Testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittees on African Affairs, and Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women's Issues

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
May 13, 2009

Thank you, Chairman Boxer, Chairman Feingold, Ranking Members Wicker and Isakson, and Senator Corker. We appreciate the opportunity to come before your subcommittees today to testify on this important issue.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that violence against women as a tool of armed groups is in no way limited to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, or just to Africa. We’ve seen this in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The underlying problems – gender inequality and the dehumanization of women – are often the same, and our assessment of needs and recommendations is similar across regions.

Violence against women in the DRC and Sudan is an urgent humanitarian crisis – unquestionably so. However, and I emphasize this point, to regard it as solely a humanitarian crisis would be a mistake. These brutal attacks are part of an armed conflict strategy carried out through rape and sexualized torture.

As we’ve heard, the crisis in DRC is reaching its 12th year. The scale and enormity of the violence directed at women can scarcely be adequately described. Some 1100 rapes are being reported each month, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day.

In addition to these rapes and gang rapes, of which there have been hundreds of thousands over the duration of the conflict, the perpetrators frequently mutilate the women in the course of the attacks. The apparent purpose is to leave a lasting and inerasable signal to others that the woman has been violated. In the DRC and in many other cultures, this translates into a lifelong badge of shame. Moreover, the lethal spreading of HIV/AIDS is often increasing the toll of death and debilitation long after the initial attack. All of these consequences are more than the tragic effects of rape – they are also the strategic incentives for the perpetrators.

Rape is employed as a weapon because it is effective. It destroys the fabric of societies from within and does so more efficiently than do guns or bombs. Humanitarian organizations on the ground report that attacks on women destroy the nucleus of the family. And with the unraveling families, the communities also disintegrate.

There is little in place in these villages to shore up the collapse of these integral institutions. There are NGOs in place, to be sure -- few but effective -- as well as heroic individuals like Dr. Denis Mukwege, director of the Panzi General Referral Hospital in the DRC’s South Kivu province, who struggle around the clock to repair the victims’ mutilated bodies. To speak with him or others who are desperately trying to cope with the reality on the ground, as I have, is to have a window on the magnitude of the horror.

Our Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice will be traveling, shortly, to Africa with the UN Security Council. In a few days, she and her colleagues will visit a hospital in eastern DRC similar to that of Dr. Mukwege, which is providing care to the victims of these atrocities. That the Security Council is paying serious attention to this issue is important, and we must see that much more is done.

Currently there are no adequate ways to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable for their actions. Prosecution is essential. First and foremost, the atmosphere of impunity must end. These crimes must be recognized not as isolated and aberrant incidents of rape, but as part of a strategy of brutalization and as crimes against humanity.

A recent report by the UN Human Rights Integrated office in the DRC concluded that “law enforcement personnel and magistrates continue to treat rape and sexual violence in general with a marked lack of seriousness. Men accused of rape are often granted bail or given relatively light sentences. Few cases are reported to the police and fewer still result in prosecution.” Of the 14,000 rape cased registered in provincial health centers in the DRC between 2005 and 2007, only 287 were ever taken to trial.

More must be done to identify and punish perpetrators. Police must receive better training, and there must be more focus on initiatives to strengthen the rule of law and provide victims with access to justice while offering them protection throughout the judicial process.

The United States has recognized, both in Darfur and the DRC, that ending the conflicts is the most direct and certain path to ending the violence. Peace negotiations and the transition to post-conflict environments should remain our highest priority.

The United States has also sought to engage both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council in constructive measures that recognize the political aspects of this crisis and that are designed to commit the UN to specific actions and eventually end the use of sexual violence as an instrument of armed conflict, wherever it occurs.

Last year, during the our presidency of the Security Council, the United States introduced Security Council Resolution 1820. It built upon Resolution 1325, which had been adopted in 2000. Resolution 1325 requires parties in conflict to respect women’s rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction.

Women must be included at the negotiating table so that their relevant experiences can be brought to bear, and so that their needs in post-conflict civil reconstruction are incorporated from the start. Resolution 1325 has been widely and justifiably praised, but member states, including the U.S. as well as NGOs, have rightly noted that tangible progress related to the goals the resolution outlines have so far been few.

Security Council Resolution 1820 reinforces many of the aspirations of 1325 and also establishes a clear link between maintaining international peace and security and preventing and responding to sexual violence used to deliberately target civilians.  It also affirms the Council’s intention to take sexual violence in situations of armed conflict into account when establishing or renewing state-specific sanctions.

Security Council resolutions now include in peacekeeping mandates, where necessary, specific instruction for UN peacekeepers to prevent gender and sexually-based violence and to take steps to protect against it.
For example, the mandate of UNAMID, the joint African Union/UN hybrid operation in Darfur, includes specific reference to both 1325 and 1820 and requests that the Secretary-General report on their implementation. We hope and expect that this increased attention, as well as the reporting requirements, will help to expose the offenses and diminish the chances that they will be committed with impunity.

The United States continues to actively work with the UN Secretariat and fellow members of the UN to prevent sexual misconduct by UN peacekeeping personnel: military, police and civilians. The peacekeeping missions should have, as their highest priority, the protection of women and children – the most vulnerable – particularly in the places they move and congregate.

The United States is also providing much-needed assistance to victims in the areas of conflict. For example, since 2000 the Department of State has funded a special program for the prevention of, and response to, violence against women in refugee populations. The program has provided over $27 million for such projects in cooperation with international organizations and NGOs worldwide.

USAID and bureaus and offices within the State Department also fund programs that we have described more fully in the testimony. These programs not only address survivors’ immediate needs with psychological counseling and medical services, but also provide more comprehensive support, such as literacy training and services aimed at re-integrating them into their communities.

Our testimony also contains additional recommendations to address this crisis, from more effective implementation of the UN resolutions described, to improving peacekeeping operations, to legal assistance programs.

The Obama Administration recognizes the urgency of this crisis and that the use of rape as a tool in armed conflict is an abhorrent violation of human rights. It is also a burgeoning security crisis in the region. We pledge to work with you and your colleagues to promote the peace process, communicate the urgency and gravity of the situation to all nations and parties involved, and to ensure that victims are protected, that perpetrators are prosecuted, and that women are free from violence.