Catholic Communities Leading Fight Against Sexual Violence in Conflict

Vatican Radio, British Embassy to Holy See Host Round Table Ahead of International Summit

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“End Sexual Violence in Conflict #TimeToAct” was the theme of a roundtable discussion held today at Vatican Radio, a precursor to a global summit which will be held on the same theme later this month in London.

Organized by the British Embassy to the Holy See and Vatican Radio, the roundtable was streamed live via Vatican Radio’s Youtube channel.

It focused on the use of violent sexual crimes as a tactic in conflict.

It featured the testimonies of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker; Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Michel Roy; Sr. Elena Balani, a Comboni Missionary Sister working in South Sudan; and Sr. Victoria Chiharhula, a missionary in the Congo. Director of Vatican Radio’s English edition, Seàn-Patrick Lovett, produced the webcast.

Hosted by the British government, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence will take place on June 10-12, and will be the largest international gathering ever held on this issue. Co-chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, the event will welcome more than 1,200 delegates, including government officials, international organization representatives, civil society organizations and a broad range of domestic and international experts.

Vatican Radio’s Philippa Hitchen, who served as moderator for today’s roundtable, told ZENIT that there were two main aspects that came to light during the discussions, the first being the “extraordinary, dramatic experiences” from the religious sisters working in South Sudan and the DRC.

“These are people who have been sharing in this problem for several years now. They’ve been working with the women – and when I say women, we’re talking tiny children, girls, through to elderly grandmothers. They really bring home just how widespread, and how devastating this phenomena is,» Hitchen explained.

“Of course, anybody who suffers rape is devastated,” she said. “But this is a concerted effort, by different parties in conflict, by different soldiers, militia groups, to try to entirely destroy another community by raping, by killing, but also by leaving these women pregnant so that they are rejected by their communities. There’s a whole generation of children of rape that are growing up.”

This form of violence, she said, “destroys individuals, families, communities. It’s a way of just breaking down resistance, and leaving extraordinary physical and mental traumas. That’s the terrible side of the problem.”

Courage and support

The other aspect that came out during today’s discussions pertained to the work done by the Church, with hardly any resources, in areas where this form of violence is taking place.

These are remote areas, Hitchen said, “where NGOs have pulled out, where governments aren’t present, there’s no security worth talking about.” Nonetheless, “these men and women, religious, laypeople, are risking their lives, and trying to do whatever little they can to help rebuild, to restore, to help women find within themselves the courage to talk about what they’ve been through, and to support each other.”

Through their efforts, they are slowly helping “some of these women find the courage to confront what they’ve been through, to help them have some kind of healing, and occasionally to help them really become the backbone of a movement to try and empower other women to protect themselves, to protect their children.”

Ambassador Baker, who took part in today’s roundtable discussions, explained that its aim was to act as a “curtain raiser” to the upcoming Global Summit.

“It’s an issue that not only governments have to be involved in,” he said, “but civil society, military experts, experts in health, experts in law, and also faith networks.”

Sexual violence in conflict, Baker said, is “a systematic weapon of war,” one that is being increasingly used in conflicts. “Of course, there are many women, hundreds of thousands of women who are victims. But there are other victims as well. The societies in which they live are traumatized by this crime. The husbands, in front of whom often the rape is committed: the children – the children they have [already], and the children who are sometimes born of this crime. It’s something that impacts on society as a whole.”

“One hundred fifty countries are supporting our declaration to end sexual violence,” Baker said, indicating that there is a political will to end the crime.

The aim of the conference, then, is to determine how to “turn that political will into practical action on the ground.” This implies “improving the way judicial systems respond, so the perpetrators know they’re going to go to court if they commit this crime, rather than now where they hardly ever do.”

“We hope there will be an international protocol providing guidelines for civil society, for governments,” he said, “so that we can know how to respond to this when we see it happening in conflict in the future.”

Never before

Over the course of today’s roundtable discussions held at Vatican Radio, there were heard testimonies from those working in regions where sexual violence in conflict is an increasing reality.

Baker said these “powerful” testimonies demonstrate the importance of addressing this issue. “It’s one thing for a government to say, ‘This must end.’ It’s another thing when you hear from a religious sister on the ground in South Sudan that, never before in her society, has the crime against women, sexual violence in conflict been used so systematically.”

Citing the testimony of Sr. Victoria, he noted “how education is an incredibly important weapon in dealing with this crime, and how victims – if they’re supported and helped to recover – can be turned into agents against this crime in the future.”

Baker added that faith networks, “as witnesses to the crimes,” have an essential role in addressing the crisis by working closely with women, youth, governments, working in the rehabilitation and support of survivors, and in the education of young people to prevent future crimes.

“Hearing these voices on the ground just goes to show how much religious networks, Catholic religious networks, have to contribute to responding on the ground to this terrible crime.”

He went on to say that “it was very important to hear Catholic voices speaking about this, and providing advice to those who are going to be at this extraordinary conference next week.”

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Ann Schneible

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