Launch of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict

8 May

I was so happy to see that the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict launched this past Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia.  I’m excited to see where this campaign will go and what it will accomplish, because I think it massive potential.

The new campaign, the idea for which originated at a conference held by the Nobel Women’s Initiative last year, brings together Nobel Laureates, advocacy organizations, and regional/local groups in a coordinated international effort to demand

“…urgent and bold political leadership to prevent rape in conflict, to protect civilians and rape survivors, and call for justice for all—including effective prosecution of those responsible”.

Twenty-Five organizations sit on the advisory board of the campaign including Amnesty International, Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Femmes Africa Solidarite, The Global Fund for Women, The Panzi Hospital, The Women’s League of Burma, and many others.  It has also been endorsed by many prominent advocates, celebrities and Nobel Prize winners, including Sean Penn, Gloria Steinem, Charlize Theron, Aung San Suu Kyi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This campaign will focus initially on 4 countries experiencing high levels of sexual violence, Burma, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. The organizers recognize that not only is immediate action needed in these areas, but these areas are also where the campaign can have the  “biggest impact in the shortest amount of time“. In addition the campaign, also encourages people to take action to help stop rape and gender violence in the own communities the world over, through events organized to raise awareness about these issues (both locally and globally) or volunteer efforts with local women’s groups and shelters.

The first week of the campaign has been designated as a “Week of Action”. Visit the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict’s website to pledge your support. You can also find out about events taking place worldwide this week, online actions you can take no matter where you are, and ways to donate to advisory board organizations.

Balancing Celebration and Caution in Burma

11 Apr

Photographer: Christopher Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Newspapers have been heralding the election last week of Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament. Pictures of the victorious Suu Kyi speaking to thousands to cheering supporters and headlines pronouncing the “…dawn of a new era” in Burma covered the front pages. The announcement of the election of the Nobel Laureate, opposition leader and former political prisoner, who spent nearly two decades under house arrest, was no doubt an important and symbolic step towards a hopeful democratic transition in the small South East Asian nation. But while the world is congratulating one of it’s most celebrated women on her electoral victory, thousands of other Burmese women are continuing to suffer at the hands of the brutal military that still holds the majority of power in the country.

Mass atrocities have been common place in the minority states of Eastern Burma since the military regime took control of the government decades ago and decided to use scorched earth tactics to put down rebellions in outlying states like Kachin.  In addition to pillaging and razing homes and villages and forcing their populations to relocate, the military has faced accusations of unlawful killings, torture, forced labor, the use of child soldiers  and the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas.

There have also been widespread reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence and slavery being used as weapons of war against ethnically Chin, Karen and Rohingya women. From March to November 2011, more than 81 rapes were reported to human rights activists along the Thai-Burma border and as refugees poured into China from the minority state of Kachin, so did the horrific tales of rape. Human Rights Watch released a report last month on various human rights abuses taking place in Kachin, which included detailed descriptions by witness of the atrocities being committed against women in this state. These reports include the gang-rape of a young woman by 4 soldiers, and the abduction of two women who were taken to a military encampment where they were  forced from tent to tent and repeatedly raped by officers. These events occurred just months before the countries landmark elections.

These continued abuses exemplify the need to balance the celebration and hope surrounding the election of Aung San Suu Kyi with caution. While these glimpses of democracy are welcome, under the countries constitution it is the military that still holds the power, with little to no accountability to the civilian government that Suu Kyi and her colleagues in the National League for Democracy were elected into. Due to this, it is yet to be seen how much real change everyday Burmese citizens and particularly those from ethnic minority groups, will see as a result of these elections.

In the excitement that has followed the elections, nations throughout the world have begun to “mull over” their options for lifting diplomatic and financial sanctions against Burma. South-East Asian heads of state who met at last weeks ASEAN Summit ( Association of Southeast Asian Nations) called for western states to immediately lift all sanctions, which would be music to the ears of many investors.

Several major European corporations have been pushing the EU to lift their sanctions quickly, as they are eager to move in ahead of American rival companies. While it is likely that the EU will ease restrictions it has not yet stated what that will entail. David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, is expected to visit Burma this week, making him the highest ranking western leader to visit the country (the US began to thaw diplomatic relations last December when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited).

The United States has also begun to ease travel bans on Burmese leaders and restrictions on financial services and investments. Clinton also announced the Obama Administrations plans to appoint an ambassador and organize a USAID program for the country. The rewards that Clinton announced were tempered with her accompanying firm calls for improvements in human rights and continued political reform.

