Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Uganda workshop to strengthen response to wartime sexual violence

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The Missing Peace Practitioners’ Workshop—co-hosted by the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law—brought together more than 100 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Liberia, in Kampala, Uganda, last week to talk about sexual violence during and after armed conflict.

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Contributing to recent global efforts to highlight and address wartime sexual violence, the workshop convened doctors, forensic experts, lawyers, judges, and other first responders in a dynamic three-day conversation about supporting survivors, collecting evidence, and investigating alleged perpetrators in countries with severely limited resources. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Uganda Fund, U.S. Institute of Peace, Women in International Security, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

“If we don’t understand why systems break down during peacetime, we will never be able to ensure an effective response during armed conflict,” said Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, when releasing the long-awaited, four-country report The Long Road: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings at the workshop.

Berkeley’s research—highlighted in The Guardian last week—emphasizes the need for more resources locally to document, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence as well as better training for those on the front lines.

“So often during our research, we heard about police officers who don’t have a car or motorbike so they couldn’t travel to the crime scene,” said Seelinger. “We even interviewed some who didn’t have pen and paper to record witness statements.”

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Julie Freccero, associate director of the Sexual Violence Program, said that she visited health centers with only one nurse attending a crowded waiting room of patients, where it wasn’t feasible to complete lengthy documentation of sexual violence or collect evidence for court.

Workshop participants—some whose countries are in the midst of armed conflicts and others who live in the aftermath of war—discussed Berkeley’s research findings and brainstormed ways to overcome these challenges in their resource-deprived countries. Many had been interviewed for Berkeley’s research.

They pledged to continue to work together by sharing information, resources, and experiences.

“This is an opportunity for us to continue the conversation about the advances we make or even steps we take back as we fight impunity for sexual violence,” said Dr. Desiré Alumeti Munyali, a forensic specialist who works at Panzi Hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo—a hospital that provides holistic care for survivors of rape.

The Human Rights Center promised to establish an online repository of resources (including training manuals) on sexual violence to strengthen collaboration across borders.

“I think we have here found a voice which should be used to advance our shared objectives in every potential forum,” said Ambassador Allan Rock, President of the University of Ottawa and board director of the Uganda Fund, at the close of the workshop. “We will find a way to ensure that the momentum that’s been created will not be lost.”

Naasu Genevieve Fofanah, former Gender Adviser to the President of Sierra Leone, captured the sentiment of workshop participants who drew strength in sharing experiences and finding ways to combat sexual violence, even in the midst of war or humanitarian disasters, such as Ebola.

“Africans, we should be proud of our region and how rich we are in expertise and how we should take advantage of this expertise,” Fofanah said.

Innocent Zahinda Balemba, who heads the office of the UN’s special representative on sexual violence Zainab Hawa Bangura, opened the workshop by outlining key areas of concern globally, including the trafficking of women, girls, and boys in internally displaced camps, the lack of capacity to prosecute cases—especially when the military is responsible—as well as the rise of extremism.

“Over the past few years, with the rise of violent extremism, we are witnessing sexual violence being used as a tactic of terrorism,” said Zahinda. “We need to act quickly for the empowerment of women and girls.”

The workshop was covered by Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, Ugandan Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, and The Guardian.