NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Margot Wallström’s two-year U.N. assignment to stem sexual violence in conflict areas begins March 1, with an immediate focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"I will be traveling there as soon as possible," Wallström said in a phone interview last week with Women’s eNews from her home in Hammaro, Sweden. "The reports we get from the people we work with on the ground are so serious that we cannot but focus our efforts and reinforce our efforts in the Congo."

Wallström was appointed special representative for sexual violence earlier this month by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and has left her post as vice president of the European Commission.

Wallström’s appointment and mandate is laid out in Security Council Resolution 1888, which was passed in late September and calls for peacekeeping missions to protect women and children from sexual violence during conflict.

The Democratic Republic of Congo signed a ceasefire agreement with 22 armed groups in 2008, but the country remains mired in armed conflict and has become widely known as the global epicenter of wartime sexual violence. The U.N. Population Fund says more than 15,000 rapes were reported in 2009, including 9,045 in the war-torn east.

The conflict is profoundly complex. In the last dozen or so years the conflict has claimed the lives of about 5.4 million people and involved at least seven nations and several powerful militias, all accused of committing acts of sexual violence.

Alliances and power relations are ever changing and the government of Joseph Kabila has recently expressed its desire for the U.N. to begin drawing down its more than 20,000 uniformed personnel, who make up the largest peacekeeping force in the world.

"There are no quick fixes," Wallström said. "That is why we have to do as much as we can on the political level and through the peacekeepers on the ground. We’ll need the government to do more if we are to change the situation on the ground and then listen to the peacekeepers. What do they need to protect women?"

A Strategy to Implement

Wallström said she expected to work with the government, U.N. peacekeepers and an array of nongovernmental organizations to implement a comprehensive strategy that the U.N.’s Congo mission, or MONUC as its known by its French acronym, completed in March 2009. That plan was produced in consultation with the U.N. country team and the Congolese government.

"What’s unique is we are all talking about one strategy and it is part of a national strategy," said Beatrix Attinger Colijn, senior advisor for sexual violence with MONUC.

A central element of the plan is curbing the rampant impunity of those who commit sexual violence, including members of the military, armed militias operating throughout the east and, increasingly, civilians.

Often victims refrain from identifying attackers out of fear of retribution against themselves and their families. They may also be reluctant to admit the attack in the first place because rape carries so much stigma. Survivors may not know their rights to legal recourse.

Military commanders sometimes protect their soldiers from prosecution, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report. Because Congolese law holds that the judge in a court martial must have a higher rank than the defendant, many judges cannot try high-ranking military authorities. The cases are rarely transferred.

The plan also envisions improving victims’ access to justice by informing women of their rights, strengthening local police units, organizing mobile courts in rural areas, providing protection for victims, witnesses and others associated with cases and not requiring victims to pay legal fees.

It also focuses on applying the country’s 2006 law on sexual violence, which criminalizes sexual mutilation and slavery and the insertion of objects into a woman’s vagina.

Those who commit sexual assaults must be excluded from security services like the army or police, according to the U.N. plan, which also calls for special training for military, police and peacekeepers to prevent sexual violence.

Long U.N. Presence

Margot WallstromU.N. peacekeepers first entered the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960 and returned in 1999. In 2005, the U.N. mission was rocked by scandal following allegations that peacekeepers had sexually exploited Congolese women and children.

Tom Turner, Congo country specialist with Amnesty International USA, said the U.N.’s long history in the country will be both a blessing and a burden for Wallström.

"She’ll have the visibility, but the legacy" as well, Turner said.

Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, hopes Wallström will focus on ending impunity among military commanders.

In its 2009 report, Human Rights Watch found that commanders have frequently failed to prevent or halt sexual violence and, as a result, may also be guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Mollmann said those who ordered the use of sexual violence as a war tactic, or who did nothing to prevent it, should be put on trial.

Mollmann also believes selected high-profile criminal trials would put the judicial system on a better track. "Once you start doing what you should have been doing all along," she said, "it’s harder not to do that again."

‘A Million Ideas’ to Confront Violence

Wallström agreed that ending impunity and prosecuting perpetrators are both essential to quelling sexual violence in conflict, especially in Congo where the situation has not substantially improved for years.

But in confronting violence, she said she had "a million ideas."

Though she called it premature, one idea includes bringing modern technologies to bear on the problem of identifying assailants and improving the protection of women when they seek justice against their assailants.

"Why in Africa can we not use laboratories and DNA to trace perpetrators, why can’t we use GPS to track women?" she said of the global positioning systems now commonly used by car drivers. "We can track almost anyone on the planet" with GPS.

Wallström also mentioned providing women with video cameras and perhaps mobile phones to signal when they need protection. She said she favors combining such high-tech approaches with traditional strategies, such as using the radio or soap operas to advocate against sexual violence and help women understand their rights.

Wallström said she is eager, most of all, to show the world, "we can deal with this problem, we can do something about it. I hope we will not just be another talk shop, but make sure that things change on the ground."

Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

For more information:

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888:

The Comprehensive Strategy on Combating Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Human Rights Watch, Democratic Republic of the Congo: