Zainab Bangura addresses the U.N. General Assembly
Zainab Bangura addresses the U.N. General Assembly

Credit: U.N. Photo/Lou Rouse

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)– Zainab Bangura has taken over one of the United Nations’ most thankless top positions: tackling a world’s worth of horror stories as the secretary general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

A survivor of Sierra Leone’s fierce civil war, she says her personal experiences constantly inform her current work.

“I know what it means to lose your house, to be looted. To look a child in the eye and say, ‘If they come for me, you need to run’,” the 52-year-old said. “I know what it means to give testimony and to investigate the documents.”

Her office has a basic annual budget of $1.67 million, which is augmented with a special donor fund for specific projects. Her nine-person staff is helped and guided by an associated team of experts.

With limited resources, Bangura, a former health minister from Sierra Leone, doesn’t plan to use her two-year term trying to do it on her own. Governments, she said in a recent interview at her office, must join her efforts to combat and redress sexual violence in conflict and its aftermath.

“It is a primary and moral responsibility for member states to provide security for its people, especially the most vulnerable,” said Bangura, who was appointed in June and took office in September. “You cannot pursue a development agenda if you cannot provide security for your people.”

Bangura plans to help governments take the lead in combating sexual violence in their countries while she and her team push a core agenda of ending immunity for sexual violence offenders.

In line with that, she will attend events and conferences outside the immediate periphery of her work, such as the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January 2013.

Last week, Bangura visited her first country, the Central African Republic, where sexual violence has been a recurrent trend throughout the country’s decades of military crises and political instability.

Shifting the responsibility from the U.N. to countries with conflict-fueled sexual violence may represent a way for the young office to settle itself alongside the U.N. “blue helmet” system of peacekeeping troops and advisors at the frontlines of conflicts and crimes.

Mixed Wallstrom Response

On Dec. 8 Al Jazeera reported fresh U.N. allegations of dozens of rapes last month by retreating Congolese forces in the eastern, mineral-rich part of the country plagued by violence. Bangura’s team could not be reached for comment over the weekend on the report.

This was a region where Bangura’s predecessor, Margot Wallstrom, a Swedish politician and the first-ever special representative on sexual violence, ran into her biggest problem.

Activists working in conflict countries criticized her delayed response to a mass rape attack in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo in August 2010, shortly after her appointment, when U.N. peacekeepers first learned of the attack days after local health workers treated the victims.

But Wallstrom also earned kudos from gender-based violence activists working in U.N. circles for strengthening documentation efforts through her country visits and annual reports.

Bangura praises the “wonderful foundation” laid by Wallstrom. But her country-led initiative, and the action Bangura has already taken on it, seems new.

One of Bangura’s first moves, in mid-September, was to call a meeting with the African Group, a coalition at the U.N. of African member states. She introduced herself and signaled the need to work together.

“I was clear that this is a global issue. It is not an African issue,” said Bangura. “This issue is not a cultural issue and my message to them . . . was that there is no culture in the world that enjoys or wants to dehumanize or degrade its women.”

However, six out of the eight priority conflict and post-conflict countries her team will focus its research efforts on are in Africa. They are: Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sudan (Darfur) and South Sudan.

When Wallstrom was in the position, she visited Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Colombia, said Mattias Sundholm, a spokesperson for both special representatives.

Field visits will help identify the types of training and technical support–such as techniques to investigate sexual violence crimes–that her office can provide. These visits also provide the chance to meet with victims of sexual violence, their advocates and political leaders.

Each year, the sexual violence special representative delivers an annual report to the Security Council on sexual violence in conflict, including recommendations on how specific countries can strengthen their laws to better protect people from this violence. This year’s report, the first by Bangura, will be published on March 15, 2013.

Documenting Rights Abuses

As a women’s rights activist in her native Sierra Leone, Bangura worked with a local organization to document and report human rights abuses throughout the country’s 11-year-long civil war from 1991 to 2002. The internal conflict in the diamond-rich West African country started when a rebel faction, the Revolutionary United Front, attempted to overthrow the government.

Bangura entered politics as a way to “give back something” to her country. She has since served as Sierra Leone’s minister of foreign affairs and health minister.

The youngest rape victim she met during her documentation work was 3-years-old.

Bangura says her landing at the U.N. has been “soft,” because she knows the issues and the trauma that accompany them.

Her office is not on the ground in conflict countries and does not directly collect data. It relies on U.N. agencies, nongovernmental organizations and national governments. But her office would like to see information gathering on sexual violence in conflict become more timely and accurate, says La Neice Collins, a member of her team.

Wallstrom’s annual reports to the Security Council describe overall trends of sexual violence in more than 16 countries, in addition to specific incidents of mass rapes or cases of sexual violence reported to the government, police or the U.N. The data vary by country, bound only by an overarching idea in the January 2012 report: armed conflict provides a breeding ground for sexual violence.

Andrew Mack, director of the Vancouver-based research center Human Security Report Project, says a lack of documentation prevents sexual violence in wartime from being taken seriously in the international community.

“The secretary-general goes to report to the Security Council and he has no idea if the sexual violence around the world has been increasing or decreasing,” said Mack, who previously worked in the executive office of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “Nobody in the U.N. system knows that.”

Elisabeth Roesch, a senior women’s protection advocacy officer for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, isn’t certain that accurate numbers could help inspire more interest in fighting sexual conflict during wartime.

“I wonder what the magical number is–is it 10 million or is it 50 million women raped?” she said in a phone interview. “In my mind, there isn’t a level that is acceptable.”

Roesch has had three formal briefings with Bangura’s team in New York City but has yet to meet her. She says she has high hopes for her tenure, given Bangura’s background as a civil-society and women’s rights activist.

Amy Lieberman is a U.N. correspondent for Women’s eNews.

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