ARMED CONFLICT: Why rehabilitation is vital for survivors of sexual violence during conflict

Summary: Sexual violence is too often used during war as a weapon against civilians, particularly women. More needs to be done to prevent this atrocity.

 [25 November 2013] - One woman says she became stronger and returned to work for the sake of her children; another started to see herself as "equal to everyone else again". Both are survivors of sexual violence during conflict and are describing how they have benefited from rehabilitation programmes in northern Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


The interventions, carried out by the international criminal court's Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) and evaluated by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), show the significant long-term impact of international aid on survivors of atrocities – and as result, their families, communities and societies.


The women and girls interviewed said they were able to resume a normal life, make plans for the future and resume school and work. Many attributed the ability to be economically active as the greatest contributor to their newfound positive mental health.


To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Monday, and the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, ICRW and TFV are publishing the results of the programmes to highlight why we must do more to end impunity and assist survivors of armed conflict.


Sexual violence is too often used during war as a weapon against civilians, particularly women. More needs to be done to prevent this atrocity. We must also applaud efforts such as April's G8 Declaration . It was created to prevent, and respond to, sexual violence in conflict and hold perpetrators to account, including through the work of the ICC.


But we must also do more for the millions of survivors of conflict-related gender-based crimes worldwide. Once the headlines fade, they must find a way to rebuild their lives in spite of the community stigma associated with sexual violence and the trauma of the crimes they have experienced.


Although there is no hard quantitative data available on the economic costs of sexual violence in conflict, we do know that the direct and indirect economic cost of domestic violence worldwide comes in at billions of pounds, according to previous ICRW research.


When a woman is raped during conflict, she often experiences serious physical and psychological injuries with few medical and other services available to assist her. These injuries affect her ability to work, pursue a livelihood and fulfil her familial and community roles. The economic costs to her, her family, her community and to society are enormous.


The international community often provides support for security, stability and reconstruction but overlooks the multiple dimensions of the impact of sexual violence, which directly affect post-conflict recovery efforts. We must admit that our collective response to this type of violence in these societies has been inadequate, and that failure is magnified over time. Promoting women and girls' empowerment is a fundamental requirement of any justice, reparation, assistance, reconciliation and peace-building process.


In this light, ICRW's findings are particularly illuminating: we have hard evidence that effective strategies are possible and are working.


The TFV, which is responsible for providing court-ordered reparations and assistance to victim survivors, is the first of its kind in the global movement to address impunity, promote justice and ensure that victims of mass atrocities receive support and recognition. Its rehabilitation programme fills a dangerous gap: that precarious time between atrocity and reparation, when humanitarian agencies have moved on and survivors of war crimes are likely to fall between the cracks.


It has so far provided physical, psychological and material rehabilitation to nearly 110,000 war victims so they can get on the road to recovery before the ICC reparations process – which can take years – is concluded.


Like other victims of atrocities that TFV has assisted, survivors of sexual violence have received essential integrated care. This multi-strategy approach is necessary to help victim survivors recover and reintegrate into society.


Support has included medical rehabilitation, such as the repair of socially stigmatising and physically debilitating obstetric fistulas, which is especially common in adolescent girls who give birth before their bodies are ready. At the same time, many survivors have received vocational training and psychological services that give women – many who now must be self-sufficient – the chance to support and care for them and their children.


The ICRW study concluded that TFV's interventions have successfully contributed to the reduction of social exclusion and shame and to self-sufficiency and skills development of victims. However, because of the scope and scale of atrocities, ICRW researchers have also found the costs of sustaining support to survivors bearing deep physical, psychological and economic scars can be high.


Which is why it is critical to match prevention, investigation and prosecutorial measures with rehabilitation and reparations for survivors. It is the only way forward.


Sarah Degnan Kambou is president of the International Centre for Research on Women; Kristin Kalla is senior programme officer of the Trust Fund for Victims at the international criminal court



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