Perspectives | Sexual Violence

Nobel Peace Prize award reminds of imperative to support wartime sexual violence survivors

By - 30.10.2018

In Kosovo, such support still lacking two decades after war.

The annual Nobel Peace Prize was awarded earlier this month to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Murad, herself a survivor of wartime rape and an outspoken activist from the Yazidi community of northern Iraq, is devoted to calling attention to the widespread use of rape as a central tactic of the Islamic State (IS). Mukwege, a doctor, has committed his life to helping sexual assault victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The announcement of this award comes at an important juncture for the global conversation where the visibility of wartime rape has never been more prominent.

In the last few years, global attention has turned an eye to wartime rape. From the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and ground-breaking summit in 2014 spearheaded by William Hague and Angelina Jolie Pitt, to the myriad accounts of sexual abuse and violence in the DRC and Syria, to the increasing reports of abuses by UN peacekeepers in the surge of sex- and human-trafficking during and after conflict in areas such as the Central African Republic.

Amid all of this, the awarding of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize could not be more significant.

Why has it taken so long for the state to finally turn its eye toward wartime rape?

However, in Kosovo, survivors are still struggling to access basic human rights and state-level recognition for their still healing wounds of wartime rape. It was only from February 5 this year that survivors could finally apply for monetary, social and economic state support; benefits for which injured war veterans and families of martyrs have been eligible since the war ended.

In a 2017 report, Amnesty International detailed the direct attack on survivors’ basic human rights, stating that “under international law, the government is responsible for guaranteeing victims’ rights to justice, truth and reparation,” something the Kosovo government has been slow to deliver.

Survivors have not been given the same regard as other categories of victims from the war, something that has been long fought for by NGOs, activists, and some key figures within state institutions, including former President Atifete Jahjaga. Instead, survivors have endured “the physical, psychological, social and economic impact of sexual violence” almost in silence since the end of the war, Amnesty International reported.

Years where survivors have not been able to adequately rebuild their lives in addition to the initial violation of their basic human rights.

But this begs the question: Why has it taken so long for the state to finally turn its eye toward wartime rape?

One thing is clear, the patriarchal mentality of honor and shame shroud this issue, making it a heavily taboo topic to discuss in public. This also affects a survivor’s ability to openly seek medical treatment or to talk with their family about it. But the implications reach far deeper than that.

The gendered paradox of violence

In the years after the war, an UNMIK Regulation provided small monetary, medical and social benefits for eligible injured war veterans and their families. There was no mention, however, of victims of rape or sexual abuse, regardless of the victims’ gender. Activists, in organizations such as Medica Kosova, and those in political parties fought early for the inclusion of sexual violence survivors in the law for state benefits.

In 2007, Medica Kosova and UNIFEM (now known as UN Women) worked on a joint campaign to ensure sexual violence as a category, but instead, the “political status” of Kosovo took precedent, Medica Kosova’s director, Veprore Shehu, recently told me. There was “no priority given to this issue” then.

Many others have similarly remarked upon the lack of political will to bring sexual violence to the fore; it just simply wasn’t there, politicians did not deem it a necessarily advantageous topic.

Speaking at a public event, BarCamp, in Ferizaj in April, former president Atifete Jahjaga expressed her frustration with the political agendas of many politicians: “You have political leaders that are more oriented on going after the votes than going after the needs of the people.” The political elite are not always attuned to the needs of all their constituents.

Post war policy priorities and social principles have been impacted by a gendered assumption of who and what is more politically relevant or important.

Herein lies an inherent paradox to the way in which women’s bodies, as well as men’s sexuality, were instrumentalized for contradictory purposes. The bodies that were targeted, and upon which acts of sexual violence were perpetrated, were used to justify an ethnic aggression to protect and uphold a unified state. If Serbian troops were raping Kosovar Albanian women in the name of Serbia, then Kosovar Albanians were called to protect the borders of their nation, a call for community cohesion catalyzed by the violence acted upon women’s bodies.

Women’s bodies became the symbolic battleground on which to fight for an independent Kosovo; they were also the living reminder of sullied honor and disgrace for the Kosovar nation.

In this way, bodies became symbolically representative of the nation itself, reducing women to an assumption of being only victims or potential victims.

However, those same bodies were then left to suffer in silence without state-level support once the nation was successfully protected and the shameful troubles of past rapes were left behind.

Wherein women’s bodies became the symbolic battleground on which to fight for an independent Kosovo, they were also the living reminder of sullied honor and disgrace for the Kosovar nation.

The political will to support survivors might not have always been visible, but many years of dedicated activism has guaranteed that these women will receive the recognition and support they deserve.

Representatives from the four NGOs authorized to assist survivors in their applications to the government Verification Commission, recently reported that over 750 survivors have applied for the status of survivor, but only about 140 have received a positive response, entitling them to state benefits.

Sebahate Pacolli-Krasniqi, head of the Rehabilitation Unit at the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, and Mirlinda Sada, director of Medica Gjakova, both note the incredibly slow process by which the Commission is reviewing applications. Often, survivors are waiting up to six months to receive a response.

Medica Kosova’s Shehu told me it is clear that survivors are experiencing a “hesitation” in applying, especially when those who have applied are forced to wait longer than was mandated in the 2014 Amendment to the Law on the Status and Rights of Martyrs that ultimately paved the way for wartime rape survivors to access compensation.

She said that the stigma is also gendered — male war heroes do not face the shame or taboo when applying for their state benefits — and pointed out that the government has become “hyper-vigilant” when reviewing applications for state benefits after it was made public that many of the applications from those applying for the status of war veterans were falsified.

Thus, the social impacts on survivors of sexual violence are multiple. “Imagine how much money [survivors] lost during those years” in which they couldn’t apply, Shehu said. At a minimum, “economic independence” is essential, allowing one “to be able to fight for your rights” and hopefully decrease the stigma.

A global implication

So what does this reveal about the global conversations on wartime rape and its aftermath?

It is clear that with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize this year to champions for ending wartime sexual violence, governments and societies can no longer turn a blind eye to this global occurrence.

If societies and governments continue down the path where wartime rape is taboo, silenced, and hidden, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes we have for decades.

But instead, if we follow the lead of Murad and Mukwege, who are fighting for the rights of those affected by the ‘tactic’ (war crime) of wartime rape, then we can also fight to recognize the basic violations of human rights and the grave loss of dignity, security and safety many women and men are experiencing around the globe today.

Instead of governmental silence being complicit in the suffering of survivors, they must be held accountable to challenging the inherent gender bias in war, dismantling societal consequences of rape, and supporting survivors in the aftermath of conflict, when the wounds cannot simply heal themselves. There should no longer be an excuse for ignoring this category of war victims.

As Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman so bravely came forward to honestly and vulnerably share her story earlier this month, helping to break the shroud of silence in Kosovo, societies need to trust survivors and support their healing.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.