Editor's Note: Tomorrow, May 31, marks Margot Wallström's last day serving as the U.N.'s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, a position she has held since April 2010. Wallström has been a prominent figure in the fight against sexual violence in areas throughout the world, including Congo. She authored this op-ed, originally featured in the Huffington Post, which highlights the “I Am Congo” video profile of Congolese human rights lawyer Denise Siwatula.
As my time serving as the first-ever U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict is coming to an end, I remain hopeful that the ongoing fight against sexual violence in conflict ultimately will prevail. During the past two years, I have had the honor to meet extraordinary women and girls in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Not only have they survived horrific acts of sexual violence, but they have also become agents of change to help end such atrocities.
Perhaps the brightest glimmer of hope shining a light in the face of darkness has been the courage shown by Congolese women and girls who have dedicated their lives to ending the culture of impunity and bringing peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One such woman is Denise Siwatula, a young human rights attorney in Goma who works with Synergie, a coalition of organizations providing services to survivors of sexual violence. The Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo campaign has profiled Denise in its new video series, "I Am Congo," that highlights voices from individuals who live amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo, a place that has been called 'the rape capital' of the world.
Congo has experienced some of the highest levels of sexual violence in the world and the eastern parts are most affected. Rape is frequently used as a weapon of war. In 2010, I travelled to North Kivu in eastern Congo where Denise works, a province which has been ravaged by conflict and widespread sexual violence. A 70-year old woman who shared her story told me how she had tried—in vain—to convince the rapists to leave her alone, pointing out to the perpetrators that they could be her own grand-children. Women are not considered to have much value in a society where sexual violence is the norm and justice for perpetrators is the exception. A young woman explained to me that in eastern Congo, "A dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman."
Impunity reigns in the region as most perpetrators of sexual violence acts continue to walk unpunished without any repercussions for their crimes. The absence of justice has long-lasting effects on the whole society and is an impediment to restoring peace and security in the region.
However, the initial steps toward holding perpetrators accountable are encouraging. In less than a year, more than 250 trials of elements of national security forces were held with the assistance of the United Nations. In February 2011, a military court in Baraka handed down a landmark verdict that found Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware guilty of crimes against humanity including rape. This shows that accountability for sexual violence in Congo is possible.
And that is the dream of Denise. She was one of a handful of women who graduated from her law school class of more than 100 students and has since then devoted her career to bringing justice to victims of sexual violence. Denise embodies another kind of Congolese woman than the one usually portrayed in media: She is strong and determined to continue the fight for justice. Despite the various challenges she faces on a daily basis — the financial burden on women to maneuver the legal system, the lack of support from authorities, the emotional toll her clients face recounting their story time and again, and the bribery that has become commonplace in Congo's justice system — she is challenging the status quo with the belief that a better justice system can exist and perpetrators must be held accountable.
Last year, Denise won seven convictions out of the 26 rape cases she tried. However, she continues to fight against the rampant sexual violence in Congo and is an embodiment of the fortitude and resilience of women challenging the assumption of what it's like to live in what has repeatedly been called the rape capital of the world.
Margot Wallström is the U.N.'s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, former Vice President of the European Commission and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders' Ministerial Initiative.