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Beginning yesterday and extending through tomorrow, there is a symposium entitled “Missing Peace: Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings” taking place at the United States Institute of Peace in DC. As we discuss and take action around sexual violence for Valentine’s Day, and with the one billion rising campaign, it is important to have serious discussions about the impact sexual violence has on women, girls, boys and men worldwide. This symposium brings together NGOs, activists, and UN and government officials to discuss how to best persecute sexual violence and, more importantly, how to prevent sexual violence in conflict zones.

I spent the majority of the day yesterday watching the webcast (sadly, the event is invite-only). I learned that discussion about sexual violence is far from straightforward. While we all agree that sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings is a horrible and far too pervasive problem globally, the experts convened for the symposium differed widely in how they thought it should be dealt with.

Beginning with a keynote speech from the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura, the symposium focused on national and international responses to sexual violence. The biggest controversy was how to deal with the perpetrators. Ms. Bangura and many other panelists advocated the “naming and shaming” approach; by putting the identities of perpetrators out in the open, the UN and activists hope to shame them into stopping. They also want to send a warning message to other potential perpetrators that what they are doing is not okay.

There were several points on each side concerning this naming and shaming approach:

  1.  Ms. Bangura told anecdotes of government officials who had begged her to keep their countries off of any list that has to do with sexual violence. She said that the fear of this shame forced them to take action. Since she couldn’t actually provide any details of what this action was, I have my doubts about this. Sure, they feel ashamed at the time, but putting in concrete policy to stop sexual violence takes a lot of work, especially if the head of state is less willing to do so.
  2. Shaming will only work if the person being shamed (let’s call them the “shamee”) respects the organization, government, etc. doing the shaming (let’s call them the “shamer”). For example, the United States government may call out all of these military officials, heads of state, etc., who are doing nothing to stop sexual violence in their own countries. However, we know that a LOT of people around the world have very little respect for the U.S. They will simply laugh off the accusations, and continue their actions. The same could be said for the United Nations, which many see as a puppet of the United States and other Western powers.
  3. Naming and shaming may work better on an individual level, rather than government-wise. Perpetrators may not want to admit that they committed an act of sexual violence to their families and friends, particularly years after the act has been completed. A panelist provided the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many people who committed acts of sexual violence during the Balkan wars have yet to be prosecuted. Now that there is a chance that they may be brought to trial, they fear that their wives and families will hear about the acts they committed. However, as this is only retrospective, it does little to provide justice to the victims.

The naming and shaming question is a hard one to answer. The important question to ask is if it has any impact on prevention, or if it exploits the victim in any way. In Rwanda, many women were exposed as victims through this process. As I mentioned above, if the perpetrator doesn’t actually care about being shamed, it will do nothing for prevention.

While most of the discussion concerned women, I was glad that a few panelists brought up sexual violence against boys and men. Boys and men may experience sexual violence as a way to be coerced into a militia. Once they are raped, they have two choices: join the militia, or be put to death for sodomy.

Sexual violence in conflict and non-conflict areas is a tragic problem, with countless victims on every continent. Action must be taken, and it requires the participation of religious groups, NGOs, military leaders, government leaders, and non-state actors.