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Message from UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström

It’s a great pleasure to address you as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Head of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.  I regret that I couldn’t be with you in person, but I would like to share some thoughts on the changing face of war, the progress made in combating wartime rape, and how the research community can contribute.

As you know, the nature of war has changed. Very few modern battles are fought between professional armies. War more often than not, takes the form of internal conflicts between armed groups, driven by tensions between ethnic, political, cultural or religious communities, often fighting over mineral wealth, land or the control of populations. They are happening in some of the poorest, most fragile settings in the world. Here the state has often failed, the rule of law is non-existent, and services limited or absent. The militia who fight these wars are often hungry, untrained and ruthless. While criminals profit from the cover of war, countless women and children suffer hardship and loss.

In such situations, civilians – particularly women and girls – may be terrorised and raped, often in brutal ways. Harrowing reports of rape and abuse at the hands of soldiers, militias and armed groups abound.  Rape is not unique to war. But in war, it is a cheap and powerful strategy, used by militia to humiliate and shame their enemy and achieve political, military and economic ends.

The impact, of course, is profound. The world has been horrified by the rape and mutilation of women in Eastern DRC, but similar accounts also come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan and many other conflict zones. It’s easy to overlook the impact on women’s mental health, which may leave no physical scars, but can destroy lives and livelihoods, and take a lasting toll on families, children and societies as a whole. Sexual violence does not start in war; nor does it stop when the war ends. I saw this first-hand in Liberia, where rape remains the most prevalent crime, years after the close of civil war.

Rape in conflict is a crime. It is not inevitable.  Security Council Resolution 1820, which defines rape in conflict as a threat to international peace and security, and a war crime, crime against humanity or act of genocide, is a huge advance. We know that good quality and consistent information from the field is essential to our mission to stop rape in conflict and post-conflict settings.  Such data is unfortunately limited. To address this gap, the Secretary-General has been tasked through Security Council Resolution 1960 to establish new monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements.

For such mechanisms to be effective, a shared understanding of what conflict-related sexual violence means is fundamental. To achieve this, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict has developed a “Conceptual Framing of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence”, which defines its scope. Particularly important is the fact that the definition encompasses rape in UN-managed refugee camps, internally displaced persons camps, post-conflict contexts and during disarmament and reintegration processes.

Using a shared baseline definition for the collection, analysis and classification of information on sexual violence, the international community can provide the Security Council, and other policy-makers with data that is comparable across field situations and over time. We can then more effectively draw attention to the links between sexual violence and peace-building. I am pleased to present this development to you at the SVRI Forum 2011.

Monitoring processes only measure a problem. Our key challenge is to end rape in conflict. In order to do this, we have also to understand the root causes of the problem and how to strengthen security, as well as access to justice, health and other services.  Research has a critical role to play.  Here I want to draw attention to the value of the research agenda for conflict-related sexual violence developed by WHO and SVRI to support the knowledge building work of UN Action. I am delighted that this report will be presented for the first time at your Forum. This will support the research community to focus on critical issues and advocate for more resources for strategic research to inform the development of policies and programmes.

Conflict-related sexual violence remains an overwhelming obstacle to peace and security. We may not be able to end conflict. But our efforts to end rape in conflict can make an enormous difference to the lives of countless civilians – women, men, girls and boys – through the provision of health services, social justice and, most importantly, preventive measures to end sexual violence before it has begun.