Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross

The African Union (AU) recently hosted a meeting to work towards eliminating or significantly reducing rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict and post conflict African countries. The African Union Commission (AUC), the executive body of the AU, convened experts to address the resulting human rights violations and peace and security consequences of a culture of sexual violence that persists in conflict and post conflict countries. The meeting took place under the African Solidarity Initiative (ASI), an AU program started in 2012 to support reconstruction in post conflict countries on the continent. When first formed, the ASI identified key areas on which to focus support for post conflict countries, including gender inequality and sexual violence.

The AU has held meetings on sexual violence in the past. At a meeting of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union in 2011, survivors of sexual violence in conflict and post conflict countries testified as to their experiences.  At the time of the 2011 meeting, the Peace and Security Council made a commitment to eliminate sexual violence. The recent meeting on sexual violence in conflict areas may be considered one of the first concrete steps resulting from this commitment two years earlier.

Warring groups use sexual violence as a means of control with little consequences for their actions. Sexual violence tactics may be employed to embarrass or punish civilians, award troops, destroy cultures, and ethnically cleanse communities. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country where four women are raped every five minutes according to a 2011 study, military and other combatants have consistently used sexual violence as a weapon to retaliate and punish people thought to side with other militia or rebel groups. Additionally, rape is often used to intimidate communities so that the military or rebel groups can take control of the area and use the abandoned resources.

Sexual violence in conflict and post conflict areas, however, extends beyond its use as a weapon of war. Women in conflict zones are often vulnerable due to a lack of resources and available protection. For instance, military groups often separate internally displaced women from other family members and force these women to submit to sex in exchange for protection or food.  Additionally, military groups promising protection to a population are often the perpetrators of sexual violence against that same population. Moreover, the high rates of sexual violence during a conflict can lead to a shift in the social norms, resulting in high rates of sexual violence post conflict as well. A study conducted in the eastern part of the DRC demonstrated that rapes unrelated to conflict went up from one percent to thirty-eight percent between 2004 and 2008.

The meeting of experts on sexual violence took a multi-pronged approach to eliminating sexual violence, including changing the normative view that sexual violence in conflict and post conflict societies is acceptable. The experts focused on eight countries that the ASI has previously assessed for post conflict needs: Burundi, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Republic of Southern Sudan, and the Republic of Sudan. One of the meeting’s priorities was to, through the lens of the eight countries, brainstorm a plan to address the underlying causes of sexual violence, including social norms and a lack of access to justice. These approaches seek to contribute to a framework for combatting the widespread impunity that encourages the vicious cycle of sexual violence.

Two of the eight countries on which the ASI focuses have already made binding commitments to prohibit sexual violence domestically. Liberia and the DRC have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Article 4 of the Protocol prohibits violence against women, including forced sex. The multifaceted approach that the ASI is taking towards sexual violence in conflict and post conflict countries and the resulting framework will provide guidelines for countries in determining how to address the issue and, in the case of Liberia and the DRC, fulfill their commitments to the Protocol.