I thought that I was a good person who really cared about sexual violence in conflict, but spending two days last week at a summit focused on ending it made me realise that I really had no idea.
The statistics on sexual violence are horrific. I’ve heard them; I’ve read them; I’ve written about them. One in three women abused in her lifetime. Every hour, 48 women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Forced child marriage. Mutilation. Murder.
But it’s listening to stories from survivors, and from people on the ground that have changed my heart; that have made me realise that my outrage, sympathy and sorrow are nowhere near enough.
“How can we ever say we’ve done the best we can when we are knee-deep in bodies?” That was the question posed by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire at a summit session focused on child rights that I went to. He got me thinking. Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the genocide, and he described the hideous way boys in Rwanda were stolen, indoctrinated into the army and forced to commit atrocities – forced to mutilate and rape women, over and over again, to torture them, and to leave them to die. By being made to commit these acts, the boys were being tortured too.
We only get one childhood, and countless children have had theirs stolen by sexual violence. The pain doesn’t just stop, it goes on and on. I was told the story of one young girl in Somalia who was raped on her way to get firewood for her family and left bleeding on the roadside. Two years on, she is still incontinent. She will probably never be able to have children. She’s 10.
And it’s not only physical and psychological scars that survivors, like this little girl, are left with – across the world rape victims and their babies are rejected by their families and stigmatised by their communities. They have shame heaped upon them.
I knew this. I knew that sexual violence was an affront to human rights. And that when used as a systematic weapon of war it not only shatters the life of the victim, but tears apart the very fabric of communities, societies and nations. I knew all of this, but I think I am only now beginning to understand what it actually means for people.
I’m not a human rights lawyer. I’m not a medical expert. I’m not a government minister, or a celebrity sitting on a few million pounds to offer to the cause. I’m not particularly influential, or astoundingly intellectual. The problem is enormous – and rape in war is just one facet of the even larger injustice that is gender-based violence. I have no idea what I can do, or even what I’m supposed to do. But I know it can’t be nothing.
Dallaire said that he believes “one day we will realise that all humans are human. That there is not one of us that is more human than another”. I hope we will.
Numbers don’t mean much, but people do.
Image credit: UNHCR / S.Phelps / December 2013