International Committee of the Red Cross
International Committee of the Red Cross

Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada

In This Issue:
Interview: Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Cruel, Unacceptable and Preventable
Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tradition Opposes Exclusion
Colombia: Rebuilding a Shattered Life
Related Articles
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution on women, peace and security, Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the ICRC, calls for better protection of women in wartime.
ICRC statement to the United Nations General Assembly 14 October 2010
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Special Edition
International Women's Day
March 8, 2011 

The ICRC Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada is pleased to share with you this Special Edition Newsletter on the 100th occasion of International Women's Day.
Every year, millions of women and girls continue to bear the brunt of today's wars. This International Women's Day, the ICRC calls on States and other entities not to relent in their efforts to prevent rape and other forms of sexual violence that harm the lives and dignity of countless women in conflict zones around the world every year.
In this Special Edition Newsletter, we take a deeper look at this important issue. We begin by sharing an interview with ICRC's advisor on women and war, Nadine Puechguirbal, who reminds us it is wrong to consider sexual violence against women in armed conflict as inevitable.
Next, we look at how dance and theatre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are reinforcing the message that rape victims need the support of friends and families as they reintegrate into their communities.
Finally, we feature the story of one woman in Colombia who has overcome the trauma of sexual violence and armed conflict and rebuilt a life for herself and her children with the help of ICRC.
As always, please write us with your thoughts and feedback.
Kind regards,
The ICRC Washington Delegation
Nadine Puechguirbal, ICRC adviser on Women and War Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Cruel, Unacceptable and Preventable
Nadine Puechguirbal, the ICRC's adviser on women and war, talks about sexual violence in conflict, how it can be reduced and what the ICRC is doing to help victims rebuild their lives.
Is it possible to prevent sexual violence occurring in armed conflict?
Yes, definitely. It is very important not to see sexual violence as an inevitable aspect of armed conflict. States bear the primary responsibility for preventing sexual violence, and  widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence thrive in a climate of impunity. Potential perpetrators would think twice if they knew that their acts of unspeakable cruelty would not go unpunished. Sadly, they know all too often that they will "get away with it."

Sexual violence committed in connection with armed conflict is a war crime prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the first and second Additional Protocols of 1977 and the Statute of the International Criminal Court. States have an obligation to prosecute anyone accused of sexual violence and to punish the perpetrators. To do so, they must have suitable domestic legislation and other measures in place. Arms bearers must obey the rules, whether they belong to government armed forces, organized non-State armed groups or peacekeeping forces.

Aid agencies can also help prevent sexual violence. For instance, women are often attacked while collecting water or firewood away from their villages. The less firewood they need, the less they are exposed to attack while collecting it. So if aid agencies provide food that needs less cooking, and stoves that burn less wood, they immediately reduce women's exposure. But whatever we do, it is essential to consult the women about measures for protecting them and their children.
How does sexual violence affect the life of the victim?
Rape can have severe physical consequences, such as infertility, incontinence and sexually transmitted infections like HIV/Aids. Victims also suffer psychologically, as they may experience shame, humiliation and guilt, leading to severe depression and even suicide.

A mother with HIV, Femme Plus hospital, Goma, DRC  © ICRC / Agence O Globo/M. CruppeAn additional burden is the fear of stigmatization. Many women are rejected by their families and communities after being raped. The blame for the perceived loss of honor often falls on the woman instead of on the rapist, especially if the woman has already attained puberty. The situation is even worse for women who become pregnant as a result of rape; not only may the rape be seen as "soiling" the line of descent, but a child born of rape may be abandoned or killed, and in many cases the victim or her family will seek an abortion by methods that involve serious risks to her health.

What type of help do the victims of sexual violence most need?
They need appropriate medical attention as soon as possible, both to treat their injuries and to stop them getting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. But effective response goes beyond medical care, and includes psychological care and economic support.
Support from the victim's family is crucial for recovery, and families need to provide a safe and understanding environment. Communities also have a fundamental role in the aftermath of sexual violence. Community leaders should play their part in promoting acceptance of victims and in stressing to members of the community that the victim is not to blame for what has happened and, above all, is not to be stigmatized.

