STATEMENT: Ms. Yasmina Bouziane, UNMIL Spokesperson, and Ms. Margot Wallström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 - 20:00
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 

Ms. Yasmina Bouziane (UNMIL Spokesperson)

I will like to extend thanks to all representatives of the media for being with us here today. I want to welcome all of you to this special press conference to be addressed by the visiting Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Madam Margot Wallström. I like to thank all of the media present and our UNMIL Radio listeners who have tuned in live to this press conference.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict will end her tour on Friday, 4 June and before that she will be meeting with additional high officials of the Government Liberia as well as additional people from the U N family here in Monrovia. Just to gave you a quick run-down, however while in Liberia Madam Wallström met with UNMIL's SRSG, Ms. Ellen Margrethe Loj and other senior officials of the United Nations; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, His Honour Johnnie N. Lewis; the Minister of Gender and Development, Hon. Vabah Gayflor; the Inspector-General and officials of Liberia National Police; and the Chief Prosecutor at the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Crimes Unit of the Justice Ministry.

We are very pleased to have here with us Madam Margot Wallström. She was visiting yesterday in Bong County at the criminal court “E,” as well as the Peace Hut in Totota, Bong County, and she also held interactive meetings with national and international stakeholders working on gender-based violence. I will give you a quick biography. This press conference is dedicated to her I will omit the highlight so that you all can tune in tomorrow morning to Coffee Break for the Mission's highlights.

Madam Wallström in her capacity as SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict has served as Chair of the inter-agency network, UN action against sexual violence in conflict. She has also been an advocate of the rights of women throughout her political career, first as Swedish Minister and later as Environment Commissioner and Vice-President of the European Commission.

Her many distinctions include several honorary doctorates and awards for work on sustainable development and climate change. Well known and that I urge you all to follow that up and see some of the writings and doctorates she has received. She was also voted Commissioner of the Year by the European Voice newspaper in 2002, and in 2004 she co-authored the book called, “the People's Europe or why it is Hard to Love the EU?” So I urge you to do some reading.

I like to give recognition to the executives and members of the watchdog group - Journalist Against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. We understand that you are here with us today. We thank you very much for your participation and we thank you for all for the good work that you are doing in working towards getting this issue in visual front.

Ms. Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)

Thank you very much and welcome. As you can see my title, my task is sexual violence in conflict and you can wonder why did I come to Liberia because you are a post conflict country? We came here for three reasons: we first of all wanted to understand the dynamics and the drivers in post conflict Liberia; why is it still the number one crime reported in Liberia? We wanted to focus on what we can do to prevent these crimes and we hope to be able to design modern prevention strategies that include men and also looking at what can be done to explore employment generational programmes and enhancing the role of male leaders and we always want to see how my office can access and help contribute to the response on sexual violence in Liberia and especially to strengthen the rule of law response.

I am very lucky to base my work on what have already been done in UN action and UN action is putting together 13 UN entities to work on this particular subject and we will also have a team available to us, a team of experts on the rule of law and we will be able to offer that to governments as a help and contribution to theirs. So that is the background. For what I understand, this is an experience that you shear with many countries. Sexual violence was brutal and widespread during your civil war. During the many years of civil war here, it was used to as done in many other counties to terrorize and to displace and control the civilian population. Like somebody said yesterday, this has left a heavy foot print on the society, and today the challenge to transition was a tool to the war. This is an expression you would recognize. The military used total war fought also on the bodies of children and women to total peace in which women and children are left in peace and safe in school and in their homes and market places. I really think that no society can reach its full potential unless women and children are also free to realize theirs. And of-course war and political instability very often coincide with the spikes in the scale of sexual violence. And we have seen the repeated rapes recently of such spikes after Kenya elections recently.

