Remarks at Women and Foreign Policy: Is Everything We Know About Wartime Rape Wrong?

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
February 19, 2016

As prepared

Good morning. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the State Department.

This is our third convening in the Women and Foreign Policy event series. We started this series back in September, and the idea behind it is simple: we want to share best practices for integrating women and girls into U.S. foreign policy.

It’s been my experience here at the Department that most people don’t ask why gender equality is important to foreign policy. They know it’s important. Instead, they want to know how to integrate it into their work. How can we take the rhetoric about gender equality and turn it into action?

Today, we’ll explore sexual violence in conflict and what it means for foreign policy, particularly when it comes to conflict prevention.

The conversation on sexual violence typically focuses on survivors, and rightfully so. I don’t think anyone can overstate the terrible effects sexual violence can have on survivors and communities. Helping survivors access services and bringing perpetrators to justice are critical. And the State Department is proud to be part of the community working on this issue.

In 2013 Secretary Kerry launched the Safe From the Start project, which aims to transform the way the humanitarian system addresses gender-based violence.

And in 2014 at the sexual violence summit in London, the Secretary announced the creation of the Accountability Initiative. This project helps bring justice to survivors and strengthen justice systems in post-conflict countries, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia.

These are just some of the ways we’re working to help and empower the people and the communities who are living in the aftermath of sexual violence in conflict. But today I’d like to take a look at what happens before sexual violence even occurs.

President Obama has made it clear that "preventing mass atrocities is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” As violent extremist groups continue to commit atrocities, including sexual violence, at an unprecedented scale, one thing is clear: we need to do all we can to build resilient communities that can withstand the forces driving conflict and violence.

The State Department has been working to put the President’s vision for a preventive strategy into action. A year and a half ago, Secretary Kerry challenged some basic assumptions about this issue at the UK summit. He said we should not consider sexual violence as an inevitable part of conflict.

So what can we do—as policymakers, practitioners, and the prevention community—to actually prevent sexual violence in conflict and crisis scenarios? We have some great experts who can help us look at this question in depth this morning. But first, let’s agree on a working definition of sexual violence in conflict.

For the purposes of our discussion today, we’ll look at sexualized forms of violence that are used strategically in conflict or in crises to achieve specific ends. In other words, we’re talking about a specific type of violence that’s used to punish and terrorize a population or to destroy communities by tearing the fabric that holds them together and trying to strip away their identity. It’s about violence used to intimidate the enemy. Or violence that tries to send a signal about a group’s power, or rewards fighters, or even serves to build relationships among combatants.

If this form of violence can be used strategically toward a specific end, then is it also controllable? If it can be turned on, can it also be turned off? What happens before this violence occurs? Understanding that requires us to challenge some conventional wisdom around the issue.

First, we need to challenge the assumption that strategic sexual violence will always happen in war.

Second, we need to challenge the stereotypes about who suffers from sexual violence in conflict. Too often, when we think of survivors, we think of women and girls. But the fact is that there are high rates of sexual violence against older people, against boys, and against men, especially in prison or detention settings.

Third, we need to challenge our assumption of where this kind of violence takes place. Many people picture this issue in particular places—most notably in Africa. But history shows that this sexual violence in conflict isn’t bound to any one region. There are recent examples in the Middle East, Europe, South and East Asia, and Latin America.

Finally, we need to challenge the idea that this is solely an issue for the gender and justice communities to work on. Research shows that places with high rates of gender inequality are more likely to experience conflict. And emerging research suggests there are specific warning signs we can look out for.

By challenging our assumptions, and by broadening the conversation, we can have a better understanding of the conditions on the ground before conflict starts.

The implications of that understanding matter for all of us, whether you’re working on atrocity and conflict prevention, humanitarian aid, programming, peace and reconciliation, justice and accountability, or gender equality.

At the end of the day, this is obviously a conversation just for women. It’s not a conversation just for survivors. It’s a conversation for everyone who is committed to preventing armed conflict and crisis and instability.

So thank you again for being here this morning. Before we start our discussion, we’ll first watch a few clips from the film Weapon of War, which features former perpetrators of sexual violence.

Much of this is disturbing, but if we’re interested in prevention, we have to acknowledge that talking to perpetrators—and especially understanding their mentality—is critical. So we’re very grateful to Women Make Movies for granting us permission to screen some scenes for you.

Here to introduce the film is Jocelyn Kelly. Jocelyn is the director for Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Women in War program, where she examines issues related to gender, peace, and security in fragile states.

Jocelyn has done extensive research on vulnerable populations in crisis and conflict scenarios—including the motives and drivers of sexual violence in the eastern DRC.

Please join me in welcoming her.