WASHINGTON - On the tenth anniversary of a groundbreaking U.N. resolution, a conference on "Women and War" opened here Wednesday to discuss the disproportionate impact violent conflict has on women and possible ways to prevent these atrocities.
"I'm often told sexual violence in war and conflict is unavoidable, that it should be considered collateral damage," Margot Wallström, the U.N.'s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said at an event held in World Bank headquarters Wednesday.
People say it is nothing new and point to anecdotes from the Iliad, the Bible and all the way up to the countless examples among the conflicts of the past several decades, she said, "But I want to say we cannot and should not accept this. Sexual violence in conflict is neither cultural nor sexual, actually; it is criminal. No other human rights violation is routinely dismissed as inevitable."
Over the past 10 years, international organisations have gradually woken up to both the magnitude of this problem and the fact that they have historically not paid it enough attention.
Wallström herself is evidence of this slow but steady awakening. In April, she became the first person to hold her sexual violence-focused position at the U.N. Ten years earlier, she had helped urge the U.N. Security Council to adopt resolution 1325, a landmark resolution that reaffirmed the critical role of women in peace-building and reconstruction and urged parties to protect women and girls from gender-based violence.
That resolution is seen as the first time the Security Council recognised that war affects women and men differently.
In June 2008, the Security Council went a step further and adopted resolution 1820, focusing on sexual violence in armed conflict and recognising for the first time that sexual violence is a tactic used in war and a force impacting international peace and security - and thus within the Security Council's purview.
This week's conference commemorates the 10 years since the unique challenges posed to women by war and conflict were first acknowledged. Its organisers, including the United States Institute of Peace, the World Bank, several universities and the U.S. State Department, hope it will help deliver concrete actions that can be taken to achieve the principles behind resolution 1325.
Toward that goal, it is focusing on the experiences of victims and many different ways in which other women and girls might avoid their nightmares.
In August, details emerged of a mass rape in villages in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, known as the "rape capital of the world" due to the widespread practice of using rape as a weapon. There, not even 80-year-old women or young children were safe from the rebel assailants. Congolese troops are also known to be perpetrators.
"Sexual violence in conflict has become the weapon of choice. The reason is as simple as it is wicked - because it is cheap, silent and effective," says Wallström.
All told, over 200,000 rapes have been reported in the DRC, but, as Wallström points out, for each rape reported, 10 to 20 go unreported.
And the ongoing conflict in the DRC is only the most widely- known example. Speakers at the conference Wednesday also mentioned the fighting in Kosovo last decade and the camps that have been set up in Haiti following January's earthquake as places where conflict and disruption have given rise to a terrifying rate of sexual violence.
Lisa Davis, human rights advocacy director for the group MADRE, says rape in the Haitian camps is "pervasive, consistent and egregious". Every time she goes to Haiti, she says, she hears of a victim who was attacked yesterday or the day before.
One victim, Davis says, was gang-raped in a car and choked so hard that her tongue came out and the perpetrators bit it off.
She says solving these egregious crimes is not too difficult, but requires working together to improve security, lighting and medical care in the camps. In order to do that correctly, though, she says grassroots groups must be involved in determining the tactics that will make a difference, such as distributing whistles with directions explaining how to use them or solar torches rather than battery-powered ones that will be useless once the batteries run out.
Gary Baker, director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women, says that group education sessions run by well-trained men and women have been shown to be effective but are slow and expensive.
He also points to campaigns that do not just say gender- based violence is against the law but try to deconstruct what it means to be a man or woman - thus promoting the idea of being a more virtuous man - and models where men and women from a community are able to hold each other accountable for violence, "so that the justice is coming from within the community."
Other measures discussed included community liaison offices to work with local populations, foot patrols to accompany women when they might be vulnerable to attack, and training peacekeepers on how to report and react to sexual violence.
For now, though, "primary prevention of sexual violence has been marginalised in favour of providing services to victims," says Marya Buvinic, who works on gender and development at the World Bank.
Wallström says she will use her mandate at the U.N. to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and make sure amnesty is not an option, to give women more of a voice especially in post-conflict reconstruction, and to better coordinate the U.N. system with regard to its response to rape.
"Much more must yet be done to promote actions that have real impact as we move from recognition to action and from best intentions to best practice," she says.