In countries that we never thought would experience anything like it, we think that we need of course and want to do a regular analysis of the root causes also of these rapes and the sexual violence before we call it cultural. Because that hints that nothing can be done, I think that we can do something, and we can stop this. And what if they are to do them? Well I think you as a media representative will continue to play a very important role to introduce the subject to allow a debate and we hope that local media practitioners will create an anti-rape movement. We want to contribute to a forensic capacity in this country because you lack forensic capacity and that means that perpetrators can go free, knowing that it will be very difficult to find evidence to prove that they are guilty. So this is something that we will bring back to both the UN system and to member states. And I think it is important to do all these things because justice must be done and also be seen to be done. And that is very much your role.

In Bong County we learn that attitude changing, attitudes and education will be causal to change the situation in Liberia. The victim is not the criminal; we looked at a survey here and which actually reported that 83% of the response to this survey indicated that women are in some way to blame for their victimization. But there is no excuse for sexual abuse. Women and girls have the right to their bodies, to choose their clothing and they have the freedom of movement and these are basic human rights. So you cannot use the excuse that a woman dressed improperly. This is more cultural and not even sexual; this is criminal and there must also be a cause for this action and victims must not be made to feel complacent to the violence against them. This is not just a woman issue; it is often portrayed as being a women issue and it is everyone's business. It is a human rights issue and rape is a crushing burden on a society, especially on a post conflict country. You want to build sustainable peace; you want to build prosperity and opportunity for this country; and there is an enormous cost of this being done to women and children. So it will hamper your opportunities of development for a long time to come and I am absolutely convinced that after listening also to some of the victims in the rural areas.

I hope that we come to the conclusion that there can be no security without also women feeling secure in a society. I go to these meetings with Government's representatives and also with an offer of help the system from us. Because we want Liberia to succeed in building an economic and social development in this country, we need to stop this being a rampant phenomenon in society. I think media representatives and reporters must play a very important role; it can be done and it much be done. Again we will be able to report back to the Secretary General and to the Security Council. And that is of course the strength of my mandate that is today based on good ambitions and with the political responsibility and accountability at the highest level at the UN.

Questions and Answer

Q: Bill Jarkloh (Liberia Journal newspaper)
You visited places in Liberia and I believe you conducted some inquires regarding your mission here. Maybe you can give us a little briefing on what are your specific findings that you have come across here in Liberia.

And my second point is that you said that women have rights to their bodies and what they will wear. Don't you feel wearing flimsy clothes is also insanity to the minds of men who are in the streets, who I believe strongly that women should be decent in the streets and they should not abuse the mind of the general public. What is your take on that?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
First of all we try to make sure that we meet with people in hospitals. We look at the whole judicial system and as you heard we visited Criminal Court “E” and met with prosecutors and of course then with political representatives to get a better understanding of the situation. And I would say that we have seen a lot of gaps in the capacity to have the system work affectively. I think you need to do more training and more can be invested in training. The fact that so many men and women are unemployed also creates a strain on the whole society and this is important to also feel as a dignified person that can support himself and his family. I think employment will be crucial on this kind of projects and the role of both men and women. So these are the findings and I think that there is a lot to do when it comes to also strengthening the capacity of the health sector to deal with problems and the police. I think they are struggling and we have met with some really good people who address these problems but again it is very good to be effective in policing.

I think it is important to know that how women dress have nothing to do with it because you are not allowed to violate a woman even if she dresses up. Violence is not allowed to violate a person; the dress code is different in all countries and I think that it is a social behavior but violence and rape are something entirely different to blame the woman for being raped. And I think that has more to do with the attitude of men. To use it as an excuse is simply not tolerable and that is very important. These are also the kind of discussions you need also in Liberia. This is the understanding that a women is to blame if she dresses up and that will put more of shame on the women while the perpetrators need to be shamed, not the women. And again the fact is that more of the victims are children and I don't think you can blame them for dressing up to entice men. This is a completely different phenomenon that has to be understood as a different phenomenon.

