Sexual Violence as a Growing Tool of Terrorism: A Conversation with Under-Secretary-General Zainab Hawa Bangura

Diplomatic Courier’s UN Correspondent Akshan de Alwis, recently sat with Under-Secretary-General Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, to learn of her life growing up in Sierra Leone and its impact on her global work; the changing nature of sexual violence as a tool of terrorism; the impact of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC)’s Rome Statute, and the UN Security Council Resolutions on sexual violence in conflict; and finally the correlation between girls and boys education in combating sexual violence.

Special Representative Bangura was formerly the Minister of Foreign Affairs and previously the Minister of Health and Sanitation in Sierra Leone. In her home country of Sierra Leone, she served as executive director of the National Accountability Group and chair of the advisory board of the Network for Collaborative Peace Building. As a member of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Sierra Leone Task Force on Special Initiatives for Governance in Africa, Ms. Bangura advised UNDP on integrating methods of inclusion and participation into their programs in the country. She also formulated advocacy positions for UNDP’s work with Sierra Leone’s government and development partners in an effort to reduce poverty and decentralize the government.

Active in both government and civil society, Ms. Bangura co-founded and chaired the political party Movement for Progress — running for president in 2002 on the new party’s ticket — and founded and coordinated Campaign for Good Governance, the largest indigenous NGO in Sierra Leone. After serving as a member of Nigeria’s Commonwealth Election Monitoring Team in 1999, Ms. Bangura was a member of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs Nigeria Election Monitoring Mission in 2003. The same year, she was awarded the Sierra Leone Women of Excellence Life of Achievement Award, and in 2006, she received the National Endowment for Democracy Award. The Under-Secretary-General’s ground-breaking work has helped to hold governments accountable for sexual violence in conflicts.

You talk often about the transformative power of a girl’s education.  Can you explain ways in which education had a catalytic impact on your own life? 

My life is a testimony to the power of education. My mother comes from a very traditional African family where girls were not allowed to go to school. My mother had one child. She committed herself that her child would get an education, and that made me grow up to believe that if I get the right education, it would not only lift me out of poverty, it would also change our lives. It was an extremely difficult life, I was very deprived – I didn’t have clothes, I didn’t have shoes, I didn’t have anything, but I had a goal – and the goal was not only to be the best, to be educated. And that goal became a dream I had to pursue at all costs. For me that was that was what I learned in life.

So throughout my life, in all of my positions, when I’ve been a minister of foreign affairs, when I’ve been a minister of health, I’ve always tried to be the best. I don’t use other people as a radar, I set my own goals, and I say this is what I want to do, this is what I want to get.

Your fascinating journey to political leadership in Sierra Leone as the Foreign Minister and the Minister of health to UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict is deeply influenced by your own history of growing up as a daughter and refugee in Sierra Leone.  How did those experiences shape your fight to combat discrimination against all women and girls? 

It was important for me to work hard to protect women and girls. I experienced discrimination as a child – my father wanted to marry me off when I was 12 because I was a girl. My mother said no. So I understood, from a very early age, what it means to be a girl. You know, the disadvantage you carry in life. I became a women’s rights activist, because I saw how my mother had been discriminated against. But I also learned strategy.  At the time in which I started my advocacy, my country was under a military government, so I was quick to learn that you don’t fight about human rights [while] owned by military. So I diverted my attention and became an activist for democracy and good governance. I led a campaign in my country to have the first democratic elections in three decades. My background was in insurance.  So I quit my insurance executive job and created an NGO on good governance, documenting human rights violations, atrocities, women’s rights. This was during the time of conflict in Sierra Leone, and I saw the level of violations against women. And when the accountability mechanism was created in Sierra Leone, I became one of the key people who wrote reports, who gave evidence to a special court – and that’s how actually I ended here – but because I’ve been an activist in my country, I had become a house-hold name. You know, I worked on democracy, I advocated on good governance, so it wasn’t easy for me to be co-opted into government – you know, so that’s how I became a minister. Now when I go to countries of conflict, I always try to put these people in the position I was, and I talk to them, and I deal with them the way I would have wanted somebody to have talked to me. People say I have so much passion – I have a passion because I see myself in their situation. I see old, poor women reaching for me and I see my own mother. I want to do something, I want to be their voice, I want to tell their story, I want people to understand their story and the suffering and the pain and everything. So it’s very easy for me to be able to do my job, and that makes it extremely important – so I do it with a passion. People always say, I work with a passion.

