By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Both the embassy of the United Kingdom and that of Belgium to the Holy See, along with the Jesuit Refugee Service, hosted a conference entitled "Shining the Light on Sexual Violence in Conflict" on Friday evening at the Jesuit Curia in Rome. The purpose of the event was to raise awareness of sexual violence used as a weapon primarily against thousands of women in conflict zones. It is part of the larger “Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative Film Festival – Fighting Stigma through Film” being held in London from 23-24 November.
Cause embraced by both the UK and Belgium
Both Ambassadors to the Holy See expressed their respective country’s commitment to combating the phenomenon of the widespread use of sexual violence against women in conflict zones. Jean Cornet d’Elzius, Ambassador of Belgium to the Holy See, said that “Belgium is very active in the fight against sexual violence used as a weapon in conflicts”. He also said that Belgium has long supported the work of Nobel Peace Prize 2018 winner Dr Denis Mukwege.
Sally Axworthy, British Ambassador to the Holy See, presented the United Kingdom’s commitment which began in 2014. While rape has always been a part of conflict, "its increased use tears apart the fabric of society", she said. Britain is actively combating this evil through protocol, addressing the stigma faced by the violated women, and prevention programs primarily through military training. Recognizing that men and women religious are often on the ground, ministering to the victims, the UK has also partnered with both groups representing the Superiors General of men and women religious. Together, they have already carried out two training sessions.
No faceless victims
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, presented the event’s keynote address. He stated emphatically that there are no faceless victims. Looking at the issue on a larger scale, Archbishop Gallagher said protecting women and children from sexual violence used as a weapon should motivate nations “to bring conflicts to an end and to act together through dialogue and mediation efforts, in order to find coordinated solutions that promote reconciliation and build peace”. Peace is essential to overcome sexual violence, he said.
Participants also had the opportunity of seeing a video message from White Father Bernard Ugeux, who provides assistance and training for sexual abuse survivors. His program helps empower them through professional skills training in order to help them recover their own “self-esteem and autonomy”. He said that rape has become a normal way of “terrorizing and controlling populations”, especially those living in areas rich in mineral resources which are dominated by illegal trade activities. Fr Ugeux said that he advocates that companies producing cell phones and computers should be obliged to divulge where they obtain their raw materials.
Training men and women religious
Sr Sheila Kinsey, FCJM, Executive Co-Secretary of the Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission (JPIC), spoke about her experience in Uganda and the Congo, in the 6-day training program sponsored by the British government. Together with sisters ministering in conflict zones, they explored the importance of creating a safe and all-encompassing caring environment for the women who have experienced sexual violence. Women religious, she said, are highly trusted, but also need to develop skills aimed at helping these women create a new narrative. The training included learning about the tools offered by the legal system which “are in existence, but not applied”, listening skills, and training in the protocol embraced by Britain. Sr Sheila ended saying that there is now a heightened commitment on the part of religious to put into place mechanisms to enforce laws and policies, to create initiatives combating sexual violence toward women, and to work with other NGOs.
Best practices for organizations
Fr Tom Smolich, SJ, International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Services, then presented three obligations for organizations who commit themselves to fighting this evil. The first is that their own organizations have clear policies enforcing zero tolerance toward sexual abuse of any kind. The second is the necessity to include the voice of the victims because they know what is happening. “They too have a voice and know what needs to be done.” Lastly, he said, survivors should not have to tell their story in vain. Their witness must serve as an avenue both to accompany the survivor, but also to “minimize the risk for others”.
The event ended with the viewing of a film highlighting the work of Nobel Peace Prize 2018 winner Dr Denis Mukwege, entitled “The man who mends women”.