Zainab Bangura speaks on sexual violence


- hails President Obama, Ban Ki-moon in Ebola fight

June 4, 2015 By M.B. Jalloh in Saudi Arabia

Madam Zainab Hawa Bangura is a very busy woman. As the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, the erstwhile Foreign Affairs and Health Minister in President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma’s administration is constantly on the road from one conflict spot to another. She is always busy attending to women activities, conferences, strategizing with government officials, among many other official functions. The Sierra Leonean-born UN diplomat was recently in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a brief private visit. I met her at the Conference Palace in Jeddah and had an exclusive interview with her.

Below are excerpts:

M.B. Jalloh (MBJ): It’s almost three years since the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon appointed you as his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict – a position I understand is equivalent to an Under-Secretary–General. What is the main challenge of your office?

Zainab Bangura (ZB):  Firstly, I am extremely thankful to the Secretary General for giving me and my country an opportunity to serve in the UN in this capacity. I see this as an opportunity not only for me but also for my country to contribute to addressing some of the consequences of conflict around the world. Sierra Leone in its almost 12 years of conflict witnessed almost 65,000 women being affected by sexual violence. We did not only try to get justice for the victims and their families, but we also developed a very successful reparation program, which is now being used as an example for other countries. Sexual violence is a global problem, and a long-standing one at that too, but it is only quite recently that the world has come to recognize it as a war crime and a crime against humanity. As such, there is still a strong culture of silence and denial surrounding it. Getting governments to accept it and agreeing to address it, is always the first big challenge.

The second challenge is that, each conflict is unique and different and has specific challenges that you need to pay attention to.  In engaging with each government, it is important to understand the local content and dynamics and recommend specific solutions to address those specific problems. You cannot generalize in terms of solution. My predecessor had laid a solid foundation for the office, for which I am very grateful. Further to that, the Security Council has created a solid global legal framework to address this problem. The biggest challenge now however is to translate this global legal framework into solutions on the ground, in the countries where these crimes are being committed. This requires intense political engagement at the highest levels with all parties to the conflict. It also entails working with a lot of stakeholders in any given country. The number of stakeholders depends on how the sexual violence has been committed together with various other factors. This makes it complex and challenging. Perhaps the final challenge is that of dealing with the victims and survivors.

In most cases, the services and support being provided in terms of medical, psychosocial and legal services are extremely limited. This is what I refer to as the weak link. The missing link is the livelihood support. Majority of victims of sexual violence in conflict are usually poor rural women, with very limited access to education and economic opportunity. We have found out that most of these women are stigmatized, abandoned by their husbands and families and ostracized by their communities and society. Getting them to seek and accept help even where it is available is a problem. They will rather suffer silently than allow themselves to be stigmatized. These are just some of the key challenges.

MBJ: How do you deal with issues relating to sexual violence in conflict countries that are usually hot spots?

ZB: Even though the Secretary General’s annual reports list nearly 20 countries around the world where these crimes are committed, I have chosen to focus on some specific countries, which I think, need my maximum attention. This allows me to visit, engage governments, get specific commitments from them and provide the necessary support that is required to address the specific problems in each country. My office was created by the Security Council to provide strategic and coherent leadership in addressing sexual violence around the world. Our first approach in addressing the problems starts with a visit to the country and getting a firm political commitment from the highest level to address this problem. This is an issue that belongs to member states, who bear the primary legal and moral responsibility to protect their citizens.

These agreements and commitment from countries affected detail areas of cooperation and spell out what each party is required to do. This is followed by a technical team comprising both the Team of Experts of the Rule and sexual violence and in certain cases the United Nations Action visit that puts together an implementation plan, which can include specific Action plans for the Military and police, depending on the extent of the problem. The process of putting together the implementation plan brings together all stakeholders from both the government side and the UN side. A budget is then drawn up and then supported by various partners and donors. Again, each country is different. There must also be educational and public campaign, training and capacity building to end the problem. Most importantly however, there is always the need to reinforce the individual and capacity building within the police, Judiciary and military to address this problem.