Q: Sam Zota (Monitor newspaper)
You have been in the country for a while now. You have heard and been briefed about the situation on the ground. What is your own assessment of the work of Journalist Against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
As I have said you will play a very crucial role because this is a debate. The issue that you raised is an important debate. Where does the understanding come from? What kind of roles do we play in the society? How should we create a society where women can feel safe and at the same time also have a sound relationship with men? What are their human rights and what does that entail that we respect their human rights? That is the rights of woman and children as well. So it is important to create that debate and discussion. It is extremely important to take the strong stand and this is the question we have for you men. Maybe many of the family values or moral values were broken down during the war which may have also affected your society. This is something we have to ask you. We cannot come and teach you about that; we can only say that these are international human rights laws and they have to be respected and that means you have no right to rape women or children or to use sexual violence. That will be so detrimental to any economic development also in this country and that I am absolutely convinced will not help you in any way. It will on the contrary be a big obstacle to any social economic development. When this is done to women and children it destroys the fabric of social life in a village or in a nation and there is a high cause in the long run.

Q: Sonie Morris (Freelance Journalist)
Which countries have you visited on this tour and what was some of your findings there?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
The first visit took us to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We looked at those armed groups and how they behave. On what kind of problems they face, again we met victims and survivors. We also want to engage with some of these groups because I think this also assists the Security Council to take this issue into account. We have to report back to the Security Council that this method is still used as a strategy of warfare. And it is important to explain that women become in a way front soldiers because the war is also fought also on their bodies. And very often these soldiers come out of the jungle at night, go to a village and they rape children and women and very often they are taken away or killed afterwards and of course women have to go out there to find fire wood and water and go to the fields so they cannot escape. They have become part of the warfare and this is unfortunately a silent and cheap tool to also instill fear in these villages. It is used unfortunately everywhere we see these armed conflicts or wars going on. So we will choose I think in the end, a number of countries to engage, but we were interested in coming here to see the effects in a post conflict country and to understand these mechanism and drivers.

Q: Eugene Myers (Heritage newspaper)
You earlier said one of the three reasons why you are in post conflict Liberia is to determine the driver of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). For the time you have been here what is your observation on the driver of SGBV against women in this country while we are no longer at war?

And part of efforts for institutions or media groups like Journalists Against SGBV have been to go and gather reports of rape incidents and where ever it occurred and when these cases are reported. There are lot of problems in the case relative to ensuring that the perpetrators face justice and most of the time the victim will say that they did not say after the medical report. The victims normally shy away because of fear: “I am not able to go to court any longer; let it stay so.” You are the front runner. What strategy is the UN putting into place to make sure that people that normally refuse to carry their case to court are encouraged to do so and have perpetrators brought to justice?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
Thank you. I will start with your last question on how we get the whole judicial system to function better and start to address impunity because that is one of the root causes to this problem. If the perpetrator knows that they can walk free, this will also continue. That is why we will be hopefully be able to deploy a team of legal experts to this country to help to look at the gaps to ensure that the whole legal chain works and to help build capacity because in poor countries like Liberia, some of the problems involve logistics. There are no access to vehicles and the lack of forensic capacity. This means that it will be much more difficult to bring a case to a successful end. And I think that hopefully we will be able to discuss with government's representatives on how to use this team of legal experts on the rule of law so we hope we will be able to assist in looking at that. I think this is the fact that very often the victim feels that they are to blame. If they feel that it was the dress that made them a victim, then it could be difficult for them to come forward or be willing to carry their case. The fact remains also that when they return to the village, they are also stigmatize. That is why you journalists need to raise this issue and to bring this topic up and I think to start a proper anti-rape campaign where you explain that it is the perpetrators who need to be ashamed instead.