Human rights advocates have argued that the much of the progress that has been made can be attributed to international pressure put on Burma, and warn that the lifting of sanctions too quickly takes away a major leverage point that could be used to urge further reform.

Western states need to acknowledge and reward what progress has been made in Burma, but the level of those rewards must be on par with the level of real progress and change that has been seen. All sanctions can not just be lifted when civilians are still being targeted and killed, children are being recruited as soldiers and porters and women face a continuous threat of sexual assault.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

I also wanted to share 2 great opinion pieces by Burmese refugees (and activist leaders) in North America:

Still Waiting for Reform in Burma – By Yee Htun, Coordinator for the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.

Burma – What Elections Mean to the Ethnic People – By Myra Dahgaypaw, Board Member of Karen American Communities Foundation and is a 2010 Carl Wilkens Fellow with Genocide Intervention Network (now United to End Genocide).

Crowdmapping: The latest tool in documenting sexual violence

30 Mar

Technology and social media have played a crucial role in the Arab Spring uprisings. Various social media networks have proven to be useful tools in not only organizing the uprisings, but getting  information about events on the ground back out to the world-at-large . This has been particularly important in places like Syria, where access for independent media, as well as, humanitarian investigators is nearly non-existent. Information is a necessity for  policy makers, aid groups and the public, if we are to respond  effectively and promptly to crises. In an effort to harness the power of  social media  in delivering information, Women Under Siege, in partnership with a Harvard-based doctor, an epidemiologist from Columbia University and Syrian activists, recently launched a new initiative utilizing crowdmapping technology to document sexual violence in Syria.

Women Under Siege is encouraging, survivors, witnesses, and medical or humanitarian personnel working with Syrian refugees to submit reports of sexual violence, including the nature and degree of the assaults, locations and any information available about the perpetrators to the organization via email, twitter or the website WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com. This technology allows sexually-based violence to be reported in real-time, as opposed to months or even years later, as is often the case.  An email released by the Women’s Media Center, which Women Under Siege is a project of, states that “By plotting each story on a map, the project shines a light on the full scale of the war going on in Syria—which includes sexualized violence—and gathers valuable data that can help us detect the vital signs of the Syrian conflict zone and point aid workers toward existing needs for survivor services.” There is also hope that this information may even be able to be used to help with prosecutions, which are crucial for bringing an end to the culture of impunity that often protects perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts.

Their efforts in Syria have even received the stamp of approval from Margot Wallström, UN special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict. “More and better information about conflict-related sexual violence is crucial. Talking about this issue is a first step, because only then can we help break what has been called history’s greatest silence. And using modern information technology to this end is very welcome.”

The project is not without risks. Often survivors and witnesses have concerns about possible retribution for reporting  cases of sexual assault or other forms of violence in conflicts to anyone, let alone through a very public and traceable forum like the internet. It’s a fear that’s not unfounded. Eman al-Obeidi, was held in detention in Libya by Ghaddafi security forces last year after she reported being gang raped to a crowd of international reporters at a hotel in Tripoli and a Sudanese women, Safiya Eshaq, fled from her home in Khartoum to South Sudan after she spoke out about her alleged attack by Sudanese security forces. Women Under Siege, in an effort to mitigate security concerns, allows for reports to be submitted anonymously and provides suggestions for increasing individuals digital security.

Many of the reports mapped so far have been from media sources, but the group told the New York Times that they have other reports from individuals which are currently being “assessed”. Due to the lack of formal independent media or human rights investigations on the ground in Syria few of the attacks reported can be official verified.

We can’t respond to or prevent issues that we don’t understand, don’t acknowledge, or don’t know about. Women Under Siege’s initiative seek to address these each of these problems. If successful, the project may prove invaluable in data collection and raising the public consciousness of these issues. Also, the success of this initiative (and others like it**) will continue to promote the creative use of social networking technology to monitor conflicts, violence, humanitarian needs etc.

** Crowdmapping is also being used by other groups to monitor general levels of violence and human rights violations in Syria. It was also previously used to track election violence in Kenya.