What is the ICRC doing?
The ICRC attempts to prevent sexual violence by training armed forces and armed groups in international humanitarian law (IHL), with special emphasis on the prohibition of rape and other forms of sexual violence. The ICRC also promotes inclusion of this prohibition in national legislation and in the internal regulations and manuals of armed forces and groups. To help States meet their obligations under IHL, the ICRC makes representations to the authorities (when victims agree), providing details of alleged violations and urging proper investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators.
The ICRC has also set up programmes to support victims of sexual violence, covering medical, psychological, social and economic issues. The most innovative step has probably been to establish ICRC-supported counseling centres (maisons d'ecoute) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where victims of sexual violence can meet members of the community trained in psychosocial support by the ICRC. This gives them a chance to talk about their trauma, define their needs, and find ways of improving their situation. 
To read the full text of Ms. Puechguirbal's interview click here.
Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tradition Opposes Exclusion  
In the provinces of North and South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ICRC has recently seen a decline in the number of victims of sexual violence rejected by their families or communities, with a clear majority reporting no such consequences. Likely reasons for this are the efforts of the psychosocial assistants who are encouraging families and communities to accept the victims, the awareness-raising programme and the involvement of community leaders.
      -Nadine  Puechguirbal, ICRC advisor on women and war
Maison d'écoute, Irangui, Democratic Republic of Congo © ICRC / P. YazdiIn the DRC, maisons d'ecoute provide a safe space where victims of sexual violence can receive psycho-social support, but they also to act as a mediator between the victims and their families to encourage relatives and society to accept them on the grounds of custom.
Theatre and dance in the battle against sexual violence
A young woman falls to the ground weeping at the entrance to her house. "On my way back from market, I was attacked by strangers who threatened me with a weapon." Her husband feels humiliated by what has happened to his wife, and throws her out.
It is a common scene in eastern Congo, an area torn for years by armed conflict. In this case, however, the scene is part of a theatrical production, and the young woman weeping is an actress. The play has been put on to raise awareness in the community, to change how victims of sexual violence are perceived, and to fight against exclusion. The event was organized, with help from the ICRC, by the maison d'écoute in Irangui (north of Bukavu).
Nearly one thousand spectators of all ages crowded around a stage improvised on a soccer field. They are from nine neighboring villages. Some of them have walked for hours through the bush to see the production. Local mwamis (traditional chiefs) address the audience between a scene from the play and a traditional dance.
Mwami Misikami Nzibiro addresses hundreds of villagers. Traditionally, the words of a mwami command great respect. © ICRC / P. Yazdi"This conflict is a disaster," says mwami Misikami Nzbiro, "we have to overcome its consequences and heal our wounds, otherwise we'll pass on nothing but suffering to future generations."  
Though the gathering is a novelty in the region, the old people still remember back when, a few decades ago, it was the custom for people to get together for events that combined dancing, acting, and wise words from the traditional chiefs. "It is part of our ancient traditions to get together, dance and talk things over in order to overcome a traumatic experience, although our customs have been much weakened by decades of conflict," says Mbila Mikindo, a psycho-social worker who counsels people who have suffered sexual violence. "The support of the traditional chiefs is essential in our battle to end the social exclusion of victims of sexual violence."
Visit the ICRC website to see photos from the performance or watch a video about the maisons d'écoute.
Colombia: Rebuilding a Shattered Life
In Colombia, many of the over 3 million displaced people are women, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence from both non-State armed groups and the army. The armed conflict raging in Nariño, a province in south-western Colombia considered a key corridor for the trafficking of arms and precursor chemicals, has made life extremely difficult for the area's inhabitants.
Sandra used to live in Nariño's lush countryside. "I was living happily with my husband and four children. We had a home of our own and some animals," said Sandra. "I sold ice cream and ready meals, and my husband worked in a mine. Our life was comfortable and we were on good terms with all of our neighbors."
Sandra's world fell apart one evening in September when armed men burst into her home and raped her. Her husband disappeared and she grabbed her children and fled, leaving all her possessions behind. A few months later, her husband's remains were discovered in a mass grave. "Thank God, my children and I managed to escape with our lives. But when we arrived in Pasto, we were lost and terrified. I felt very much alone."

Her voice filling with emotion, Sandra recalled that, when she first came to the city, an acquaintance put her up. Living conditions were rudimentary. "I had to prepare food on a wood stove and my children and I slept on the floor," she said. "My children were unhappy, they wanted to go back home and they didn't understand why we couldn't. They wanted to buy things that we used to have but I had no money to give them."
In spite of the difficulties she faced, Sandra knew that she had to fight; she had to go on living, if only for the sake of her children. In the beginning, she hoped that her husband would return and the family would be safely reunited, but that was not to be. "I went to the Red Cross and people there were very helpful. They gave us psychological and financial support. Thanks to them, I was able to follow a course in food preparation and set up a hot-dog stand."
Sandra at her hot-dog stand. © ICRC / Ó. OrdóñezSandra knows that she must make the most of the training she received and the hot-dog stand. She intends to work seven days a week in order to give her children the best possible life. Keeping busy is also a form of therapy for her.
"Things are not always easy, but we are managing," said Sandra. "I've decided to settle here in the city. I want my children to have everything they need, I want to set a good example for them, and I want them to understand that, although we can't live the way we used to, we still have each other - and that's what really counts."
When asked what she would say to other women who had undergone similar experiences, she replied: "I would tell them that all is not lost. I would tell them to see their suffering as a challenge to overcome, to put the past behind them and look to the future. Every day, I do my utmost to make sure that my children have a better life and new opportunities. I'm sure that any woman who has suffered what I did is capable of overcoming the past, provided she seizes every chance she is given."