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Great Lakes Conference Tackles Sexual, Gender-Based Violence

Nighti Aparo stands in her village in northern Uganda. Aparo was kidnapped, raped at gunpoint and tortured by the Lords Resistance Army. (OXFAM handout, file photo)

Nighti Aparo stands in her village in northern Uganda. Aparo was kidnapped, raped at gunpoint and tortured by the Lords Resistance Army. (OXFAM handout, file photo)

Member states of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region wrapped up a five-day summit on sexual and gender-based violence on Friday, calling for collective action in tackling an issue that has touched every country in the region.

The term that encompasses rape, molestation, forced prostitution, domestic violence and certain traditional practices - is an issue that takes on particular urgency in conflict zones. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an estimated 12 percent of the country’s women have been raped at least once, leading some commentators to call it the “worst place on Earth to be a woman.”

But Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan and Central African Republic are also emerging from their own conflicts, and many other countries in the region are struggling to manage the lingering effects of past violence.

The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region met in Uganda's capital this week to discuss ways to combat sexual and gender-based violence in central and east Africa. The conference was established in 2006 to encourage peace and stability in an area historically plagued by armed conflicts, many of which have taken on a regional dimension. South Sudan was admitted as the newest member of the conference on Friday.

Speaking at the summit, U.S. Special Advisor to the Great Lakes Region Barrie Walkley announced that the United States will soon be launching its own "National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security."

“Too often, sexual and gender-based violence is explained away as a women’s problem, a problem for women. It is not. It needs to be a matter of grave and serious concern to men, as well as to women, for it affects all elements of society,” Walkley said.

Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, points out that in most Great Lakes conflicts, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been widely used as weapons of war. She says these acts were not spontaneous, but deliberate and premeditated.

“For example, in the eastern DRC, we saw that armed groups were moving from one village to another, and this was the one weapon that they used," Wallstrom said. "These were mass rapes. More than 300 people were raped, including men as well. There were no killings, but this was used as a very effective tool of instilling fear and terror, and demonstrating control.”

Often the worst sexual atrocities in conflict zones are committed by the army, security forces and peacekeepers themselves, as has been in the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in northern Uganda. Several of the leaders at the summit emphasized the importance of disciplining their armed forces, though Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete confessed that this is a difficult issue to address.

“Of course, during these situations of conflict, normally it’s the armed forces and the police who are the perpetrators," the president said. "Well, that becomes a bit difficult because you’ve got to use the police to arrest these guys.”

Yet Lillian Mpabulungi of CARE International says that gender-based violence and neglect does not usually end with peace agreements. Some of the most pervasive problems, she says, occur in post-conflict situations like northern Uganda, where women and girls were abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army to fight alongside men.

“The male ex-combatants are actually catered for. When it comes to the female ex-combatants, they are not taken as ex-combatants. They are taken just as girls and women. So when they return, it’s very important for our governments to look into that, so that they benefit from the recovery programs that we have. Medical support, psychosocial support, looking at rehabilitation, looking at income-generating services - this is what the survivors are actually looking for,” she said.

She thinks that the summit this week can make a difference and that African leaders are beginning to take sexual gender-based violence more seriously.

“It’s changing. There’s a lot of challenging of our male counterparts, and acceptance that this is happening. It’s no longer a women’s issue. People actually realize that it’s not good for development, it’s not good for economic, for social, for spiritual development of our country,” Mpabulungi said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was handed the two-year chairmanship of the conference on Thursday, taking over from Zambian President Michael Sata. Museveni vowed to use his position to focus on improving the region’s infrastructure.