International Women’s Day: Focus on Women in Conflict Areas

8 Mar

This blog was originally written for United to End Genocide in honor of International Women’s Day

Today serves as a day to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions that women around the world have made to their societies. However, it is also a day to reflect on the challenges that women continue to confront.  Perhaps nowhere are these challenges more prominent than in conflict zones, where women are faced with having to protect themselves and their families as they strive for peace in their communities. Violence against women is a tragic theme that touches every conflict our organization works on.

Violence Against Women in United to End Genocide Conflict Areas

In Darfur, women face brutal attacks when Janjaweed militias or government troops storm their villages. These women continue to remain vulnerable in refugee and internally displaced person camps, particularly when collecting firewood or water. These women have reported having to make unbelievable choices – send their husbands or sons out to collect the wood where they would be killed, or make the journey themselves and be raped.

For months, rumors have been circulating about the use of sexual violence in Syria. While many of the confirmed victims have been boys and men, UN officials believe women are largely underreporting rapes. Syrian security forces have also found that the threat of raping the female relatives of detainees can be used as a form of coercion.

Since last March, more than 80 cases of rape have been reported by human rights groups on the Thai – Burma border. Meanwhile, a recent flair-up of violence in the minority state of Kachin has sent refugees fleeing across the Chinese border with horrific tales of violent rapes by Burmese soldiers.

Sexual violence is an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the UN Special Representative Margot Wallström on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence has called “the rape capital of the world”.

International Community’s Response to Violence Against Women

For centuries, this type of violence against women was seen as an unfortunate side effect, or even a spoil of war. However, today mass rape is increasingly recognized as a strategic tactic and weapon of war and the orchestrators of these atrocities can now face charges of crimes against humanity. Since that time, the international community has made attempts to curb sexual and gender-based violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and mitigate the other effects of conflict on women.

These efforts have been welcome progress, but much more still needs to be done to address the needs of women in conflict. While UN resolutions 1325 and 1820 laid out specific requirements for states to consider gender perspectives when addressing conflicts, conflict-related humanitarian crises, and peace processes, neither resolution has been fully implemented.

Today, too many women are still being targeted by government forces and rebels around the world, who know that attacking them will help break down the societies they are trying desperately to control. Survivors of violence and sexual assault often lack access to proper medical and psychosocial services. Displaced women rarely have safe or secure access to even basic necessities such as food and water. Too often the voices of women are still absent from crucial negotiations that could bring their communities peace.

Everyday women’s rights and human rights advocates — both those affected by conflict and elsewhere around the world — work tirelessly to keep these issues on the global agenda, so that future generations will never know these atrocities. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember the mothers, sisters and daughters living in areas of conflict and to ensure that their voices are not silenced.

Syria: A reminder that women are not the only victims of sexual violence.

24 Feb

What started months ago as peaceful protests in Syria has descended into a violent conflict, which has left an estimated 6,000 dead. As I sit writing this in Washington DC, the Syrian government continues to shell civilian areas, most notably the city of Homs, which has been under near constant bombardment for nearly three weeks, leading to the deaths of likely hundreds (though numbers are nearly impossible to confirm due to a lack of media or humanitarian access), including the recent deaths of 2 western journalists. But bombs and tanks are only a portion of the atrocities taking place in the troubled state.

Yesterday a United Nations panel released a new report accusing the Syrian government of committing Crimes Against Humanity. Although this report focused predominately on where responsibility lies for these crimes, it once again gave a rundown of the atrocities committed, ranging from the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, to arbitrary arrests and torture (including sexual assault), that have been the primary focus of previous UN reports.

Rumors of the use of sexual violence by Syrian forces have been circulating since early last summer.  While there were numerous stories being told of women being detained by authorities and raped, little could be confirmed in these early months by human rights groups or the media. These stories fed into not only the worst fears of women and girls in Syria, but the men who care about them. These fears proved to be a useful tool in Syria, where reports state that during detention and interrogation Security Forces would often threaten to rape men’s female relatives.

By November, rumors gave way to fact, when the independent international inquiry commission released their first report on the “gross human rights abuses” committed in Syria. While the report acknowledge the likely use of rape against women, it claimed to have little evidence of these attacks*.  However, the report provided alarming details on the use of sexual violence and torture  against men and in many cases boys, some as young as 11, who were being held in detention. Testimonies told of the use of rape, forced oral sex and other forms of sexual torture by security forces. Victims and witnesses stated that these atrocities were often conducted publicly in front of other detainees (including family members).

