PBS Premiere: Sept. 18, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Ending Sexual Violence

POV: Earlier this year, the United Nations held a conference in honor of International Women's Day (March 8). One of the panels at the conference addressed the new initiative "Stop Rape Now," which 12 U.N. agencies embarked on earlier this year to end the use of sexual violence against women as a tactic of war. What are the goals of the initiative? What work is already underway?

Pamela Shifman

Pamela Shifman: In March of 2007, 12 U.N. agencies launched a new initiative called U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (U.N. Action). The main purpose of U.N. Action is to say historically that not enough has been done to prevent sexual violence and to respond to sexual violence by the global community, including the United Nations, and we need to amplify our response. We need to scale up the way we address this issue. We need to speak about it publicly. We need to invest more funds in it. We need to do more advocacy against it. And we need to spread the word around the world that rape in war is not inevitable and that we have to stop it.

Lumo SinaiLumo Sinai was just 20 years old when she became a victim of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So we had launches of U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict in New York, Nairobi and Geneva. And at the New York event we had Fatou Bensouda, who's a deputy prosecutor for the International Criminal Court. We had Eve Ensler, from V-Day. We had Sapana Pradhan-Malla, who is an activist from Nepal working on violence against women and girls. We also had Daniel Opande, the former force commander for the U.N. in Sierra Leone and Liberia. And we had John Holmes, who is the emergency relief coordinator for OCHA [U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], who actually just gave a very strong report on the issue of sexual violence to the [U.N.] Security Council last week.

So we had a very vibrant and lively discussion. And really, the point of the panel was to bring in outside perspectives. We wanted to hear from outsiders about what they think that the U.N. can do to better address this problem.  Because clearly the U.N. has a very important role, and we need to do more and we need to do better.

POV: What are the main activities these 12 agencies are engaged in as part of this initiative?

Shifman: We have focused on advocacy, globally and locally, to address sexual violence. For example, we have a campaign that is launching -- a global campaign -- on sexual violence at a global level, and nationally within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, or the Congo).

And we are also trying to support the United Nations at a field level to do a better job of responding to sexual violence. So, for example, U.N. Action has worked to provide support to the United Nations in Darfur, where we know that sexual violence is a massive problem. We know that not enough is being done, and we need to do a better job in addressing both prevention as well as response. So U.N. Action has provided technical assistance to the United Nations there to do a better job.

POV: And what does that entail?

Women protesting sexual violenceAn average of 40 women are raped every day in South Kivu in the context of the on-going armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.1

Shifman: For example, we are addressing the issue of social and psychological support for survivors. We know that very often survivors of rape experience stigma, discrimination and shame. And we know that not enough has been done to help survivors of rape to heal themselves and to be reintegrated into their families and into their communities. So we have been working to ensure that more programs are set up that specifically respond to the needs of sexual violence survivors in terms of educating communities that it's not the fault of the victim for having been raped, it's the fault of the perpetrator. The U.N. is also working to provide health service and access to legal support where possible.

We know that many victims who are children have particular health and psychosocial needs --

POV: And that is the focus of UNICEF, in particular?

Shifman: Well, UNICEF actually focuses on violence against both women and children, even though we're more known for work with children. We address both.

One example of our work as part of U.N. Action is that UNICEF does a lot of work on child-friendly spaces in Darfur. There are spaces within camps, internally displaced person camps, where children have a place where they can play and really be kids -- a safe place where there are educational materials and toys and trained professionals there to help them. And we wanted to make sure that the staff who work in the child-friendly centers know how to respond when a child has been sexually assaulted and be able to have an appropriate response, which is healing and helpful and not further stigmatizing to the child.

POV: What about preventing rape in the first place? What are the programs in place as part of U.N. Action that are focused on the prevention of the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war?

Shifman: Some of the prevention activities are very concrete. For example, in Darfur, many women and girls experience rape on their way to collect firewood, which they need to use to be able to feed themselves and their children. One of the projects that several U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, have supported is fuel-efficient stoves. And fuel-efficient stoves essentially require much less firewood to be used, so that you minimize the risks to women and girls of having to leave the camp to collect firewood.

That, of course, is not the full answer, because, first of all, women and girls should have freedom of movement and should be able to go and collect wood. But it does minimize their risk.

When I've spoken to women and girls in Darfur, the women and girls I visited there, they repeatedly, over and over, say to me the single biggest concern they have is about their safety, and it's about their safety when they leave the camp to collect firewood.

Lumo: A soldier holding a rifleA soldier in the DRC.

So that's one very concrete and specific action that can be taken to help protect women and girls. In addition, in conflicts around the world, one of the things we need to advocate very strongly for is an end to impunity. Rape happens because it's allowed to happen. [To address] the impunity with which it's committed in virtually every country in the world, but particularly in conflict situations, where law and order has broken down and judicial systems often aren't functioning, we need to advocate that they start working, and that they prioritize sexual violence, because it is so devastating to the victims, and it's so devastating to their families. And it's such a grave violation of a woman or a child's human rights when they're raped, so we need to call on governments to do everything they can to end the impunity with which it's committed.

POV: Advocates for women, such as Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day, say that rape during wartime "is so institutional at this point ... it's so ordinary ... people just expect it to happen." Do you think that's true? Historically, has this always been true? Or do you think we are witnessing an increase in the use of rape and sexual violence as a war tactic over the past two decades?