Q: Peter Massaquoi (Truth FM)
We have noticed that nowadays victims of sexual violence have been venerable in various communities. What is your office doing particularly to ensure that they are economically empowered?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
I think this was something we saw yesterday when we went to Bong County and we discussed, especially in this Peace Hut. I think this is a great initiative where women have a safe house place in the village and also where they speak out where they are given a voice where they take responsibility for life in the village; and where they try to settle many cases not exactly the rape cases because they want them to go to the hospital and the police to make sure that they are proper cases. But they of course deal with the rural women in the society and this has to do with economic development in Liberia. This is something for the Government to ensure that there are education and employment opportunities; but for us it is also to make that point to the international community that you will still need a lot of help and assistant in creating meaningful jobs and to help to build your country economically and socially. It also comes from giving opportunities for women to get education and not to feel stigmatize for what they have been through.

Q. Clara Mallah (FrontPageAfrica newspaper)
Madam Wallström, I want to know clearly that when it comes to rape cases in Liberia since president Sirleaf took over, it has increased so high. The UN and other bodies have tried over and over but then it is constant at the end of the day. When perpetrators sometimes are brought to justice, they are only sentenced for life imprisonment, but life imprisonment is not helping. Don't you think the law should be changed so that these people can face the death penalty?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
Well I don't believe in the death penalty, but all I have to first of all say is that I am entirely against death penalty. I think it creates a very visual circle and it is totally against international law. Your President has provided extra leadership on these issues and I think we all experience a background and of course give her a position to speak with credibility on these issues. The paradox is that if you make the whole society aware of this if you start to create opportunities of taking your case to court. You have started this unique Criminal Court “E” and the police have to do more. The number of reported cases might go up because until now nobody thought that it was even right to report a case and now they see that there is an opportunity for your case to be forwarded. You will actually see that it will come to the surface, so that can be the paradox of a problem like this as well. You might see a climb in the number of reported cases because the justice system is starting to actually deal with these cases. I think we have seen few people who have talked about the punishment being too severe and you know that if this is done within the family, for example women will also hesitate to bring their cases forward because they know that a person will be put away for many years in prison. They will hesitate.

So that might have an effect. That was not wanted from the beginning so this is something of course the Government has to discuss this issue. I can understand if they are afraid of changing it because it will look as if it was made more relax. It can send a counterproductive signal. But this is really important for the government to think about. So I think it is a balancing act. It is important to get it all right to have a whole legal system that works very effectively.

Q: Edward Mortee (National Chronicle newspaper)
How do you think your office can be of help to Journalists Against SGVB in post conflict Liberia?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
I hope we can be and support. We have of course the UN Action that has a website called Stop Rape Now. With the campaign we can also mention and report on the important work that you are doing. We can definitely in our communication do more. I think we can help practically here. I hope to do more on communication, supporting people who do communication. We are looking into strengthening our communication capacity here in Liberia so we can definitely put forward what any net work here, and what ambiguous journalists are doing. We will take that back to New York and see what we can do to help you and support you from now on. But I think radio is amongst the most effective channel that we should use. I even had the idea that could hopefully get somebody paid for producing a soap opera. I sure know everybody watches TV here, so those who watch TV might be interested in watching a soap opera dealing with the problems. So I think we have many opportunities to do communication.

Q: Dio Appleton (New Republic newspaper)
Madam, you talked about doing forensic investigation with rape cases, but I see it to be more scientific. Is it not biological because there are cases where medical reports come out and yet indeed the lady was tempered with, but to identify the real perpetrators is not there? Are you talking about semen analysis? Forensic is scientific and not biological and negative will say yes this lady has been tempered with but the real perpetrators you have not arrested. Is semen analysis necessary?

A: Margot Wallström (SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict)
Well I think any capacity to do these DNA analyses is important so you would have to identify what are your needs and this can only be done by discussing with experts and your government and other responsible people. So it is for Liberia to say exactly - what are your needs what will help your justice system to work better? But the fact is that today you lack the forensic capacity. So I think if you specify what the needs are then I think we can hopefully go back and mobilize donors as well and encourage them to help to finance such expertise. You would also need people here who can be trained so it does not come as a one offer. Therefore it can be something that can be worked on in the future.