As illustrated in the examples above, sexual violence has proved to be both an effective  tool for the Syrian armed forces. While attacks on men had in some cases physical effects, as did other forms of physical torture, there appears to have been a large psychological motive behind these abuses. Syrian Security Forces played off of the fear, humiliation and dishonor that these attacks (and the threats made against the women in their lives) instilled.

These testimonies from Syria serve as an unfortunate reminder that women are not the only victims of sexual violence in war zones. The idea that women can be the only targets of these abuses is an assumption that we too often make. And one which may hamper attempts to curb the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict.

~Apologies for this being a somewhat hastily written piece that’s more my collection of random thoughts on the atrocities in Syria, than any great analysis.

* The report specifically details  reasons for women’s likely under-reporting of sexual assaults, including the stigma attached to rape in Syria.

Valentine’s Day – What do women really want?

14 Feb

ImageHappy Valentine’s Day! Men are spending today scrambling to pick up chocolates, flowers, jewelry and other treats for the most important women in their lives (and to be fair… plenty of women are reciprocating the gift giving). These trinkets are greatly appreciated and enjoyed (so don’t assume that any of the suggestions below get you out of buying flowers!), but women throughout the world want and need so much more. So what do women really want?

Peace. Security. Rights. Opportunity.

There are plenty of things that you can do to make a difference in the lives of women and girls around the world today. Below are just a few options that I managed to pull off of Twitter and Facebook during my lunch hour!:

DONATE: 

UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund). The UN Trust Fund is a global multilateral grant-making mechanism that supports local and national efforts to end violence against women and girls. Donate online or if you are in the United States text UNITE to 27722 from your cell phone to give $10.

Women Thrive Worldwide. Women Thrive Worldwide advocates for U.S. policies that give women in the developing world the tools they need to lift their families and communities out of poverty. Donate Here. Unable to make a monetary donatation? Donate your status or twitter to help spread the word about Women Thrive, check out some sample statuses on their site.
Women for Women International. Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.Make a donation and send an E-Valentine to a special person in your life.
JOIN: 
V-Day and ONE BILLION RISING. One in three women worldwide who are raped or beaten in their lifetimes; That’s a billion women. In honor of these women, VDAY is inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence. Pledge to join them online. While online check out VDAY’s list of performances of the Vagina Monologues to see if there is one near you!
ADVOCATE: 
 
Ask your Senator to Co-Sponsor the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1925). Violence against women isn’t just a problem in far off distant lands, it’s a very real issue in the United States. The Senate is in the process of reauthorizing VAWA and 45 Senators as of today are listed as co-sponsors but the more co-sponsors the better! Contact your Senator’s office directly or use the National Organization for Women’s online tool to do so and ask them to Co-Sponsor VAWA.
Wishing everyone a very happy and loving Valentine’s Day! And just for fun…. Check out some fantastic Washington DC themed Valentines


International Security: “…something is missing. And that is women”

7 Feb

Photo Credit: US State Department

This past weekend, senior leaders in international security policy from around the world, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, gathered in Munich, Germany for the 48th annual Munich Security Conference.  The independent conference focuses on discussion and analysis of current and foreseen future security challenges, such as decreasing global military budgets, ongoing violence and repression related to the Arab Spring and increasing concerns over Iran’s defiant attitude. And like many of these international conferences, it attracted a variety of side events as well, including a breakfast event focused on women in international security.

In her remarks at the breakfast, Sec. Clinton focused on what appears to be missing piece in international security and peacemaking….There just aren’t enough women. To prove her point Clinton pointed out that even there, at a global conference on security, she could count very few women in the audience (another participant in the breakfast put the exact number at 37).  She also cited the fact that many of the failed peace negotiations in recent decades lacked the voice of women at table, as only 8% of participants in these discussions were women.  Clinton also pushed back on the often used criticism that focusing on women’s rights and inclusion in peace processes  is “soft” and can be brushed off to the “margins of the real conversation”. She stated that “We just completely reject that. And the evidence is so clear that rejecting it is the right decision.”

The important role that women play in peacemaking was recognized in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was passed more than a decade ago.  It’s an issue that the Obama administration raised to national prominence again when it announced the  U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and an accompanying executive order last December.  The plan lays out the US’ course of action to “…accelerate, institutionalize, and better  coordinate our efforts to advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention…” among other things, like humanitarian assistance and civilian protection.

