U.N. Intervenes To Prevent Rape In War Zones

The numbers are astounding: hundreds of thousands of women caught in the cross fires of war are raped and subjected to other horrific sexual violence. The United Nations is now stepping up its efforts to prevent rape in war zones. Host Michel Martin discusses strategies to stop rape as a weapon of war with Margot Wallstrom; she's the United Nations' special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, justice has been delayed for decades for victims of Argentina's nearly decade-long Dirty War against left wing opponents where thousands of citizens were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. But in the case of one former leader of the military junta, justice is denied no longer. Argentina's last dictator was just sentenced to prison for his role in the violence. We'll hear what that means to two women whose lives were changed forever by that war. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we focus on a tactic of war that is going on right now as we speak in many parts of the world. We're going to talk about rape as a weapon of war. And we recognize that this is a difficult subject and might not be appropriate for all listeners. But we can't ignore it because the numbers are staggering. Hundreds of thousands of women in conflict zones around the world have been or are now becoming victims of rape and sexual torture.

And as we know, for many victims the pain does not end with the assaulted self. Many of these women become infected with HIV/AIDS and other diseases. They may become pregnant with children of the men who brutalized them. And many become outcasts, disowned by their families and communities.

But now, the United Nations has ramped up a campaign to end systemic sexual violence in war. That effort is called Stop Rape Now and it is led by Margot Wallstrom. She's the United Nations' special representative on sexual violence in conflict. She's the first to hold this position and she's just returned from a fact finding visit to the Congo. And we're pleased that she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARGOT WALLSTROM (Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, United Nations): Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: On this program, as you might imagine, we've covered this issue a number of times and we focused on several conflict zones in Africa, including the Congo. But since you've just returned, I'd like to ask you to tell us the scope of the problem and tell us what you saw at the Panzi Hospital particularly.

Ms. WALLSTROM: Is it still a large problem and it's well documented since many years now. I visited hospitals. I spoke to women survivors. I met with local leaders. I met with the police and ministers, of course, from the government. And I would say that it is difficult to you cannot be prepared for what you see.

For example, at the Panzi Hospital where Dr. Mukwege is doing a wonderful job, or Heal Africa, and their stories have to be retold and remembered because it's all about them. And I think at the same to decide it is possible. If we can ban cluster bombs, we can ban sexual violence in conflict, in war and conflict.

MARTIN: Just to sort of (unintelligible) the conversation just a little bit, one of the things that your reports have found are that other outside investigators have found is that some 60 percent of these women have been gang raped by armed men. In some cases, they have literally been - their bodies have been torn apart by things being forced into their bodies just to give us a sense.

But one of the things you have talked about repeatedly in your testimony to various bodies is that there's a part of us that accepts this, rape as a tool of war. People say, well, that's just, you know, going back to the Trojan War. So the question I have for you is where do you even start to change that mentality, that this is something inevitable, that it cannot be stopped?

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, maybe we should start by noticing progress that actually today the United Nations has brought together 13 agencies. They work as one to fight this problem, address this problem. The security council has put it on top of their agenda. They have decided that this is all about peace, women and security. It's a security issue. And it can be either commanded, condoned or condemned in war and on groups and armies. And that is very important to realize.

So they've decided that this is something that we have to address at the international level. And I'm happy to report to the security council and work for the secretary general on this issue. We have to fight impunity because this is part of the problem.

We have to make sure that the political leaders take responsibility for this issue. We have to understand that this is a tactic or a consequence of war and conflict. And that it can be addressed. And we also have to bring together, to coordinate better all our efforts and we have to do more on prevention to understand also why how do their perpetrators think.

MARTIN: I have a delicate question to ask you. According to the information from the U.N. Stop Rape Now campaign, more than 40,000 women were raped during the Bosnia and Herzegovina war, but more than 10 times as many, up to half a million women were raped during the Rwanda genocides, some thousands during in Sierra Leone, many more thousands in Darfur. And I wonder if part of the problem in mobilizing attention for this issue is that it's perceived to be an African problem and it doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the world.

Ms. WALLSTROM: Yeah. It's important to realize that it is not an African problem. It is not cultural, it's criminal. And that's where we start. And that is also why I will focus not only on African countries, but also look at other parts of the world and other countries where this is a scourge of war and conflict.

MARTIN: I heard you say where you feel that the top governmental leadership around the world is addressing this issue, particularly through the United Nations. But is there any sign that a change of attitude is taking place on the ground where these women are being brutalized even as we speak?

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, I think, unfortunately, what we have to address is the fact that there is this wide gap in between what you can say a good legislation, a robust legislation in many countries, but the capacity on the ground to actually change things and the implementation of these great laws that have been introduced. So this is what we have to look at. Why is it that the political leadership, they adopt these great laws, but then nothing happens on the ground to change the situation for women.

MARTIN: And, finally, many of our listeners will say, this is horrible, what can I do? What can someone listening to us now do?

Ms. WALLSTROM: Well, they can actually look at the website of U.N. Action and Stop Rape Now campaign. They can raise it, they can discuss it and debate it in different forums. They can raise it with political leaders. They can ask them what they do. And I think that actually peer pressure as well among men. So we want to mobilize men as well. This is not a women's issue, it's a human rights issue.

MARTIN: Margot Wallstrom is the United Nations' special representative on sexual violence in conflict. She's the first person to hold this position. And she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio during her day of meetings here. And we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WALLSTROM: Thank you.

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