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Former UN Special Envoy Warns Sexual Violence Can Doom Peace Efforts in Africa

The Former UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa warns that ending conflict, without stopping sexual violence against women, makes peace a “mere illusion.” He says widespread rape and assaults in Liberia and the DRC are examples of where peace and reconciliation efforts are at risk.

Stephen Lewis, now co-director of the organization AIDS-Free World, says peace is contingent on the safety and health of women.

“What has happened in these conflicts from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of Congo is that the fighting war appears to end, ostensibly, but the war of sexual violence against women goes on. Or indeed, it intensifies. And I don’t see how you can talk of peace when raping and sexual violence is the order of the day for the women of the country. Just to stop the bullets doesn’t seem to stop the rape,” he says.

Lewis recently visited Liberia, where he describes violence against women as “shocking.”

“UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) learned that as they did a study of rapes that had been reported, over 50 percent of them are involving young girls between the ages of 10 and 14. They are the targets of the raping. And boys and girls together feel that young girls are the endangered species in the country,” he says.

He says Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is “staking her integrity on confronting and subduing the war on women.”

Although he called the situation in Liberia shocking, he says the DRC is even worse.

“Well, the DRC is without question the worst place in the world for women. And the destruction of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo is beyond the capacity of the mind to absorb. There’s actually a medical term of art called ‘vaginal destruction,’ where the violence heaped on women – mutilation and torture and the use of knives and the use of guns – is in many ways without precedent,” he says.

Lewis says that the nature of conflict has changed. He says the raping of women has become a strategy of war.

“We’ve always thought that rape is a tool of war, but now it’s been elevated to the level of a strategy, where the whole process of destroying women and engaging in sexual violence, and ultimately in humiliating and degrading entire communities though their women, is the way in which marauding bands of rebels and troops take control,” he says.

The former UN special envoy says military peacekeepers must be trained to see this changing nature of conflict, to intervene to protect women. He also says many more women must become members of peacekeeping and police forces. What’s more, he says there should be mobile military units that quickly move to prevent or stop attacks on women.

“What lies at the heart of all of this for us is the evidence that there are rising rates of HIV as a result of the violence, of the sexual violence. The sexual violence results in the transmission of the AIDS virus. And so, not only do you have a contagion of brutality, but you have a contagion of disease, which is the consequence of the brutality,” he says.

Lewis says protecting women isn’t enough. Many men must change their behavior.

“I think it is possible. But I think it takes time. It takes time to change cultural practices. It takes time to reduce the sense of absolute sexual entitlement, which so many men seem to hold,” he says.

Stephen Lewis says just as HIV/AIDS is now considered a threat to national security, so too is violence against women. He says the United States is expected to introduce a UN Security Council resolution in June labeling sexual violence a security issue. But he says with or without the UN resolution, trained peacekeepers lie at the heart of transformation.