MBJ: Mrs. Bangura, talking about the Judiciary and the Police – do you work with them when dealing with sexual violence in conflict?

ZB: Yes I do in most cases, but not all the countries. They are an extremely vital in terms of investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators to the conflict.

MBJ: What are some of the experiences you like to share with the public as regards to the sexual violence issues you have handled in the last three years?

ZB: To be honest, it will be difficult and impossible to bring out very specific issues on each country. What I would like to say is, firstly, even though conflict – related sexual violence is mostly committed against women and girls increasingly, we are seeing men and boys becoming victims of this crime, too. This has been a difficult situation for us to deal with. Secondly, the victims are becoming younger. Two years ago, Save the Children produced a report that says over 50% of victims are below the age of 18 years. In some countries, that figure is as high as 75%. I have heard of victims as young as three months old and six months old. At the same time, I have seen a 75-year-old blind woman victim. Thirdly is the increasing target of minorities, whether in terms of religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The trends are many and vary depending on the circumstances of countries. The most recent trend was demonstrated by using it by extremist groups to terrorize populations in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

MBJ: Mrs. Bangura, talking about some of these countries reminds me about what you recently told the UN News Centre in an interview that sexual violence is being used as a “tactic of terror” to target religious and ethnic minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, and you also mentioned the upsurge of non-state actors involved in sexual violence like the Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab in Africa and ISIL in the Middle East. Does the United Nations have the tools to deal with these non-state actors and what is the UN doing to help victims of sexual violence?

ZB: Since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, the Security Council has adopted ground-breaking resolutions to develop the conceptual framework, create the infrastructure to fight this crime, establish the elements of compliance as well as develop an operational framework to fight and address this crime, as, where and when it happens. Sexual violence has also been used as a designation criterion for country specific sanction committees.  In this regard, I can safely say, we have the tools required to fight this scourge. As a result, we had actually started witnessing tangible results and progress in some countries. Unfortunately, with the emergence of extremist groups, a whole new dimension has emerged very unexpectedly. The crimes committed by these groups are unprecedented and extremely sophisticated and being used to advance some key strategic priorities such as recruitment, intelligence gathering, fundraising and to advance their ideology. It is something we have never seen or witnessed before.

MBJ: How does it feel representing the UN Secretary-General on an assignment that seems extremely difficult to handle?

ZB: For me, it is as an honor and an opportunity to be able to support the Secretary General and to touch the lives of so many people around the world. It has been a great learning experience and an opportunity to share the experiences I bring from Sierra Leone. I am extremely fortunate to be able to work with somebody like the Secretary General who has a very strong commitment on issues related to women. He is a strong believer in the empowerment of women. In this regard, I see myself as extremely lucky.

MBJ: In all the conflict countries you have travelled to which one has the highest rate of sexual violence. Do you know?

ZB: I do not think it will be easy to say one conflict is worse than the other. One woman’s rape is one too many. What is important is that, this should not be happening because no woman deserves to be raped. It is a crime that has been and continues to be under-reported. For now, what I can safely say is that, with extremists like ISIL, we are witnessing atrocities and methods never seen before. Sexual violence in the context of the conflict in Syria and Iraq is unprecedented in its scale and scope and in the level of sophistication with which it is being deployed. ISIL is using Sexual Violence in Conflict as a weapon of terrorism to advance some of its key objectives.

MBJ: From your experience, do communities stigmatize or discriminate against the victims of sexual violence?

ZB: Victims, irrespective of age, gender, religion or sex are always stigmatized. As mentioned earlier, it is one of our biggest challenges and we need to turn the tide of stigma against the perpetrators. It has been cost-free to rape a woman. The only way we can turn the tide is to make sure, whoever commits this crime, wherever they are, we must hunt them down, get them and punish them. That way, people will think twice before committing the offence. Rape has everlasting consequences.  It is not only a crime against an individual, but a family and a community. The pain of sexual violence in conflict never heals. It stays with the victim or survivor for life, making reconciliation difficult. One victim in Bosnia summarized it in a quote to me “They took my life away without killing me”.

MBJ: A very touching quote indeed, but is it within your mandate to take action against perpetrators of sexual violence when caught?

ZB: We do not take action against perpetrators. We campaign to ensure perpetrators are punished. In countries where the legal framework is weak, we support them in passing new laws, or strengthening existing laws, providing capacity building for law enforcement agencies and justice, both civilian and military to do their work in a very effective and efficient way. We also worked with the ICC to develop their strategy on Gender-based violence that has now guaranteed that crimes of sexual violence committed in the theatre of war can be included in all ICC indictment and prosecuted successfully. To successfully address this problem there has to be the political will at the national level, combined with national leadership and ownership. It is only then that solutions can be found, even in the most difficult of situations. I see our job as supporting national political will and leadership. That way we can ensure sustainability.

MBJ: Sexual violence is compromised in some countries because of tradition and alleged corruption by law enforcers. Don’t you think this is one of the major problems in tackling sexual violence?

ZB: I think it will be unfair to just generalize or agree. The reality is that even with international jurisprudence, rape only became a crime with the Yugoslavian tribunal.

MBJ: Has there been real progress in narrowing the crime of sexual violence?

ZB: I can safely say, we now have a better understanding of this crime and how to respond to it. Also there is more political will both at the global and national level. This has helped to a large extent to break the culture of silence and denial. Governments have more willingness nowadays to address this problem by providing the leadership that is required, taking ownership and responsibility in individual countries. All of this has seen more actions taken in terms of prosecuting perpetrators and providing services for victims. In total, more and stronger tools have been developed. It is no longer cost-free to rape a woman. However, we are still a long way from seeing an end to the crime. New challenges like the emergence of extremist groups and the increase in the scale and scope of sexual violence atrocities being committed are seen. It means we have to be consistent, stronger and more committed to continue with our determination to fight the war.

MBJ: Okay, Mrs. Bangura, let’s talk about your country and its immediate neighbours. You served as Foreign Minister and Health Minister in President Koroma’s Government before you got this appointment in September 2012, what was your response when you learned that there was an Ebola outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone?

ZB: I was extremely devastated and frightened. It was difficult for me because of various reasons. Firstly, in my present position I had access to a lot of information by virtue of the fact that, as a senior adviser in the UN, it became a topmost priority for the SG at every meeting. With my family in Freetown, it became difficult for me to concentrate on my work. Secondly, as we lost doctors and nurses, it was difficult for me to deal with it. I knew and worked with all the medical doctors we lost. I spent sleepless nights crying myself to sleep. Thirdly, as a former Minister of Health, I knew none of the three countries had the capacity in terms of human resources, and infrastructure to handle an epidemic of that proportion. It was just not possible. That scale of infected people could not even be managed by any country in the world. The only difference is that in developed countries, it would not have been allowed to get to that level. Finally, as a Sierra Leonean, I got stopped and questioned at every airport around the world. Every time I return to New York from a visit I still get questioned about Sierra Leone. At the beginning I was angry and frustrated, but after a while, I got used to it. But more importantly, I was able to appreciate, where they were coming from. No country or government wants to expose its citizens unnecessarily to a deadly decease that has no cure.

MBJ: Do you have any idea about how the epidemic devastated lives and the economies of the three affected countries, especially in Sierra Leone, your home country?

ZB: Of course I do and I am very worried that with the increase in the number of countries that desperately need international support, we might not be able to get the complete financial resources required to deal with the consequences of the Ebola Virus Disease as well as rebuilding our healthcare system and infrastructure. Secondly, there is no empirical evidence that can tell us about the medium and long-term consequences to survivors of Ebola. This frightened me very badly. Finally, my biggest worry is how as a country we ensure this does not happen again.

MBJ: What is your assessment of the international response to the fight against Ebola in the three affected countries?

ZB: This is a difficult question for me to answer. I think this is new even for the international community just as it was new for the three countries affected.  As a senior UN staff, I can categorically say, it was a difficult time for the SG, putting together the response, engaging member states, creating the infrastructure to mobilize and   coordinate international response. He was deeply committed and involved and worked round the clock talking to many Heads of States. His biggest challenge was ensuring that the countries affected are not stigmatized and access in and out of the Ebola affected countries is not blocked.  My prayer as both a Sierra Leonean and a UN staff is that we never go through this experience again, not only in Sierra Leone but in any country around the world.

MBJ: The heads of state of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were recently in the United States as guests to President Barrack Obama and the World Bank. Their invitation could be a very big boost to the post-Ebola recovery period, don’t you think so?

ZB: I am both proud and happy for the leadership role President Obama was able to play by not only raising the awareness on how important it is for the world to respond and support the Ebola affected countries, but also the fact that he actually made sure the United States committed not only substantial resources but manpower to help in addressing this problem. In addition, he contributed to minimizing the problems of stigmatizing the countries and citizens affected. I can still recall the fight he had to put up not to isolate and cut off air traffic and access to our countries. I am therefore not surprised that he took time out of his busy schedule to meet and talk to the three leaders. This is an indication of his commitment and support to our countries. This of course sends a challenge to other world leaders to follow suit.

MBJ:  What challenges do you envisage for the governments of the three most hit countries during the post-Ebola recovery period?

ZB: I think the first challenge is to be able to mobilize the resources that will be needed for the post-Ebola recovery. The global financial situation is not very good. The world is facing too many crises at the same time. As such, the aid community is overstretched and facing constraints to meet expectations. The second challenge is rebuilding of the Healthcare systems.  This is an enormous challenge. It goes beyond providing drugs, but includes, infrastructure, human resource development, equipment provision etc. It is a lot of work that needs a short, medium and long-term strategy. Finally, it is how to manage the expectation of the people that should pose the toughest challenge. Most people do not understand or appreciate that some of these things take time and money to be properly addressed. Most people would expect things to happen immediately. I pray every day that after we reach the 42 days and beyond, we never have another Ebola crisis again, because I do not believe that our country can withstand the psychological trauma of another crisis.

MBJ: How are you enjoying your travels and meeting with different high-profile personalities?

ZB: I have to confess that it is a hectic schedule and a challenging job. I am sure the high profile personalities would love to see me under different circumstances than this. Unfortunately, this is extremely important for me, if I have to achieve the political commitment that is necessary to address this problem. I see my job as an opportunity to help and support some of the most vulnerable people. The majority of victims of sexual violence are women and children as well as the lower strata of society; people with lower status in society, with less economic opportunities and educational background. I think it is a God-sent opportunity to pay back for what was given to us. Remember, at some point in Sierra Leone, we were categorized as a failed state that had been given up. We have been able to bounce back, because people from other parts of the world took sympathy at us and helped us in our recovery agenda.  I am happy I can do the same thing for some other people.

MBJ: How many countries have you travelled to since your appointment in 2012?

ZB: My God, this is an interesting question. I have not counted and so I do not know for sure. I just jump on a flight when I need to go and do my work. I think at some point in my life I will try to count, starting from my civil society days, to my days as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as a top-level UN staff.

MBJ: Finally, Madam Zainab Hawa Bangura, do you have any message for Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad?

ZB: Sierra Leone is a country that belongs to more than 6 million people from 15 or so ethnic groups. When problems come they do not know the difference between religion, age, gender etc., and for now, our needs are still basic – quality education, basic healthcare, ability to feed our people, good roads etc. We are still donor dependent, making it difficult to design plans according to our desires. In the background of all of these, God did not put us all in Sierra Leone by accident. We each have strengths and weaknesses, but must work together to put the country in the center, by bringing our comparative advantages together and putting aside our weaknesses and difference and working towards achieving a greater Sierra Leone. I have been disheartened by the level of animosity between us, and the extent we go to destroy each other. We have not taken advantage of our diversity to bring and accept different points of view to the table. We have resorted to insulting each other and using unprintable language on social media. We are very reluctant to accept difference of opinion and have no respect for one another.  There is still a lot of work to be done to move our country forward and we must put our differences aside, and work together, putting Sierra Leone first in everything we do.

MBJ: Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Bangura for taking time, out of your very busy schedule talking to me on national and international issues.

ZB: You are most welcome, M.B. Jalloh and thanks for having me.