At the event, Clinton specifically highlighted the role the US has played in supporting the training of 2000 female peacekeepers in regions, predominately in Africa, where women and children are among the most severely effected by conflict. She also touched on the role that the US and our NATO allies have played in increasing the role women play in Afghanistan and the work being done there to train female police and military personnel. She made it clear that the  international community must continue to work for women in the region, stating that “…part of what we have to do as we try to test whether peace is possible in Afghanistan, is to make it very clear that peace will not come at the expense of women’s rights and roles”.

Afghanistan is the perfect example of the challenges that women face in having their needs recognized and their voices heard in the peace process. While comments like Clinton’s at the women’s breakfast are great to hear, they do little to quell the concerns of women on the ground in Afghanistan and other war torn areas of the world. These women have heard this rhetoric for sometime now, but what they have failed to see is action.  Women in Afghanistan for years have been calling to be brought in to peace negotiations with the Taliban, negotiations that they fear will result in the stripping away the rights they’ve gained in recent years. Despite requests from women leaders and civil society members and the emphasis that western states put on women’s rights, when it comes down to it,  NATO has done little to involve women in the process.

The United States has made a concerted effort to elevate the issues of women’s rights and participation in the global discourse on peace and security, humanitarian aid, development, politics and economics, particularly under the Obama administration.The National Action Plan is in place, and the opportunities to try it out are there, in Afghanistan, in Darfur, and numerous other conflict ridden states around the world. But the time to start turning words into actions is now. After all,  Secretary Clinton is right when she says that ” When you look around the world,… You see  how hard it is to make peace under any circumstance. But the exclusion of women, I argue, makes it even harder.”

Click hear to read the entirety of Clinton’s remarks at the women’s breakfast.

Happy 1st Anniversary UN Women!

2 Feb

Today, UN Women celebrates its first anniversary. This organization, brought together several separate, but related entities within the UN system, including the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI). Together, these organizations have been able to combine their expertise and resources to create an efficient and impactful organization. UN Women now focuses on 6 specific areas: Violence against Women; Peace and Security; Leadership and Participation; Economic Empowerment; National Planning and Budgeting; Human Rights; Millennium Development Goals.

In honor of the anniversary, UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet (who formerly was the first female President of Chile from 2006 – 2010), highlighted the organization’s achievements in its first year of operation and laid out an ambitious agenda for 2012.

Included in the organization’s many 2011 successes:

Bachelet acknowledged the difficult economic and contentious political situations facing states throughout the world, but called for a continued and stronger commitment to gender equality through women’s economic empowerment and political participation in 2012. “During this time of austerity and uncertainty, we cannot let budget cuts and political change cut progress for girls and women. Our challenge is not only to protect hard-won gains, but to advance the rights of women.”

Thank you UN Women for all your work!

To read Michelle Bachelet’s full remarks or to see the video of the press conference, visit www.UNWomen.org.

Somalia’s Women: Just a Spoil of War?

29 Jan

Credit: Sven Torfinn for The New York Times

If you’ve followed international news at all over the past 6-8  months you’ve probably seen some articles on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, interspersed between pieces on the Arab Spring and US war efforts. A colleague recently sent me a piece on the situation in Somalia, which had been featured in the New York Times, with a headline that really caught my attention.

The headline of Jeffery Gettleman, Dec. 27th article declared “For Somali Women, Pain of Being a Spoil of War”.  Gettleman’s piece focused on the horrors of sexual violence facing Somali women and the challenges that relief organizations face in getting aid to the victims, a topic that I pleased to see making the national it into the national media. However, the bold headline left me with one question; Is the motive behind the spike in sexual violence in Somalia truly just the archaic notion of women being the “spoils of war”?

Gettleman focuses much of  his piece on the on the involvement Al-Shabaab, an extremist Islamic militant group controlling southern Somalia, which has been the perpetrator of many of the sexual assaults both inside and outside of the camps. He tells the story of a young woman who brutally raped by a group of Al-Shabaab fighters in a camp, just a few months after she watched the same men kill her friend for refusing to marry an Al-Shabaab commander. This Gettleman says has become common. Al–Shabaab goes into an area and forces young women into “temporary marriages”, which more closely resemble “sexual slavery”. With limited funds to pay their fighters, the militants often resort to stealing crops and livestock and providing women to their fighters is “a cheap way to bolster their rank’s flagging morale’. This description seems to epitomize the notorious concepts of  ”the spoils of war” and “rape and pilage”. But it seems to me that there is another motive behind Al-Shabaab’s attacks on Somali women.

