We Must Say Time's Up To Sexual Violence In Conflict Zones

At this week's Stand Speak Rise Up! conference, fifty women will tell their stories – we must listen to them and make this an absolute taboo
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Sexual violence is spreading like an epidemic in all conflict zones and fragile environments today. Rape has become a weapon of mass destruction for the civilian population – it plunges victims and their families into a life of suffering and distress, and it leaves the body and mind devastated.

Despite the efforts of the international community, the situation on the ground remains alarming. So far, we have collectively failed to protect the most vulnerable among us, especially women and children in fragile environments and conflict zones.

The international conference Stand Speak Rise Up! in Luxembourg on 26 and 27 of March – which I am organising together with the Dr Mukwege Foundation and the NGO We are Not Weapons of War – aims to draw attention to this major humanitarian issue, whose devastating negative impacts on human and economic development we have not yet been able to fully comprehend.

This conference will mark an important step in the fight against sexual violence in fragile environments because, to my knowledge, it will be one of the first international conferences where the victims will take precedence over the experts to express, in their own words, their urgent needs for recognition, justice and reparation. It is for and with the survivors that I am doing this forum. A significant number, around fifty of them, from all walks of life and from all over the world, will come to Luxembourg.

We cannot ignore either their suffering, or their urgent need for support in order to put an end to rape used as a weapon of war, terror and submission. We cannot close our eyes and remain silent about the suffering that these women endure. We cannot remain silent about the devastating effects of sexual violence on the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in fragile environments. Nor can we not feel outraged about what is happening in war zones or refugee camps where thousands of women are struggling on a daily basis against rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage and mutilation.

We must mobilise against sexual violence in fragile environments with the same energy as when it occurs in our own country. The denunciation of war rape must become collective and global. It must become an absolute taboo.

I refuse to see sexual violence as a collateral damage of war, because, no, rape is not a corollary of conflict. We can avoid it. We are not so naïve as to believe that we can stop war, but at least we have the ambition to think that we can stop the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

So, what can we do? There are several battles to fight. The first battle is against the indifference, oblivion and trivialisation of these abuses committed by human beings against other human beings. Against the silence, let us join the voices of the survivors. Let us spread their messages, who are not being heard or who are not loud enough.

We do not accept that war rape is one of the least reported and punished crimes in the world, that victims are rarely identified and that abuses are ignored because women are afraid to speak out. No wound can be left untreated, no victim and no child from war rape can be left out.

There is an urgent need to put in place solutions at a grass-roots level that meet the needs of victims locally. To ensure that victims no longer fear reporting violence and persecution, society must provide them with safe spaces and empower them to assert their rights.

Dr. Mukwege said at this year’s Nobel Prize award ceremony in Oslo that only the fight against impunity could break the spiral of violence. Impunity gives combatants the right to exploit women’s bodies, to satisfy their thirst for conquest, appropriation of territory and of wealth.

We will measure the success of Stand Speak Rise Up! not so much by the number of participants, but by its inspiration to get the public involved in the cause of survivors and take useful actions.

I call on the international community to intensify its efforts to end impunity for the perpetrators and sponsors of these crimes, so that all victims can access justice and the law can be applied as soon as possible.

Shame must change sides to weigh not on the victims, but on the armed groups that order and commit these crimes. The perpetrators, who have the power to order the rapes, also have the power to prohibit them. To break the spiral of violence, the culture of impunity must be addressed and converted into a culture of deterrence.

I would like my initiative Stand Speak Rise Up! to be a wake-up call to say “enough”. It is unacceptable that women, adolescents and even young girls who were exposed to sexual violence are deprived of care and assistance. It is not acceptable that they are not entitled to fair and equitable remedies. It is not acceptable that those who have suffered so much should not be able to receive adequate support in order to be able to rebuild their lives.

I call on all people of goodwill to join the Stand Speak Rise Up! movement and to express their solidarity with the survivors by any means possible. I also invite you to join my Appeal on social networks.

Together, let us encourage the survivors to come together, strengthen their influence and become a force for change and peace.

I am convinced that the strength of our collective mobilisation will have a significant impact on the lives of thousands of women who have the right to live in dignity and respect for their fundamental rights.

Maria Teresa is the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg