Tag Archives: gender based violence

Female Empowerment in DR Congo

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In January 2014 PRIO researchers Gudrun Østby and Ragnhild Nordås went on a two-week fieldtrip to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, DRC. The main purpose of the visit was to launch the new collaborative project, “Female Empowerment in Eastern DRC”, funded by the Research Council of Norway. This project is based on a partnership between PRIO and the International Centre for Advanced Research and Training (ICART), which is a collaborative initiative between researchers from the Panzi Hospital, Panzi Foundation DRC, and the Université Evangelique en Afrique in Bukavu, DRC.

The project focuses on how survivors of SGBV can be empowered and reintegrated into society through socioeconomic support programs, and explores the link between armed conflict and intimate partner sexual violence. Our methodological approach combines surveys and in-debth interviews. In addition to the thematic research, there is a separate work package devoted to research capacity building.

In Bukavu, the PRIO researchers and the local research team met with representatives from five support programmes that are all linked to socioeconomic reintegration and empowerment of survivors of SGBV. Also, they visited “City of Joy”, a center for healing and training for survivors of gender-based violence. After six months in City of Joy, women are reintegrated into their communities and by returning home they commit to fight for self-sufficiency, financial independence and freedom.

The gate of City of Joy, a center for healing, and training for survivors of gender-based violence.

The gate of City of Joy, a center for healing, and training for survivors of gender-based violence. (Photo: Gudrun Østby)

Several meetings were held between the PRIO researchers and the principal investigators from Congolese project team to discuss the focus and design of the project and develop a detailed plan of action for the thematic work packages. On 24 January Gudrun Østby and Ragnhild Nordås held a one-day workshop on academic writing, publishing in academic journals and grants proposal writing at the Université Evangelique en Afrique (UEA). This was the first of a series of trainings planned for building local research capacity.

At the end of the stay the PRIO researchers went on a field visit to Kavumu, some 30 km north of Bukavu to visit one of the branches of the Socioeconomic Strengthening Program. Here we met with one of ten women’s networks where female survivors of SGBV receive vocational training, educational training of network leaders, skills training, such as basket making, as well as microcredit and training in various income-generating activities.

The PRIO team and associated experts from Norway and abroad will return to Bukavu later this year to follow up on the project development as well as conduct more specialized research trainings.

For more information about this project, please click here.

Impunity and the conflation of rape and adultery in Sudan’s Criminal Act

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Under Sudan’s Criminal Act (1991), rape is defined as zina (adultery and fornication) without consent. This constitutes a serious legal obstacle for rape victims in the country.

Hudud (singular, hadd, meaning limit, restriction, or prohibition) are regarded as the ordinances of Allah, and they have fixed punishments derived from Islam. Among the offenses for which hudud penalties are prescribed is zina which is defined as sexual intercourse between a man and woman outside a valid marriage contract and must be proved by confession before the court, the testimony of four adult men, and pregnancy if the woman is unmarried. The punishment is stoning to death for married offenders and 100 lashes for unmarried offenders.

The evidentiary rules applying to zina are historically based on the rationale in classical Islamic law that there should be indisputable evidence for the severe punishment. When applied to rape, however, it contributes to impunity for rape as a conviction can realistically only be secured where the perpetrator confesses to the crime. As the evidence is virtually impossible to obtain, a rapist can only be incriminated if he voluntarily decides to confess. Even in situations where the rape is not reported to the police and no court case is initiated, an unmarried woman who becomes pregnant because of rape is at risk for charges of zina. The consequence, in the words of an activist, is that if you cannot prove rape, you become the perpetrator.” According to the Sudanese scholar Abdel Salam Sidahmed in an article from 2001

“The categorization of rape as a form of zina […]does not just result in a rapist walking free from the court room or receiving a very light sentence, but may even lead to incrimination of the victim of rape”.

In Sudan, the introduction of hudud was embedded in a larger call for Islamization: first under President Nimeiri, who enacted the so-called September Laws in 1983, and later under the Islamists, who came to power in a military coup in 1989. President Omar al-Bashir and his circle of supporters introduced what they called the “civilization project” (al-Mashru al-Hadari). An intrinsic part of this project was the Islamization of Sudanese law, with the hudud penalties incorporated in the Criminal Act. Greater control of women’s bodies and movements and the protection of their morality and honor were central to the Islamization project.

Over the last several years, the reform of criminal law on rape/zina has become a priority for Sudanese women activists, despite government repression of those advocating extensive reforms. The Interim National Constitution of 2005 following the peace agreement sparked a review of Sudan’s laws codified by the current Islamist regime during their 23 years in power, including the Criminal Act.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of armed conflict in the western province of Darfur, with rampant sexual violence, put rape on the agenda of women activists. They highlighted the conflation of rape and zina in the current Criminal Act and the impact of this on rape victims in the Darfur conflict. In the words of a Sudanese activist, “We never thought of sexual violence as an issue. Darfur changed that”. The recent attention by Sudanese activists to sexual violence and the advocacy for reform of Sudan’s laws on rape has coincided with growing international awareness of rape in armed conflict over the last 15 years. Sexual violence has been recognized as a “weapon in war” and as a threat to international peace and security in numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

The ICC’s indictment of Sudan’s president in connection with the systematic practice of rape in Darfur further politicized the debate and the work on criminal law reform. The indictment has proved to be a double-edged sword. It made it possible to put sexual violence, beyond the Darfur conflict, on the political agenda and stirred public debate on the issue for the first time in Sudanese history. At the same time it made activism within this area more difficult because calls for reform are framed as a direct threat to the current government. The room for maneuver is small, and activists operate under severe constraints.

This blog is based on Liv Tønnessen’s  article in Women’s Studies International Forum.

Access the full article here.

Sexual Violence: Monopoly of victimhood?

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In Uganda, data suggests that not only women and girls are sexually assaulted in times of conflict and war, but also men and boys. Yet, male rape victims are almost invisible in interventions and even debates on conflict related sexual violence. Attention is overwhelmingly focused on girls and women. -There is a monopoly of victimhood, says Chris Dolan, Director at the Refugee Law Project at the School of Law, Makerere University.

Women’s protection needs have forcefully been put on the international protection agenda in recent years. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 states that all parties involved in a conflict must take measures to protect women and girls. The message that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence is also at the forefront in resolutions from 2008 and 2009. What are the consequences of this need to specify protection on the basis of gender?

There has been no corresponding explicit recognition of how sexual violence is used against and affects boys and men in conflict situations. The use of language in resolutions from the Security Council is characteristic of how male victimhood has been treated in the discourse of sexual violence, more broadly says Chris Dolan, Director of the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University.

Invisible victims of sexual violence
Chris Dolan recently participated in the seminar “Gender and the Paradox of War Norms”, organized by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, where researchers working on protection practices in different parts of the world addressed civilians’ needs in conflict and war zones.

The regression to gender essentialism in the interest of a particular pro-women agenda has not only killed the essential emancipatory political potential of a holistic gender analysis. It is also undermining the capacity to provide protection in a meaningful sense, as it has pulled a veil over the protection needs of the other half of the population, says Dolan.

‘Men are strong, women are weak’
In the conflicts and civil wars in Uganda and Congo, rape and sexual assaults have been frequently used as weapons of war. Survivors do not only suffer from severe physical injuries, they are also stigmatized and shunned.

Dolan and his colleagues at the Refugee Law Project have interviewed many male rape victims from Congo and Uganda. According to Dolan, their experiences destabilize one of the most central pillars of patriarchy; that ‘Men are strong, and women are weak’.

The rape victims’ stories strongly suggest that women and men share certain forms of vulnerability in conflicts, he says.

According to Dolan, refugee camps should be key sites for investigations and interventions, and a systematic screening for sexual violence should be done in every conflict. The Refugee Law Project is currently involved in developing a screening method for refugees together with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, based on their experiences with and interviews of refugees in Uganda and Congo.

Turning the tide
By asking men and women the same questions, the Refugee Law Project has uncovered that many victims of rape are men and boys. Some male rape victims have recently chosen to share their stories in international media and in their local communities. And for the first time, support groups are being made.

In 2013, the UNSCR 2106 for the first time attracted attention to sexual assaults against men and boys. Is this a sign that the tide is about to turn?

What comes out of committees’ talk is always the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, the lowest common denominator is now shifting. The shift in UNSCR 2106 is a sign of progress, but we still have a long way to go. Sexual violence should not be treated as a binary female-male opposition. We need to rethink the way in which language is used, in documents on sexual violence in general, and in resolutions from the Security Council in particular. Even as we work on the language, we need to be developing best practice on working with men and boy survivors, recognizing that even as sexual violence often erases the gender binary, prevention of and responses to such violence need to be gender sensitive if they are to be effective, says Dolan.

Land of Confusion – Protection of Women and Children in Liberia

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In spite of the efforts made by international actors to have the Liberian National Police’s (LNP) Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) working to provide women and children with a special recourse to justice institutions, a number of challenges remain unaddressed. Many of these challenges are also a product of how these sections were established and funded, the lack of a coherent and comprehensive understanding of the functioning of justice institutions in Liberia, the challenges reforming or building these institutions represent, and how these new institutions are to interact with traditional institutions and practices. In 2008 there was a WACPS of the LNP in every county capital in Liberia (fifteen in total). In spite of these efforts, however, UNMIL has been forced to recognize the fact that “sexual violence against women and children remains a central reality of life in Liberia” (UNMIL 2008b).

The WACPS were established with the intention of addressing the pressing concerns the international community had with GBV in Liberia. That women and children now had a dedicated section within the LNP which dealt with GBV no doubt would ensure that these issues were addressed by the police. The question which nevertheless remained was: what happened with a case after it was reported to WACPS. For instance, one of the issues the establishment of WACPS was meant to address is the relatively high degree of impunity for GBV crimes. But as a legal specialist interviewed in Monrovia exclaimed to us, “The problem in Liberia is not that victims of rape don’t get justice, but that no one gets justice!” In a country where judges in many cases do not have knowledge of the penal code, and where the police only rarely possess investigative tools and skills, it is doubtful whether the establishment of the WACPS alone will lead to a higher rate of conviction. Furthermore, the problems may be exacerbated by the fact that victims who do report crimes lose faith in the institutions of justice, as reported criminals seldom face convictions. Furthermore, while the institutions of rule of law are to some degree present in Monrovia, they often lack outside of the capital. As one NGO worker involved in GBV work explained, “No place outside of Monrovia has all the pieces of rule of law”. The major international presence in Liberia is in Monrovia, and as such inferences about the spread of rule of law institutions in general, and the WACPS in particular to the whole country must be done carefully – if at all. As one NGO worker said to us in Monrovia, “What’s in it for the victims? Why should they report a rape when they know the perpetrator and nothing ever really happens?”

 “Modern” and Traditional Justice Institutions

The efforts to address GBV and the impunity of perpetrators as well as the general (re)building of the institutions of the rule of law must be seen in the context of which functions the new institutions are to fulfill, and which ones are already fulfilled by the traditional “justice” system. Rather than seeking to supplant the traditional system, one needs to understand how these systems can supplement each other. In this respect it is important to understand how they interact in practice today. As became clear to us, victims of GBV do not always get their cases investigated. As one police officer told us, once a victim has reported a crime the police “investigate, but sometimes compromise.” Recourse to the WACPS in other words is no guarantee that the case will be investigated or passed through the court system. And while it is beyond the scope of this brief to address the desirability of this, one thing is nevertheless clear: As long as the international community has absolutely no understanding of how the traditional system works, there is little chance that effective measures to counter GBV in rural areas will succeed. The view advanced by most representatives of the international community we met during three fieldworks in Liberia simply goes to show the extent to which the UN system lacks the knowledge to address GBV in a comprehensive manner.


The point of this blog post has not been to denigrate the efforts made by international donors and the UN. Addressing the problem of GBV in Liberia cannot be done without their support. However, these efforts so far have tended to fit the donors’ own agenda rather than the needs on the ground. One consequence of this is that efforts to reform and (re)build rule of law institutions by the international community are done without the most basic knowledge of how the administration of justice functions in Liberia. Furthermore, it is often done without thinking about the consequences of these efforts with respect to other rule of law institutions. As a result, efforts such as the WACPS do not function as well as they were intended. Budgets for logistical follow up are not provided for, the equipment provided does not fit the working routines of the LNP, and while the WACPS might function to some extent when looked upon separately, when seen in relation to other rule of law institutions, the efforts seem quite often misplaced as no efforts are made at addressing the system comprehensively.


UNICEF (2005) “New women and children protection section for Liberia’s police”. Available at http://www.unicef.org/media/media_28159.html

UNMIL (2008a) “New Confidence in Liberian Police Has More Women and Children Reporting Crime” 15 June. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=2788

UNMIL (2008b) “Liberia: UNMIL Humanitarian Situation” Report No. 156, 24 November. Available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/EGUA7LPQBP?OpenDocument

UNMIL (2008c) “UNPOL Commissioner urges for the protection of women and children against sexual violence and abuse” 01 December. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=3036

UNMIL (2008d) “Continued human and financial support needed to bolster Liberia’s Police Force” 15 December. Available at http://unmil.org/1article.asp?id=3057&zdoc=1

Norwegian Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire (2008) “Norway commended for supporting Liberia’s recovery” available at http://www.norvege.ci/info/Coop%C3%A9ration/MedaljeseremoniPoliti.Liberia.htm

PoC: The Politics of Counting Rape in Darfur

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During my fieldwork in Khartoum in February/March this year a paradoxical development was brought to my attention. The records of UNAMID, The African Union/UN Hybrid operation in Darfur, indicate that sexual violence is on a decrease in Darfur. These records are, because of their sensitive nature, not open to the general public. Several interviews with both diplomats and humanitarian actors supported this assertion.

If sexual violence in Darfur is in fact on the decrease, that is good news indeed. But the validity of the assertion invites critical scrutiny.

Interviews conducted with humanitarian and political actors suggest that only the reporting of rape cases to UNAMID has gone down. Sudanese informants referred mockingly to UNAMID as “the African mistake in Darfur”, implying that the largest peacekeeping operation to date is not up to the task. They explain that the reporting to UNAMID has gone down because in 2009, the Sudanese government has expelled the humanitarian actors that were most active in referring cases to UNAMID and in speaking out publicly and bringing attention to the systematic and widespread rape in Darfur.

It is close to impossible to get research permits to Darfur for a Western researcher. But my interviews in Khartoum with International and Sudanese nationals active in Darfur before and after the expulsions suggest that the violence, including sexual violence, may actually be on the increase. In the words of a former minister from Darfur “the violence is escalating (…) It is out of control and it has become an everyday event by the police, the security, the Janjaweed and the rebels. The international community is deserting them. UNAMID is doing nothing. They are not protecting civilians. They cannot even protect themselves. (…)”.

The lack of reporting and the implicit conclusion that sexual violence might be on the decrease, potentially has significant political implications; it backs President Bashir’s claim that the evidence for the systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur was fabricated by the international community in an effort to undermine the Sudanese government.

Systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur: Government denial

In 2005, the UN published a report on sexual violence in Darfur concluding that the Government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed were responsible for widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

An arrest warrant for Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009 indicting him on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians). The indictment speaks to 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010) on women, peace and security and acknowledges the sexualization of violence in Darfur. The President insists that the allegations of widespread and systematic rape were being fabricated for political purposes. In an interview with Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 Bashir argued that

“When it comes to mass rape, there is no document or evidence, just accusations (…). We are fully convinced that no rape took place. It might have happened at an individual level, but this is a normal crime that can happen in any country in the world. Mass rape does not exist.

Expulsion of humanitarian actors from Darfur

The Sudanese government’s reactions to this indictment have had dramatic repercussions for the humanitarian presence in Darfur, including within the area of gender based violence (GBV) programming.

Immediately following the ICC indictment, the Sudanese government expelled 13 international NGOs operating in Darfur and de-registered prominent national NGOs that between them employed nearly 40% of Darfur’s aid workers. The Vice-President stated that

“Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests.”

Government officials made it clear that they would fill the void left by the International NGOs with “national and friendly foreign NGOs”.  In addition to the international NGOs that were expelled, the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) de-registered three Sudanese NGOS; the Amal Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights Development and Environment and the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO).

The Sudanese government harbours a particular antipathy towards those humanitarian actors that address gender-based violence, and/or speak out publicly about rape cases. As a consequence, a humanitarian worker explains “The meetings in the GBV cluster used to be packed. Now they are empty (…)”.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was accused of spying for the ICC. In 2005, MSF published The Crushing Burden of Rape,  a report  on the widespread sexual violence in Darfur. MSF reported treating nearly 500 rape survivors from October 2004 to early February 2005. Two senior members of MSF Holland were arrested charged with espionage and publishing false information. In 2006, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Darfur after publishing a report on 80 cases of rape around Kalma Camp in southern Darfur. Khartoum claimed the findings were false.

In 2013, one of the major concerns on the ground is the diminished capacity on reporting on GBV violations. In the words of an activist from Darfur:

“The arrest warrant of Bashir has affected our work in Darfur. The word ‘protection of civilians‘ became very sensitive. If we use that term then the government thinks that we are collecting rape cases and reporting them to the ICC.  With the ICC, reporting of rape has become more difficult. (…)”.

Similarly, according to an international organization working within the area of GBV violence in Darfur; The gaps left by the expulsion of 13 NGOs following the announcement of the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir in March 2009, remain. (…) The expulsion of the International NGOs has significantly reduced the capacity for monitoring and referrals, as well as diminished the reporting capacity on GBV issues”.

International NGOs as political tools?

The International NGOs most forceful in the work and advocacy on GBV has been expelled. Remaining humanitarian agencies openly admit their reluctance to speak out about sexual violence. Because of government restrictions and intimidation, it is increasingly difficult for the remaining actors to work within the field of GBV without the risk of expulsion. As a consequence the reporting of rape to UNAMID has gone down. This poses an ethical dilemma to the remaining International NGOs:  On the one hand, if the government restricts or even blocks work on GBV, the humanitarian NGOs can still provide vital services in water, sanitation, and food security. On the other hand, by keeping silent on GBV, do the remaining humanitarian actors, described by the government as ‘friendly foreign NGOs’,  simply serve as political tools for Bashir in his claim that ‘Mass rape does not exist’ in Darfur?