We live in a time of crisis.  These are testing times and a time of unparalleled conflict from South Sudan to Ukraine to Iraq to Syria to Afghanistan to Burundi. What are some of the commonalities and differences in sexual abuse in these diverse communities?

First and foremost, what I want to say is that each country, each conflict is unique. Unique in the sense that the parties to the conflict are different, the circumstances and the challenges are different – but one thing we have to say is that the consequences are always the same. Which means that women are affected by conflict disproportionately, because they are women. The majority, if not all, of the conflicts we are dealing today – maybe to some extent in the exception of Ukraine –are invariably internal conflicts. They are conflicts within regions that tear the country apart. So they’re inner fighting for political power, or the issue of the distribution of resources. Ninety per cent of victims are civilians, and out of those civilians, over 80 per cent are women and children. They are targeted because of who they are: their ethnicity, the family they belong to, their religion. I see women as ambassadors of families – you represent the dignity of families, as well as the children. And what’s the best way of destroying the next generation than through the people who produce the next generation – women – the people who are the next generation – the children – or the people who hold the fabric of society together, who are women. So women are targeted in conflict because they are women.

They are not only targeted in their homes, they are targeted in detention facilities, they are targeted in border-crossings, they are targeted in checkpoints, and even in countries where they go as refugees. Just look at what is happening in the Middle East. You see most of the refugees and displaced are younger, and most of them are women.

Sexual violence has been used consistently – people have seen the power it has, in the sense of destroying others. This is why we describe conflict-related sexual violence as being used as a weapon of war – it’s being used to dehumanize, to degrade, to destroy, a generation and ethnicity or a community. And when you use sexual violence in conflict, you are not only targeting the injured or affected, you’re also targeting the family, you’re targeting the community, you’re targeting the society, because of the stigma that is associated with this. We’ve seen it in the Middle East, where the conflict started, we’ve seen people killing their wives and daughters because they have been raped, and they can’t stand it anymore. So it breaks society apart.

I think, by a large margin, all of the countries we are working in, I’m still to see a country or conflict, where conflict-related sexual violence has not been used.

Rape as a weapon of war was first defined by the Rome Statute, and in SCR 1820 (2008).  What we now see is that sexual violence is being used as a tool of terrorism. Can you speak to this emergent issue?

In the last two or three years, we’ve seen a trend in the rise of extremists, from Libya, to Mali, to Nigeria, to Yemen, to Syria, to Iraq, to Somalia. The rise in extremist and terrorist groups has brought a whole new dimension of sexual violence being used a tactic of terrorism.  If you look at the Middle East, we have a number of non-State parties to the conflict, and the UN has been documenting evidence of crimes being committed by them.

These groups are very strategic; they are very focused. They have a plan. In the case of ISIS, which we decided to deal with a lot in the last report of the report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, we realized they are using sexual violence as a part of their strategic objective to build a new Caliphate. They’re using sexual violence as an enticement for men to join ISIS, telling recruits we have a lot of women for you, you can marry four wives.

These groups also use conflict-related sexual violence to target religious and ethnic minorities, as well as people based on their sexual orientation; to destroy these communities and to displace population. So you find out that members of the Yazidi group, for example, or members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities, they are being targeted specifically with that intention.

They’re even using it to raise money. ISIS has open markets where they sell women and girls, and these open markets are not accidental, because they have manuals, they have bureaus to sell these women, they have price lists, so it has become really a part of the cause with which they are fighting the war. There are even cases of trafficking of women outside of the women, to raise funds.

But the primary focus is on these women to produce children, because ISIS wants to populate its “state”, so they insist that these girls get pregnant and they must have ISIS babies.

So when we look at all of this, we can come to the conclusion – this is not accidental, it is a tactic of terrorism to destroy communities. This has gone beyond using conflict-related sexual violence as a weapon of war. We see this in the case of ISIS, both in Syria and Iraq, and we’re also seeing it in Northern Mali with Al Qaeda,  in Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, and with Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

You speak of the importance of girls’ education both as a vaccine against early marriage, and as way to combat violence etc. But what about boys’ education? Isn’t gender sensitive boys’ education as important as a powerful tool against violence against women? How can campaigns such as HeforShe contribute to your mandate?     

I think first and foremost we must protect the girl child. My philosophy is that education is a golden key that you give to a girl to open the world to her.  Education increases opportunities for girls, it unleashes their potential, and it gives them economic independence that will help them make independent economic, political, and social decisions. Educating a girl frees her from violence, and helps her to be an individual, self-confident. An educated woman has a higher chance to educate her own children. You can’t dispute the economic, political, and social benefits of educating a girl.

But I think education is not only for the sake of education – we have to realize that the world has two people – they are like the two pedals of a bicycle, one cannot move without the other – and I think it’s always important that we educate both, and that you educate students to respect each other. But we need to educate men to protect women, to respect them, to empower them. Because a lot of the abuse – to be honest – most of the people who commit abuse, whether the girl is in school, the home, or the workplace, the people who commit the crimes are men.

It’s important for us to make sure to get men to understand you cannot develop a country with just 50 per cent of the population – like the Chinese say, women hold half the sky. So I believe it’s extremely important. Education can lead to women’s independence – political, social, economic independence. Men have already been educated, they already have this. That is why HeForShe was started, to identify male champions who can actually commit and advocate for the protection and empowerment of women. Because it doesn’t matter if a woman is educated, even if she’s a professor, she can still be abused her husband at home. And abuse is not only physical, it can be psychological. Even the ability to excel in your office, if you’re living in an abusive relationship, you have a problem – you won’t take care of your children, you won’t perform in your office. So the HeForShe says give women the time, protect them, and empower them, so that they can work at their best.

That’s what HeForShe is, and we’re very happy it was launched, and we see a lot of people who are supporting it around the world. We hope that each and every country, each and every village, each and every community or society we can have champions for the HeForShe campaign.

Since you assumed the office in 2012, what has changed, and what do you envision the future of your work?

What we have been able to do is to give visibility to the problem, to increase the political momentum, and the political will. Who would have thought four years ago that we would have at G8 a Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict? All the men ministers were sitting around me when I went there. On my right was [Sergei] Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and next to me on my left was William Hague. So there, all of these ministers know my face, and they understand I am somebody and they promise their support. This is extremely important: we have created political momentum at the highest level. We have about 155 countries that have signed a declaration to work on sexual violence, and then we had the London Summit, which was the first time we had a global summit which was able to bring together all of the players – political leaders, military leaders, NGOs, and victims, around the table to talk about this problem. I think this has helped us take the UN Security Council resolutions and turn them into actions on the ground.

Let’s be honest, this is a problem that belongs to Member States. The countries where the crimes are being committed have to take ownership and responsibility of this problem and make commitments to address it. So to negotiate that, you must break down the culture of denial and the culture of silence – because at first it is “Oh no, this is not happening to me” but now, once you know you’ve created this political momentum around the world, and you name or investigate these countries, it becomes extremely difficult for countries to deny. So when you meet them, they say “OK, what can we do.” I don’t want to say that you shame them, but at the least you get them to the level where they agree. We’ve seen that tremendously in the DRC, we’ve seen that in Somalia, we’re working on South Sudan, and even in the Middle East. So they will say “Well you know, it’s difficult, it’s because of bad guys,” but at least they are not saying that it’s not happening. But, of course, this is extremely important for us and that is what we’re doing. I think for me, it’s been an extremely interesting experience to be able to drive the agenda into the countries and the communities, and to travel around the world to meet these women, because this is a global issue. So for me, it’s the Middle East, it’s Africa, it’s Asia, it’s Latin America, it’s Europe – Bosnia, the heart of Europe, so you think it’s not happening there – I have travelled across, and all of the women, all they say to me is “Punish the person.” So at an international level, the ICC has been able to develop sexual violence, and it’s now become a norm for the prosecutor of the ICC for every investigation she looks for issues of sexual and gender-based violence. At the national level, we’re working with governments, changing laws in countries, changing the penal code, training the police, training the military, working with the military justice system, so we have travelled a long road in the last five years.


Photo caption: Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Briefs Press

Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, speaks to journalists after addressing the Security Council open debate on the issue. UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras.

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