Speech: ‘Until we make it clear there are consequences for rape—real, dire consequences—we will never turn the tide of it’

Briefing by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Danai Gurira to the UN Security Council at the annual open debate on conflict-related sexual violence, UN headquarters, 23 April 2024.

[As delivered.]

Eighty cents. When was the last time you handled 80 cents? Paid for something and that was all it cost? It is not even enough to buy a packet of gum in this day and age. But it can buy you a child to rape at a so-called Maison de Tolerance in a camp for internally displaced people in Eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. That is the world that we are still in, where conflict zones are terror zones for women, and children.

Speech: ‘Until we make it clear there are consequences for rape—real, dire consequences—we will never turn the tide of it’

My first exposure to this dire issue came when I, as a playwright, started to seek to create a narrative that would amplify the voices of women and girls caught in the crosshairs of war. It was the Liberian civil war. I was seeking their unheard voices. It would become my Broadway play “Eclipsed”. With the help of a friend at the UN who worked then in the Children and Armed Conflict Office, I visited Liberia and spent time with women who had experienced unthinkable atrocity, who wished to be heard, to participate in the change process, to have a chance at a fulfilling life and heal from all that had been taken from them, who wanted justice. I am sad to say, 17 years later, the change we’d all hoped for has not been won.

What shocks me is how these crimes are being committed all around the world, how vast and widespread the issue has become. The report [Report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence (S/2024/292)] covers 25 situations: from Colombia to the Ukraine, to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Haiti and, closer to home for me, as a Zimbabwean, DRC, Ethiopia, Central Republic of Africa, and Sudan. This issue has now become prevalent for more countries, not fewer.

The media is our primary filter for shaping our perception and understanding of the scale and the scope of these violations, yet the reality of our news media is that they focus on some places—and certainly not the places where women look like me. This debate has to be a time when we hear from the courageous Sudanese peace builders like Niemat Ahmadi, when we hear and see the girl tied to a tree in Ethiopia. This debate is for that child in the brothel near the IDP [internally displaced persons] camp in Eastern Congo.

We must acknowledge women and survivors all over the world. Nothing is more dangerous than crimes that are not acknowledged, crimes that are unseen and allowed to persist.

I am here today to amplify the voices of those who are never seen and heard, to acknowledge their suffering, and to make sure they are not forgotten. And to hold those that are allowing this to continue, responsible.

Almost exactly a year ago, a civil war broke out in Sudan, during Ramadan, on April 15th. In this Chamber, a remarkable Sudanese woman called Hala al-Karib told you that the first report of gang rape by armed men was reported at noon on that very first day, in a woman’s home in Khartoum, and quickly followed by two more in that same area of the city. And since then, the reports of sexual violence and sexual slavery have not stopped.

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo has featured in annual reports and annual debates every year, the number of victims and survivors continue to rise. Service providers and Doctors without Borders have been assisting as many as 70 victims every single day from the IDP camps near Goma.

In 2020, only five days after my first briefing with this Council, civil war erupted in Ethiopia, where atrocities are shocking, with both Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers ruthlessly gang raping women, often in public, exhibiting them there, tied to trees. And impunity is pervasive. The common result: no justice for the survivors, none. Estimates are that 10,000 survivors of sexual violence sought care in health centres, which is already a fraction of the total number of victims, because many survivors never seek care, and many others want to but cannot find it. Khartoum, once a thriving city for African women professionals, now reports sexual violence targeting of women activists, professors, health care providers, and students.

How do we effectively combat this issue? Malta has invited us to consider something that is part of the answer to the question: the guns. There are more services for survivors than before, more people working on this than before, but we are merely swimming against the tide, getting nowhere. And that tide is emboldened by nine consecutive years of increased military spending, reaching an all-time high of more than 2.4 trillion dollars. The actors committing sexual violence at such high rates in Sudan, the DRC, Ethiopia, or Haiti, to name a few, are armed to the teeth, flagrantly violating arms embargoes. We hear so much about disruptions to the global supply chain, but the weapons keep flowing.

