range of war crimes or crimes against humanity and sexual conflict is a certain amount of crisis fatiguethe inability to stay with one situation for very longso the media, public, policymakers, and government, sort of, move on. People have very short attention spans, an inability to stick with deep-seated and deep-rooted problems.

In the mid-2000s, there was this enormous movement of civil societythe Save Darfur campaign, the work of organizations like Enough, and prominent people speaking outbut it didn’t really achieve very much except for calling attention to it. I think people became very discouraged and demoralized. The main intergovernmental body that’s responsible for stopping these crimes and holding perpetrators accountable is politically paralyzed. For example, the referral to the International Criminal Court took place, but there was an outstanding arrest warrant not only for Omar al-Bashir, but for a number of other alleged Sudanese perpetrators, and nothing happened. We faced crisis and compassion fatigue, but crimes continued in Darfur and South Sudan.

Can you talk about why this type of gendered violence is so pernicious?
The range of traumas is very distinct in each setting. However, we have a spike in this kind of violence being used in an intense and instrumentalized way in wars or as we’re seeing in Sudan, with police and security forces trying to humiliate so-called enemies or opposition. We see this being used as a way to perpetrate ethnic cleansing and to force people out of swaths of land by terrifying them through sexual violence.

Gender discrimination at every level plays a role in the perpetration of the crime to begin with, because it is a crime that’s related to gender and discrimination…Most justice systems are still very much male-dominated, and then extend that to societies that are basically entirely patriarchal, male-led justice systems, with police that are mostly male. There is a lack of knowledge, awareness, and ability to even talk about the problem and understand. For example, when we train doctors there’s quite a lack of knowledge and awareness around sexual violence in all of its aspectseven the most basic kind of physical evidence and consequencesand that’s the result of a male-dominated medical system and medical training.

How does Physicians for Human Rights work with local communities to respond to sexual violence?
For the last eight years, we’ve been working to share our forensic skills to document and gather evidence around sexual violence. We’re working to hold sexual perpetrators accountable on a more local level, because of the necessity for people and communities to see, first-hand, efforts that acknowledge what’s happening and provide support to survivorsfrom the immediate medical and psychological response to the occurrence of acute injuries and the prevention of STDs.

We have worked to train doctors, lawyers, the police, and judges on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and, more recently, in Iraq with the PHC program on sexual violence in conflict zones. We’re trying to really empower, train and share skills, and build capacity and collaboration for domestic prosecutions, which is very encouraging.  

However, we have to keep in mind that sexual violence is just one of a number of horrific traumas that occur in a war context. Death of family members, the forced burning of homes, the loss of all posessions, illness, hunger, expoure to extreme heat or cold, destitution, imprisonment, and torture are just some of the things that take place along with sexual violence.

To look at a person solely as a victim of rape, as opposed to “all these things happened and created a trauma,” is also not very respectful of a person’s wholeness and humanity. We’re all working to address this and to ensure that we look at the whole person and treat a survivor with respect and dignity as a whole human being and not just a body part.

What is your vision for the future?
We need to see much more accountability. We need to see governments stepping up to really act in a concerted and effective way to ensure that there are prosecutions and that perpetrators are held accountable, including at the highest levels, for example, government and military leaders who have condoned or failed to stop attacks. When there are prosecutions that are carried out effectively, it’s really important to share this information much more widely.

How can we empower survivors and local communities?
I think that it’s really important for us to share successes far and wide so that there’s a message that you will not necessarily get away with this horrific crime. There needs to be much more training of police, doctors, lawyers, and judges, which is what we’re trying to do in a modest way, to understand how important it is to enable survivors to come forward with safety and privacy, to offer a holistic approach to medical care and access to justice. That’s really, really critical because there are too many programs and projects that are separating the humanitarian response from the human rights response, meaning that there’s a big divide or a lack of communication between the humanitarian response and the people working for prevention in terms of justice and accountability. We need much more collaboration, coordination, and integration of what amounts to holistic care.

The other thing that’s needed is reparations, and we know that from interacting with hundreds and hundreds of survivors and people on the front lines responding to their needs. An essential part of justice has to be repair. This means medical services and long-term care, but also financial compensation and restoration of livelihoods that are lost when this crime is committed and communities are torn asunder with survivors unable to rebuild their lives without financial support. It’s also a part of justice that perpetrators must compensate victims. In many of our studies, we find that’s the number one demand of the survivors, so we have to respond to that.

Learn more about PHR’s current program on sexual violence in conflict zones: https://phr.org/issues/sexual-violence/program-on-sexual-violence-in-conflict-zones/

Also, explore MediCapt, their award-winning mobile app, which uses a digitized medical intake form to assist in the forensic documentation between health care providers and law enforcement to track cases of sexual violence: https://phr.org/issues/sexual-violence/medicapt-innovation-2/

About Physicians for Human Rights: Physicians for Human Rights is an organization that works at the intersection of medicine, science, and law to secure justice and universal human rights for all. PHR not only investigates and documents human rights violations around the world, but has hundreds of global partners with whom they advocate and campaign for justice.