Shifman: I think the honest answer is, we don't know for sure [if rape is on the increase] because there hasn't been systematic tracking of rape. For a long time, rape was just seen as inevitable, and part of war, and no one even thought to calculate or count because it was [considered] just part of what happened in warfare.

Increasingly that is changing, so there's certainly more awareness now. But I think there is a sense for many that sexual violence is increasing and that it is being used as a tool of war in recent conflicts. Certainly, in Bosnia and Rwanda we saw it used very much as a tool of war. In Darfur, certainly, we're seeing it being used as a weapon in that conflict, and in other conflicts around the world we're seeing that.

We also are seeing that rape is happening, not only perpetrated by armed groups as a military tactic, but we're seeing it [perpetrated] by men [coming] across the border in conflict situations to take advantage of a situation of lawlessness and the impunity with which they can act.

And certainly in the DRC it's very clear that rape is happening in all parts of the conflict. And ... many organizations have noted that sexual violence has increased by civilians as well.

POV: Dr. Jo Lusi, who was featured in Lumo, explained in a recent interview that the severe traumatic fistula he is seeing in the HEAL Africa Hospital, which he runs, "has been the worst in the world ... and this has made us, even us men, and everyone who have seen it, to cry tears... to see that a human can produce this... somebody who does that must get the maximum punishment." Beyond just rape, we are talking about barbaric violence and physical impairment that will take years to heal -- in terms of both physical and mental well-being. Is this specific to the DRC or is this common in other conflicts?

Dr. Jo Lusi of HEAL AfricaThe filmmakers interviewed Dr. Jo Lusi of HEAL Africa. Watch the interview now »

Shifman: Yes. I think in the DRC particularly, and in other places, but in DRC particularly, we're seeing extraordinary amounts of violence on top of rape, which is in and of itself extremely violent. So we're seeing gang rapes, we're seeing rapes using weapons, we're seeing women and girls tortured for days at a time. They're raped with instruments, with knives, with guns, with sharp objects. They are raped over the course of many days by numerous men, numerous times. [And as a result] we're seeing this fistula, which is a devastating physical [aftereffect] with long-lasting consequences.

We're also seeing HIV and AIDS [infections] as a result of sexual violence in conflicts around the world. We're seeing real physical harm as well as, of course, the devastating emotional harm and social harm that is done, because so often in conflicts in countries around the world, it is the woman or girl who has been raped who bears the stigma and the shame, and not the perpetrator.

And so in the DRC, there are women and girls who cannot return to their home, not only because it's not safe, but because they won't be accepted because they are ostracized for having been raped. And that's true in other countries as well.

POV: And as a result of this stigma, do a lot of rapes go unreported?

Shifman: Yes. Again, we often don't have the data or the numbers on this. But we know, for example, that in Sierra Leone, in the conflict there, massive amounts of women and girls were raped as part of the conflict. Similarly, in Liberia, the numbers of women and girls who experienced rape was extraordinary. In East Timor, it was estimated that only 7 percent of victims of sexual violence told anyone official that they had been violated. And that's actually quite a high number, 7 percent. We know that globally, even in non-conflict areas, less than 10 percent of rapes are ever reported.

POV: What can Americans do to help women who are victims of this terrible practice of rape as a war tactic?

Shifman: I think most people actually don't know the scale and scope of what's happening in countries far from home. So, for example, there's more attention paid to Darfur than many other conflict countries -- still not enough, but there's a little more. Most people know that rape is being used and that it is devastating the communities in Darfur.

But places like the Congo are much less known. So part of what people can do is just to raise awareness that this is a problem and spread the information. Because I think it can't be underestimated. It's critically important.

Surgeons at HEAL AfricaDoctors prepare for surgery at the HEAL Africa Hospital.

There's also financially supporting the women and girls who've experienced this kind of violence. In the DRC right now, UNICEF and V-Day, on behalf of U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, are launching a campaign that is designed to help end impunity against sexual violence and also to provide necessary economic and social and psychological and physical support to women and girls who've experienced this violence.

And one of the real centerpieces of that is the City of Joy, which is going to be a safe house for survivors of sexual violence in Bukavu. This is specifically for women and girls who cannot return home because they have been rejected by their communities and by their families. And they need support. This safe house will provide educational opportunities and income generation opportunities, as well as it's a healing place for people to rebuild their lives.

In addition, women in the Congo have made beautiful handbags as part of income generation projects, which are available for people to buy. And those can be bought on the V-Day website, and they help to benefit the services on the ground to help survivors in the Congo. So that's something very tangible and concrete that people can do to help.

We have a website that interested viewers can visit at We'll go live with a new version on October 1st. It has draft letters that you can send to your elected officials. We hope through these letters that people will let their elected officials know that this is a critically important issue and that they want it to be a priority, that this needs to be seen as important as any other kind of security issue, as any other international issue that we focus on, the right of women and girls to be safe from violence.

Pamela Shifman is a lawyer with extensive experience working on issues of violence against women and children, trafficking and sexual exploitation. She currently works for UNICEF as a Child Protection Specialist, focusing on gender-based violence. In her work with UNICEF, she has traveled to numerous conflict zones, including Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Uganda and Sierra Leone. Previously, she served as Associate Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization advocating for the rights of women and girls. While at Equality Now, she directed a campaign on trafficking in women and girls and sex tourism.

This interview was conducted on September 12, 2007.

1. Rodriguez, Claudia, 'Sexual Violence in South Kivu' Forced Migration Review (2007) (27) 45.