When you set the stage, the players will come. I as a theatre maker know this well. The military economy sets the stage. The players are well supplied and play their roles. Sexual violence is horrifyingly and intrinsically embedded in the stage directions of war.

Why does it feel like things are getting worse, even as the UN ramped up its efforts to address conflict-related sexual violence over the last decade and a half since I wrote “Eclipsed”?

How can your words in this chamber or the UN’s small programmes in conflict areas compete with 2.4 trillion dollars of military spending and record weapons sales? When we take all bilateral aid supporting feminist, women-led, and women’s rights organizations and movements in conflict-area countries, we do not get to 150 million dollars for the last year for which we have data. Put another way, less than 0.01 per cent of global military spending.

The point is that reversing the upward trajectory of military spending would be a way of reducing the number of victims in need of support in the first place. The point is, working on arms control and ammunition management is also working to prevent conflict-related sexual violence. Arms are part of the root of enabling these crimes—that is undeniable.

But I must put forth: fewer weapons doesn’t get at the heart of the psychosis of those who use this kind of violence.

Diminishing its occurrence is not just about guns, though they definitely play a role that must be addressed.

Simply put: sexual violence in conflict existed long before semi-automatic weapons. It has been used to break, dominate, and take power and control, and to destroy since time immemorable. The pathology of it is an expression of a deeper complexity and layers—we have to target it at all levels and at all times.

The issue that strikes me, shocks me, and always stood out as the one that requires far more strident steps than it currently has, as mentioned, is that of impunity. We see the documentation across the Secretary General’s report, across so many testimonies from brave survivors: about the commander who committed the act, and he was let off, due to his political power, his money, his intimidation; the soldiers who terrorized a home, a school, a community, with no consequence; governments allowing their soldiers free rein to terrorize. This happens more times than we can count. As well as a gun issue, we have a deterrence issue.

The issue of impunity, the knowledge that one can rape a mother, a daughter, a son, a child and get away with it, feeds the pathology that keeps this issue dire and growing. We seem to not have found a way to create a deterrent that truly alters its perpetuation.

Now, we know such deterrents exist. But the complicity around sexual violence being a spoil or inevitable consequence of war seems to deter various structures from truly holding parties accountable. Even though the ICC [International Criminal Court] has taken up some cases of sexual violence, it is still largely cost-free to rape in the chaos of conflict. I’d like to speak to the Governments here today who allow this to occur within their borders with impunity. If you refuse to protect your most vulnerable and allow their bodies to be a spoil of your political conflicts, you should be held accountable. And you should not be in a position of leadership.

Cultures of impunity—“I can do this because I am likely to get away with it, because it is the expected practice of war”—must end. They need to be put through courts of justice: accountability must be a given. We also need change of male-dominated cultures, where men are not holding themselves or each other accountable for committing these kinds of crimes, where leaders and their militaries condone this atrocity on their own citizens. For all the efforts to achieve gender justice over the past two decades, the shameful truth is that almost all perpetrators still feel they can get away with it. And the overwhelming majority of survivors never seek justice because justice is rarely ever there for them. Leaders of their own countries are not standing up for justice, they are not even condemning this horrific practice and seeing justice be served. We still haven’t fundamentally changed the perverse equation that assigns more consequences to the survivor than the tormentor.

Until we make it clear there are consequences for rape—real, dire consequences—we will never turn the tide of it.

I want to ask Member States in this room where this atrocity occurs, those Member States whose own State soldiers perpetuate these occurrences: Is this a default mechanism in conflict? Is fighting your wars on the bodies of your most vulnerable a tactic of war? What is being done, truly done, to prevent it, to bring justice, to deter future acts of atrocity? You must answer to this and to the girl in Ethiopia right now who doesn’t know if she will make it through the week without being tied to a tree. Right now, a child in Eastern Congo needs us to keep attacking this issue in multiple ways, including disarmament and impunity. And bringing truth to power. She needs us to be relentless and unstoppable. Or she continues a life of unspeakable suffering. Sold for a night. For just 80 cents.

Thank you.