THE BLOG

The Rape Victims Who Still Wait for Justice

11/06/2014 16:44 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

A woman who had been raped during the Rwandan genocide once asked me - "What justice can there be for me?" Her attacker had infected her with HIV and left her pregnant with a child who was also likely to be HIV positive.

The question has stayed with me for many years. I have worked with numerous women who have been subjected to violence, and I have repeatedly heard the painful stories of women who have been raped in warfare. These are women who have watched their families slaughtered before being violated by their murderers. They include women who have seen no justice, and still live next door to those who raped them.

Having lived through three bloody conflicts in my native Burundi and worked extensively in post-conflict Rwanda, I know that atrocities committed during war leave deep-seated scars. The trauma of sexual violence continues to ravage individuals, families and communities long after the worst of the fighting is over.

This week thousands of survivors of sexual violence have joined government ministers, heads of state, Angelina Jolie, and NGO workers like myself to discuss how we can end the torment of rape as a weapon of war.

And a key aim - which ActionAid will be pursuing - is to make sure that sexual violence survivors have access to justice. We cannot end rape if rapists continue to walk free. Rape is a recognised war crime, a crime against humanity, and yet it rarely seems to be treated or punished as such.

But what can be done? Sexual violence is more often than not perpetrated against women and children, in other words the most vulnerable people with the least voice or power.

The first barrier to getting authorities, communities and ultimately perpetrators to fully appreciate the horror of rape is the gender inequality that persists in many societies, and particularly in the post-conflict countries I know.

My experience growing up taught me that for many people violence against women is normal. Certainly, it happened routinely to women I knew, even women in my family. But I have never been able to accept this was right.

So in my career as a lawyer, a judge and now as a human rights advocate, my goal has always been to challenge that perception - even though some people in my community would still ask 'but can a woman speak in public?'

All the evidence I have seen, and the experience I have lived, shows that to empower women to defend their rights and amplify their voices is the key to working towards a society in which rape is not the norm.

I appreciate that a war means people operate under different rules. The brutal reality of conflict leads to appalling acts of inhumanity and desperation. My own mother tells me of the time the Mayi Mulele and local militia groups were killing and raping in the region where we lived in 1972. She hid with our family and others in the bushes, staying on the move to keep hidden. I was a toddler and couldn't stop crying, which was dangerous for everyone, as it could attract attention to our hiding places. My mother tells me she was almost ready to leave me behind. 'Better one child dies than the whole family is killed', she explains, which I find hard to hear, even now. Luckily my family was not discovered and we survived, though neighbours of ours were not so fortunate.

But, while war leads to countless stories of anguish like mine, the truth is that sexual violence - in warfare and otherwise - is still a choice someone has made. And at the moment it is a choice that will likely never see any form of redress or retribution.

By teaching women who have been raped about their rights, supporting them to prosecute rapists and getting them vital medical support, we are not only helping survivors get the justice they deserve and crave, we are making a statement. It might be a small gesture, but each time there is some acknowledgement or reconciliation, we are saying: this is not OK, this is not a necessary part of war, this is not the norm.

So, what reconciliation can there be for someone like the HIV positive, pregnant woman from Rwanda? In my opinion, the only real justice will come for her when we have ended sexual violence for good.