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UN official Zainab Hawa Bangura speaks out on sexual violence in war

December 08, 2015

By Maria Biery C’18

On December 3, Under Secretary-General and Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura spoke to Penn Law on the topic of sexual violence and trauma in conflict. The purpose of Bangura’s talk was to cast light on a cost of war that, she believes, often gets overlooked. By talking about it, she hopes to “restore voice and agency to the victims.”

Bangura was previously the Minister of Health and Sanitation for the government of Sierra Leone and was also the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Her talk was co-sponsored by Penn Law’s Office of International Programs, the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law (CERL), the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, and the Campaign for Community. Penn Law’s Claire Finkelstein, Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Director of CERL, moderated, and Associate Dean for International Programs Rangita de Silva de Alwis provided the opening remarks.

“Women face severe physical and psychological trauma compounding many cases of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy,” said Bangura. “Indeed, a common factor that sees the rise of extremist groups is the assault on women’s autonomy and rights. This includes strict enforcement of traditional dress codes and gender segregation as well as reducing women to the status of a breeding grounds for future fighters.”

Bangura later commented about the Syrian War saying, “The war has introduced a wave of sexual violence, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced impregnation, and trauma.”

“Rape is being used as a tactic of war and a tactic of terrorism,” she added.

She went on to describe the violence and psychological damage that women and children endure in these times of war. She also described the necessity of her work in trying to change “second class laws” that treat women as “second class citizens.”

Bangura advocated for social support of the women and children, sanctions on perpetrators who commit acts of sexual violence, a building up of women in solidarity, and the need to relegate wartime rape to the past.

Finkelstein moderated a question and answer session following Bangura’s remarks, and one of her first questions was whether wartime rape was “increasing in this new asymmetrical warfare and the rise of terrorism and its relationship to conflict.”

Bangura responded saying that there is a culture of silence and denial among many of these cultures so that if people don’t look for cases of rape, they won’t see them. In her view, rape has always been there. However, there might be more now.

Finkelstein also asked about the extent of the psychological impacts and scale of mental health problems that come from women being raped.

Bangura told a few stories about individual women who had been raped or had been sex slaves and the extent of their psychological trauma that often led to their depression or attempts at suicide.

She concluded by saying the best way to take on rape cases is to try to increase the political will of national governments.

Tweets from this event:

Full remarks:

UN official Zainab Hawa Bangura speaks out on sexual violence in war