Malawi’s war against Sexual Violence: A time for Action, not just lip service!

The UK Government is calling for international action to address the problem of sexual violence in conflict. All the Governments that have endorsed the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict will be invited, as will legal, military and judicial practitioners and representatives from multilateral organisations, NGOs and civil society.
On 9-13 June, I attended a complementary session representing the region on the same issue in Beijing, China. This complementary summit was also part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that was held on 10-13th June 2014 in London, this was the largest gathering ever brought together on this subject.British Foreign Secretary William Hague co-chaired the summit with Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The aims of that Summit was to create irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and deliver practical action that impacts those on the ground. Delegates discussed among other issues how to shatter the culture of impunity for sexual violence perpetrators.rape-edited-616x380

Possibilities of increasing prosecution and convictions for this crime; protecting victims; supporting survivors and changing attitudes of people, governments, faith leaders and civil society across the world to condemn the horrors of war-zone sexual violence, to see the cycles of conflict it creates and to grasp the role they have to play in ending this crime once and for all.

Origins of Sexual Violence

Since the 1990s, sexual violence in conflict zones has received much media attention. In large part as a result of grassroots feminist organizing in the 1970’s and 1980s, mass rapes in the wars in the former Yugoslavia and during the Rwandan genocide received widespread coverage, and international organizations—from courts to NGOs to the UN—have engaged in systematic efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and to ameliorate the effects of wartime sexual violence.

From a gender perspective, gender based violence, domestic violence, incest, rape and indications of dire fault lines in the world.
The sexualisation of young girls and the fact that women of all ages are constantly preyed upon by men is cause of great concern. This diminishes women’s power and individual agency.

These flagrant human rights violations continue with impunity and with inadequate political, social and financial response.
This is therefore time to act and end sexual violence in our region and beyond.

Malawi as a Global Player

Malawi has not been and is not a conflict zone. However, Malawi is part of the international community and has an obligation under international law to protect and promote human rights.

Malawi also receives refugees from conflict zones especially within the sub Saharan region.

And therefore as a country we cannot claim that this is an alien issue. In addition, the Government of Malawi has shown its political will by being among the “Circle of Champions” through the former President Dr. Joyce Banda as we put pen to paper signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the 68th Session of the General Assembly in 2013.

This is not strange as it is in line with other international and regional treaties that Malawi has signed and ratified which aim to protect women and girls from violence including egregious sexual violence being perpetrated in too many conflicts around the world.

However, the issue of sexual violence has not really gained momentum in the country as there has not been awareness on it. Malawi’s willingness to be a champion for this issue is therefore a welcome development. Malawi must continue pushing for more action as a Chair for SADC in the region.

Specific awareness

Sexual violence is a crime and like any crime the issue of rape which is used as weapon of war can also be prosecuted under our local laws. For instance, rape and defilement are already covered in our penal code.

However, what is required is that our laws must recognise sexual violence and provide for stiffer penalties.
Media reports have sometimes suggested that sentences imposed on rape and defilement have not been stiffer enough,inclusion of sexual violence in our penal code must be considered.

Sexual violence is silent throughout the region and in most cases, covered broadly under exploitation. Sexual violence is also under-reported according to the UN and affects men, women girls and boys.

Educational and professional training and opportunities should be made available to sexual violence victims that also integrate s psycho- social dimension.

In Malawi we need specific awareness and capacity building of duty bearers on the issue. Documentation of the issue must be explored so as to enhance awareness.

Additionally, for the country to make strides, we must learn from other countries where sexual violence in conflict is a front-line concern. Stakeholders and agencies like UN Women, the Ministry of Gender, Media, faith leaders and civil society must join hands to condemn the horrors of war-zone sexual violence, to see the cycles of conflict it creates and to grasp the role they have to play in ending this crime once and for all.

Even though Malawi is not a conflict zone taking a preventative approach and amending the law to legislate against sexual violence is necessary as it prepares us to curb sexual violence when it occurs.

*Habiba Osman is a militant Human trafficking expert, Human Rights Lawyer and Defender based in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe and is writing in her own capacity.*

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