Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a day set aside to celebrate the political, economic, and social achievements of women around the world. To recognize this historic day, PHR is highlighting the enormous challenges we face in addressing mass rape in armed conflicts.
This blog post is the first of a series of 10 posts that will chronicle PHR Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin’s recent 13-day trip to Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accompanied by PHR Asylum Network member Dr. Coleen Kivlahan. This diary of their assessment trip seeks to highlight the small — but seminal — achievements of grassroots organizations, women’s rights groups, health professionals, and legal advocates working to serve women and girl survivors of sexual assault in Eastern and Central Africa. The blog series will also underscore the challenges and hurdles that remain.
Nairobi, Kenya: How to combat widespread impunity for rape in Central and East Africa, starting here in Kenya? As PHR and other experts have documented for more than a decade, tens of thousands of women and girls have been — and continue to be — sexually assaulted by government soldiers, rebel forces, and civilians, both during and following armed conflict.
A critical problem in addressing this crisis has been the difficulty of prosecuting crimes of sexual violence, to enable survivors to seek justice and to help deter future crimes.
Groups who seek to support survivors’ needs face daunting obstacles: shame, stigma, rejection, lack of political will and poor resources. Perpetrators act with impunity and medical and legal capacity and forensic training required to support prosecutions against these perpetrators are lacking.
We’re here to learn more about this crisis and challenge in Nairobi, and then we’re heading West in a few days to eastern Congo. Dr. Coleen Kivlahan, a veteran PHR doctor, has joined me. She’s a pioneer in setting up SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Evaluation) programs in the US, one of our expert asylum evaluators in the DC area, and what’s more, a marathon runner, experienced trainer, and intrepid traveler. I’d go anywhere with her.
Day 1: All over town we see the bold black words on posters, key chains, flyers, wall paintings: Sita Kimya (“I will not keep quiet” in Kiswahili): Say No to Rape — a new awareness or “sensitization” campaign funded by USAID, the US Agency for International Development.
Our aim is to check out the gaps in forensic evaluation — the best practices for health professionals who respond to victims in gathering physical and psychological evidence that can be used in prosecution — and documentation needed to hold perpetrators accountable for this crime. As we know, this all-too-silent crime is suffered by countless women in war as well as in the fragile peace that follows mass violence or armed conflicts. We’re meeting with doctors, lawyers, nurses, police, program administrators, government officials in health and justice, women’s rights activists, and aid workers.
These are travel impressions. The full assessment will come as we pack in our days and peel the onion, since every time we think we understand something, a new layer of complexity reveals itself. Each interview on this trip unravels another set of challenges: policies that seem great versus practices that don’t resemble them at all:
- Standards for treatment of victims and documentation of injuries that exist on paper but are not widely known or understood.
- Confusion about police and/or medical forms required for criminal investigation or evidence.
- Incomplete or inadequate formats for forms.
- Who does what in the investigation and justice systems to prosecute sexual violence?
- What capacities do professionals gathering evidence have and need? Do they have basic equipment?
- Extraordinary people here are making change and pioneering new approaches. Is there the necessary political will to end impunity for rape and serve justice to survivors?