Al-Shabaab’s use of terror, intimidation and control in areas they’re present in in Somalia is well documented. They control access to (and tax) much of the food and water supplies in the area, diverting food aid relief to benefit themselves and their supporters. They often limit the movement of populations, preventing those endangered by fighting or famine and drought from moving to safer areas. They’ve engaged in the forcible recruitment of both children and adults into their ranks and extrajudicial killings are common and often public. It seems likely that Al-Shabaab’s use of sexual violence, like many of their behaviors, is a tactic of control through fear, in addition to being opportunistic and advantageous to their efforts. The piece in the New York Times mentions in passing that Al-Shabaab “…is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia” and includes a quote from United Nations’ Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict stating that “for the Shabab, forced marriage is another aspect they are using to control the population.”. But little more is said about this article of the situation (In my opinion, a bit more analysis on this piece of the issue would have made a very good article, that much better).

In order for there to be effective long term solutions to problems like what we are seeing in Somalia, not only the international community, but the general public need to see the full picture. The international community has taken great steps towards recognizing that mass violence against women in conflicts, perpetrated by militias or even governments, is often as much tactile and strategic, as it is opportunistic. But still too much of the pulbic writes off sexual violence in wars as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and in a world of RSS feeds, tweets, and media websites  featuring 100s of headlines, a headline like Gettleman’s may just reinforce this archaic belief.

Rape as a Weapon of War: Ending Impunity

2 Dec

Blog written by Rebecca Dennis for United to End Genocide

For 16 days a year – from Nov. 25th, the international day for the elimination of violence against women, to Dec. 10th, International Human Rights Day – individuals, organizations, and even governments shine a light on the issue of sexual and gender based violence. Today marks the mid-point of the 2011 16 Days campaign. Campaigns like this and all the other hard work that has been done over the past decade and a half has led to much greater awareness of these issues. It is now recognized that in many violent conflicts around the world, rape is not an unfortunate side effect of war – it is in fact a strategic weapon of war. The good news is that with increased awareness, more perpetrators of violence against women in war are held accountable for their actions. The bad news is that way too many women are still vulnerable to rape as a weapon of war, and far too many victims are still denied justice.

In recent years, the International Criminal Court has brought numerous rape charges against the orchestrators of mass rape in conflict zones such as Darfur. And just this week, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was turned over to the International Criminal Court after being indicted on charges of crimes against humanity (including rape and murder) committed in the aftermath of contested elections in Cote d’Ivoire late last year.

In Libya, allegations of sexual violence by pro-government forces drew international attention last spring when a woman was arrested after speaking to international journalists about her rape. The International Criminal Court is now working to conduct investigations into the involvement of Gaddafi regime officials, who may have been involved in organizing the hundreds of other rapes reported over the last 9 months during the revolution there.

In other post-conflict regions, justice and accountability have been slow in coming. The recent trial of former Bosnian soldier Sasa Baricanin made headlines in November when he was convicted for war crimes – including murder, enslavement and rape – that he committed during the conflict in Bosnia. The conflict and ethnic cleansing campaign in Bosnia in the 1990’s became notorious for the soldiers’ strategic use of sexual violence. The UN estimates that there were as many as 50,000 rapes during the course of the war, but the trial of Sasa Baricanin marks only the 30th conviction on charges of rape since the conflict ended nearly two decades ago.

Yesterday, the UNSC placed a militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo under international sanctions for his role in organizing mass rapes in Eastern Congo. However, rape is an epidemic problem in Congo, where on average 1,100 rapes are reported each month, and over 200,000 women have been raped during the conflicts there.

While we welcome every trial and conviction of perpetrators of rape, in too many conflicts around the world the organizers and perpetrators of sexual violence are still allowed to operate with impunity. A report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council released earlier this week, found evidence of the use of sexual violence by Syrian Security forces against women and children, including young boys. Meanwhile, in Burma, where the government has a reputation for using rape as a weapon — particularly in villages known to oppose the current government regime — more than 80 rapes have been reported to human rights groups in the past year.

The advances that we have seen in recent years are only the tip of the iceberg. We need to continue to push for justice for the victims of sexual violence in conflict. The human rights community must continue to raise awareness about these issues and the international community must demand that proper investigations are conducted when there are reports of the use of mass strategic rape. We can put an end to impunity enjoyed by those who use rape as a weapon of war.