GENEVA – A roundtable co-organized by UNFPA and the Swiss government has highlighted the need for continuing support to victims of violence against women in the Great Lakes Region, which still faces armed conflict. Representatives of civil society in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda took turns sharing their personal stories and condemning the impunity still enjoyed by perpetrators of these crimes.
Alanna Armitage, Director of the UNFPA office in Geneva is talking to the Swiss President, Ms Micheline Calmy-Rey at the event in Zurich.
“My own children were tortured but I could not get redress,” said Justine Masika Bihamba, coordinator of a group called Synergie des femmes pour les victimes des violences sexuelles (Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence) based in Goma, DRC. “Either there is an excuse for inaction or you have to pay every step of the way – for the police, to file the report, to get to the police station... now, four years later, the aggressors still haven’t been arrested.”
The roundtable was held within the context of a Swiss initiative called ‘marrainage’- a ‘marraine’ being a godmother – which helps Swiss female parliamentarians advocate for victims of sexual violence in this region and funds projects for victims in the region.
“It’s an excellent way to give witness and to marshall all the necessary arguments in Parliament whenever development budgets and funding are discussed,” said Josiane Aubert, a Swiss MP from French-speaking Switzerland who traveled to the Great Lakes with other ‘marraines’ in May to see Swiss-funded gender projects first-hand. “What struck me the most was the courage shown by these women both in their work and in their everyday lives.”
In areas of the region no longer at war, earlier conflicts have left their mark and violence is still a daily danger. Where there is still conflict, sexual violence is extreme. In DRC for example rape has been used as a weapon of war and tens of thousands of women may have suffered sexual violence, especially in the northeastern provinces, since the conflict began more than a decade ago.
In this context the role of non-governmental organizations on the ground is key as they help rehabilitate victims of sexual violence and prevent its use.
“Geneva is the world capital of human rights and humanitarian issues,” said Alanna Armitage, Director of UNFPA’s Geneva Office. “This is where we can – and should – debate policies and resolutions. But debate and discussion are only starting points because the real work takes place at national level, in countries and communities.”
The Geneva meeting was part of a Swiss tour for NGO representatives from the Great Lakes. A week earlier, at a high-level meeting in Zurich, the NGO representatives, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Ms Micheline Calmy-Rey, head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), and Ms Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, met with advocates fighting violence against women and discussed its impact on development.
Switzerland took further concrete action by presenting a cheque for 300,000 Swiss Francs (US$ 380,000) to Dr. Denis Mukwege, head of Panzi Hospital in DRC, for his excellent work in treating survivors of violence. An additional 100,000 Swiss Francs (US$ 130,000) were presented to Ms Bihamba , of the Synergy NGO .
Other representatives from the Great Lakes Region included Prof Simon Gasibirege, Director of the African Institute for Integrated Psychology in Kigali, Rwanda; Marie-Therese Faida Musole, who works with psychosocial assistants in Bukavu, DRC; Mediatrice Mukayitasire, a psychologist with the Modeste et Innocent association in Butare, Rwanda; Peline Bankizanye, a trainer with the Nturengaho association for young pregnant women in Bujumbura, Burundi; and Josiane Karirenge, head of Seruka in Bujumbura, which provides medical and psychological care to victims of sexual violence.