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Tool of warfare and African social crisis: the epidemic of gender-based violence — an interview with Catherine Akurut

So widespread is gender-based violence in African societies and so deleterious the effects on the many victims that the crime can be considered a public health issue. Catherine Akurut, an IOA consultant and conflict resolution practitioner based in Uganda, calls gender-based violence in Africa an “epidemic.”

A young girl at a camp for displaced persons in Rwanda’s Western Province.
A young girl at a camp for displaced persons in Rwanda’s Western Province. Photo courtesy Julien Harneis/Flickr

Gender-based violence is not restricted to conflict zones; and indeed some militaries use gender-based violence as a weapon of sorts, sanctioning and perhaps ordering soldiers to commit rape and other abuses to pacify or punish civilian populations. Could you elaborate further on the nature of gender-based violence in Africa’s conflict zones?

Gender-based violence in conflict areas takes on many forms including rape, trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced impregnation and is solely intended to torture and to cause physical, emotional and psychological harm. It is true that gender-based violence is not restricted to conflict zones. But, more often than not, conflicts provide the perfect conditions for such atrocities to occur. The nature of gender-based violence in Africa’s conflict zones is one that is characterised by women and girls comprising the majority of the victims. However, in recent years, it has come to light that boys and men too, can be the victims of gender-based violence. This has been exposed in the Central African Republic (CAR) where UN peacekeepers have been the victimisers. A means by which to address these atrocities continues to elude all stakeholders.

What are international organisations able to do to discourage gender-based violence in conflict zones and to prosecute perpetrators?

Prosecuting perpetrators of gender-based violence has proven to be problematic. Due to limited resources, cases related to gender-based violence take a long time to make their way to and through national and international court systems. International organisations cannot work alone to discourage gender-based violence. A holistic remedy is required, starting from the grassroots of communities and the populace at large, including police interventions and education systems to mention but a few. In my opinion, international organisations are indeed able to and should play an important role in impeding gender-based violence in conflict zones as well as assisting with the prosecution of the perpetrators thereof. Furthermore, international organisations should help draw national and international attention to gender-based abuse in particular conflicts using the mainstream media. NGOs, the UN and other international groups should investigate and identify the leaders of these conflicts and make it known to them that they will be held responsible and accountable for not only their own actions, but for the actions of those under their command. International organisations should, directly or through proxies, continuously investigate and collect information and evidence relating to any form of gender-based violence in conflict zones with a view to future prosecutions of the perpetrators. If these abuses are made known to the relevant leaders of conflicts, they may act to deter would-be perpetrators.

As we are witnessing with the unfolding allegations of misconduct by peacekeepers in the CAR, sexual abuse is also committed against children in conflict zones. Please discuss this.

The unfolding allegations of misconduct by peacekeepers committing sexual violence atrocities against children in the CAR are both horrendous and disturbing. Peacekeepers should know better. The international community expects them to conduct and hold themselves to the highest and strictest code of conduct in operational areas. Such serious allegations of misconduct undermine the credibility of the peacekeepers themselves and, in every respect, the peacekeeping missions. It is therefore important that these perpetrators be prosecuted for the victims to feel that justice has been served. It will also serve as an example to all other peacekeepers that intend to commit similar transgressions.

Gender-based violence unfortunately seems commonplace in non-conflict areas as well. What is your evaluation on the extent and causes thereof?

Indeed, gender-based violence is a huge threat – not only in ongoing conflict situations, but also in non-conflict areas. The difference, however, is the extent and the causes. In non-conflict areas, the extent of gender-based violence is generally depicted in the media as a matter of random, individual cases, which offers the false impression that the problem is less broad than it is. The problem is more widespread than is reported or shown statistically because many of the victims are not inclined to report their ordeals. Yet, it is from these reports that we get to learn more about the issue of gender-based violence. The most common type of gender-based violence in non-conflict areas is domestic violence. Other forms include rape, human trafficking, sexual harassment, exploitation and commercialisation and female genital mutilation, all of which have different aspects that define the causes, effects and remedies. In fact, many people are still unaware of the extent of these atrocities, partly because victims are pressured into silence by family, community, religious institutions or other factors. The causes of gender-based violence range from cultural through to societal, while compounding factors include ignorance, victims’ silence, and importantly the weak enforcement of the law against perpetrators of such violence. These factors are pertinent across genders.

What is the economic cost of gender-based violence in African nations, assuming this can be quantified? If not, what would your assessment of the cost be?

The economic cost of gender-based violence in African nations varies from country to country. My assessment is that the cost would be high. The huge cost includes the physical and emotional treatment of the victims and their loved ones,  the prosecution and incarceration of perpetrators and raising awareness to name but a few.

Is there an epidemic of rape and gender-based abuse in Africa or does it just seem so as a result of better reporting and media coverage?

The issue of rape and gender-based abuse in Africa is a reality and of epidemic proportions. The problem is not a matter of perception based on increasing reports in the media. Thousands of women and girls are indeed being raped and subjected to gender-based violence in Africa.

Given the levels of poverty and the lack of social services in many parts of Africa, are children more vulnerable to sexual violence with fewer means to achieve healing and justice, or are families and communities able to deal with such abuse within themselves?

The vulnerability of children to sexual violence is partly due to poverty, lack of social services and fewer means to achieve healing and justice. The ability of families and communities to deal with such abuses is limited because of the difficulties associated with the judicial system, cultural attitudes and fear, among many other factors.

How would you assess the will and effectiveness of Africa’s law enforcement institutions – the police and courts – and religious institutions to address gender-based violence?

While the police, courts and religious institutions are important and would be helpful in addressing gender-based violence, the challenge is the lack of will and the ineffectiveness of Africa’s law enforcement institutions in dealing with these crimes. The will and commitment of these institutions is weak and African nations continue to suffer from ineffectiveness in law enforcement. This ineffectiveness is as a result of inadequate capacity to address gender-based violence.