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First UN envoy for sexual violence in war says rape must stop

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 17 Mar 2010 16:27 GMT
Author: James Kilner
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LONDON (AlertNet) - Rape in wartime is a scar on modern society that must be stamped out by ending impunity and changing men's attitudes towards women, says Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations' first special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

Wallstrom, a 55-year-old Swede and the former European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, took the job because she sees it as an irresistible opportunity to make a difference.

"The whole world should stand up and say this must come to an end," she told AlertNet in a telephone interview.

Wallstrom officially starts the new role in April, but has already assumed many of the responsibilities that come with it. She plans to travel to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) later this month on her first assignment.

A five-year war in DRC officially ended in 2003 but violence lingers on. Millions have died and tens of thousands of women and young girls have been raped. The mineral-rich African state is regularly listed as one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

Rape has followed conflict for generations across the globe. But Wallstrom says the atrocities committed in recent wars - where rape has been used as a weapon to spread fear and ethnically cleanse populations, particularly in Africa - have shocked people and were a driving reason for creating a U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict zones.

"We've seen some conflicts that have become more and more brutal and this has shocked the world," she said. "But this doesn't only happen in Africa, it happens everywhere."

Nonetheless, most of her travel will be to Africa, she added.

WOMEN BLAMED

Christian Mukosa from Amnesty International has been tracking cases of rape in Chad, now home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring African countries blighted by war.

Armed bandits and gangs roam the borders and violence is common.

"In east Chad, woman are subject to rape and other violence," he said. "Not only when they leave the compound to collect water or firewood but also inside the camps."

Women who report rape are often told it is their fault for putting themselves in vulnerable situations. They are stigmatised, treated as outcasts, and their husbands demand new wives.

"There is a culture of impunity for rapists," Mukosa said. "When you talk to people in Chad they think that rape is normal."

Wallstrom will report directly to the U.N. Security Council during her two-year mission. Her brief is to concentrate on sexual violence in conflict zones, but she told AlertNet she had also received reports from Haiti of rape in the massive camps that have sprung up since January's devastating earthquake.

The earthquake killed about 250,000 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. Many of the survivors are living in makeshift camps where security and privacy are minimal.

Anna Neistat from Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, travelled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's destroyed capital, to investigate rape in the camps.

"Women have to bathe in public or wander to remote areas of the camps, usually after dark, and that is unsafe," she said. "One woman was gang-raped when she was returning."

Neistat said the HRW team uncovered a handful of rapes in the camps but many more are probably hidden by women who are too afraid or ashamed to come forward.

For Wallstrom, her new job is not only a mission to reduce violence against women but an opportunity to work towards a more humane world where conflict does not justify rape.

"What type of society would tolerate it?" she said.

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