The U.N.: Fighting Sexual Violence Against Women

Sexual violence against women and children hurts more than just the individuals or families involved. It also undermines a country's economic and social stability. A recent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressed this critical issue. "Rape is a crime that can never be condoned, yet women and girls in conflict situations around the world have been subjected to widespread and deliberate acts of sexual violence," Rice said in her opening remarks. NEWSWEEK's Imani Cheers talked with Roxanne Lawson, Director of Africa Policy at TransAfrica Forum, about the importance of efforts by the United Nations and member countries to protect the world's most vulnerable citizens. Excerpts:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a U.N. Security Council briefing about women, peace and security. How important are the issues of violence against women to the U.N.?
Roxanne Lawson: Through recent resolutions, specifically 1325, it is evident that these issues are extremely important to the United Nations. Women are leading the charge to address this critical issue through programs with UNIFEM and the Security Council. It is also important to note that in September 2007, the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported on [the action plan designed to address] this very topic.

How prevalent is violence against women during armed conflict?
The U.N. released a document about warfare that described a very specific type of armed conflict that focuses on women and children. This systematic tactic dismantles oppositions and the forces of resistance in order to undermine and dismantle the fabric of society.

Where has violence against women during armed conflict been the most pervasive?
Widespread reports first arose during the 1990s in Kosovo. Most recently, we see atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Liberia, Sudan and Somalia. Many of these countries—specifically, Uganda and Burma—have been engaged in warfare for over two decades. In the last five to eight years, we've seen a shift in violence that targets women and children through rape, sexual torture and slavery.

How does sexual violence weaken societies?
The war in the Congo is the most pervasive example. Sexual violence has been widespread since the ceasefire in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. When rebel troops poured into the eastern Congo, they brought with them mayhem and chaos. Since 2001, violent gang rapes and other forms of sexual torture have severely weakened the security of the eastern region and the country as a whole.

What can the U.N. do to prevent these crimes against humanity?
The U.N. is actually doing a lot of great work, but the responsibility should not be on them alone. Member states should use their political will and economic might to actually enforce and implement the U.N.'s policies. For example, the 2008-2009 action plan examined five thematic areas: prevention, participation, protection, relief and recovery—and normative issues. The secretary general acknowledges progress but recognizes inadequate funding for gender-specific projects.

There have been reports that U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of sexual offenses in several countries. How can the U.N. prevent this?
There should be mandatory training of U.N. troops that focuses on the responsibilities that they have in their host countries, including addressing institutionalized patriarchy. The zero-tolerance policy for the bargaining of food for sexual acts and prostitution should be enforced with strict penalties. The U.N. is working on improving this pitfall and has taken measures, including prosecuting perpetrators at the U.N. Mission in Liberia.

What is the TransAfrica forum doing to heighten awareness about violence against women?
We focus on supporting policies from organizations such as the U.N. We are also interested in enhancing the special role which women play in peacekeeping, peace-building and conflict prevention.