The world is waking up to the fact that sexual violence is wreaking havoc on the lives of women and communities in conflict zones—and poses a real threat to lasting peace. Though as we applaud this growing international consciousness about how sexual violence stands in the way of progress, we can't help but wonder when African leaders will have the same awakening.
In the last month, sexual violence has topped the international agendas at the G8 Foreign Ministers summit and the United Nations Security Council. The G8 promised $35.5 million to combat rape in conflict. One week later, the Security Council's members threw their weight behind a report that named and shamed states that perpetrate or ignore rape.
Here in Africa, there were positive signs in February when South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority agreed to open an investigation into widespread sexual violence in Zimbabwe. In so doing, South Africa has committed to help hundreds of women who were raped in 2008, during the last Zimbabwean elections. Their attackers were linked to President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party who, according to witnesses' testimonies, sang the party's songs, recited its slogans, and even wore its shirts.
South Africa's intervention is truly an unprecedented step—this is undeniable. Finally, we will be able to break five years of silence and help Zimbabwean sexual violence survivors take an important step towards getting justice for the atrocities they endured. But if South Africa and other African states are serious about stopping rape in conflict, they must also be willing to face up to the problem within their own borders.
In Somalia, women are jailed for speaking out about their rapes or attacked in the camps for displaced people, the very places they go to seek safety. In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, experts estimate that 420 000 rapes take place each year – or 48 per hour. In Mali, women and girls are subject to gang rape as a kind of punishment for perceived indiscretions, while in Kenya survivors of rape are suing their own government for failing to stop widespread sexual violence during the elections of 2007. As we write these words, the crisis in the Central African Republic is mounting and reports of rape and sexual violence are already emerging.
South Africa is in the midst of its own rape crisis, with one of the highest rates of gender violence in the world and an apparent lack of political will to confront it. What about justice and protection for survivors in South Africa? Or in Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, or the Central African Republic – where is the leadership to bring to an end the suffering of millions of women and communities?
We hear promises for change: delegations from across Africa decried sexual violence at the Security Council debate, following on the heels of the G8 Foreign Ministers and their star-studded press conference. These are encouraging words. But if we look across the continent of Africa we see that, despite all of the promises to act, we continue to spiral down the same cycle of violence. Wars are played out using not just guns, but also rape as a weapon. Women, families and whole communities are left shattered.
Only when we finally start to take community-level solutions seriously can we really begin to stop sexual violence. This is not a women's issue: men and boys must be part of a solution that permeates from the grassroots to the highest halls of power. Only by transforming gender relations – engaging with men and women, boys and girls together – can we change cultures of domination, fear and violence. We must challenge deep-rooted beliefs about the status of women, at their source. We must condemn rape at home as well as abroad.
This means high-level pledges of political will and funds, yes. It also means a long-term commitment to community education. It means trying cases of rape in our own domestic courtrooms, enacting policy changes and reforming our own legal systems to support survivors, and providing medical care and protection to survivors in our own countries.
Enough is enough. Zimbabwe's next election is approaching. The base camps, where women were taken and raped for days in 2008, are still standing. South Africa's move shows Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF that the eyes of the world are on Zimbabwe as it prepares for the 2013 election, but more must be done to stop rape at home – by all of us.
This is a message to all of our leaders, on the African continent and around the world: we will not let history repeat itself. We will keep pressing for justice and change. If these reports and declarations are to mean anything, they must be accompanied by action that reverberates from the ground up. Because if words – from the United Nations, the G8, or the South African prosecutors – cannot make you accountable to us, be sure that the power of the grassroots will.
Leymah Gbowee is a peace activist, trained social worker, and women's rights advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She is co-chair of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.
Dean Peacock is co-founder and executive director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, a South African NGO working across Africa to increase men's involvement in achieving gender equality, preventing gender based violence and reducing the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. He is also co-founder and co-chair of the Global MenEngage Alliance and a member of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict's advisory committee.