By Gaaki Kigambo
Regional leaders can serve more than lip service
The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, had only slightly gone past the introductory remarks in her statement at the 4th Ordinary Summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Conference at Munyonyo last month when President Yoweri Museveni, who had freshly assumed the chair of the regional body, signalled the five minutes he had given her were about up.
The ICGLR was set up five years ago to oversee mechanisms for peace, security, stability and development in the Great Lakes Region, which, until very recently, and now with exception of the DR Congo, had become synonymous with war and conflict.
Clearly embarrassed, Janet, Museveni’s wife, tapped her husband a couple of times, hoping nobody was noticing, by way of telling him to let Wallström complete her presentation without feeling pressured.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Wallström reluctantly summarised. Only a day later, at a meeting Isis-Women International Cross Cultural Exchange, a leading women organisation, had organised for her with survivors, members of civil society from the Great Lakes region and the media, did she articulate what she had prepared to say in Munyonyo.
“It wasn’t particularly nice,” Wallström said. “Certainly I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t come all way from New York [the seat of the UN] if I didn’t.”
This very open frostiness, in many respects, represented so many that had taken place behind the scenes between members of civil society and government officials mainly over compensating survivors of sexual violence.
The crux of Wallström’s presentation focused on the twin issues of accountability and reparation to survivors of sexual violence, which states are particularly opposed to.
As an official from the ICGLR Secretariat privy to closed meetings where issues of compensations were discussed said, states argue that to be asked to pay is only an informal way of asking them to admit crimes they didn’t commit.
But civil society organisations have debunked this argument. Lillian Mpabulungi Ssengooba, an Advocacy Manager with CARE International in Uganda says states have the responsibility to protect all its citizens, even more so during periods of armed conflicts. Where they fail in this duty, they cannot also turn their backs on the effects of the conflicts in question, including sexual violence.
For Wallström, “If sexual violence can be planned, it can be punished; if it can be commanded, it can be condemned. When members of the national military or police force rape, it could be said that the state rapes.”
Wallström asked rhetorically: “If a survey was taken of national soldiers, how many would confirm that their leaders had instructed them to spare civilians and respect women and children, even in the midst of war? How many commanders would consider this one of their core responsibilities?”
“They can instruct armies. They can ensure that resources are put towards it. They can mention this in their speeches. They can meet with survivors. There are so many things they can do to signal to the public that they take it seriously,” Wallström noted.
Indeed, in spite of the severe effects sexual violence has on the victims, mostly women and girls, it remains a non-priority nearly across the whole region. Dr Okwach Abagi, a gender expert with the Centre for Research and Development in Nairobi, Kenya, says these effects seem lost on country leaders.
“Many political leaders and other stakeholders have not understood, or have ignored, the fact that SGBV is a security, health and developmental human right issue that impact negatively on all the development agenda and projects they are trying to implement in member countries. It has been misunderstood as a women problem,” Dr Abagi explained.
It’s the women, Dr Abagi added, that are the backbone of agriculture on which all the region’s economies are based.
To get a sense of the extent of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV), a situational report specially prepared to inform Heads of State says “available data indicates that at least one in every three women in the region has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some way or the other – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member.”
It adds, “The situation is even worse in conflict and post-conflict countries where at least one in every two women have faced some SGBV. Close to three million girls and women undergo FMG/C [female genital mutilation or cutting] each year in the region. And on average, one in every three girls between the age of 15 – 19 years is already married…compared to five percent of the boys.”
This data, itself, is not comprehensive because, as the report acknowledges, one of the challenges many countries are facing is a lack of systematic, comprehensive and reliable data on the crisis.
“There are no institutional structures and mechanisms for research, data storage and analysis. In most cases, therefore, decision-making and programming are challenged by the fact that they are based on data from sample cases.”
In the face of such, the best response nearly all the 11 regional member states have managed has been to ratify the myriad international instruments the crisis has spawned as well as drafting national-specific legislation to respond to the same. This, however, has not been matched with implementation.
In their final declaration at the Munyonyo summit, the five Heads of State who turned up, together with representatives of the rest that didn’t, committed themselves to 19 resolutions, including providing some form of support to victims/survivors of SGBV.
“I think is important that they take [sexual violence] seriously because I heard too many jokes being cracked about this,” Wallström observed. “I don’t think that would be appreciated by the survivors.”
“Secondly, make sure that this is not just lip service; that policies don’t remain nicely formed on paper but that they are turned into action,” she dded.