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Pramila Patten: “We cannot look at sexual violence in a vacuum, because it does not happen in a vacuum”

8 min read

Sexual violence as a tactic in conflict is on the increase – but the scale of these atrocities has not daunted the UN’s Pramila Patten in her fight to secure justice for the survivors. She talks to Sebastian Whale about gender inequalities and prevention – and why the UK government should allocate a specific portion of its aid budget to help combat this most calculated of crimes

Children as young as four years old being raped in South Sudan. Rohingya women and girls, often tied to rocks or trees, raped before having their houses torched, sometimes with people still inside. A South Sudanese man being handed a gun and asked to shoot all the members of his family, failing which they would be raped.

These are just some of the stories victims have recounted to the United Nations’ Special Representative Pramila Patten over the past 18 months. “The brutality and the ruthlessness with which the sexual violence has been happening would indeed shock anyone,” she says. “We have to continue to express our shock, to express our outrage. Indifference and normalisation should never set in. I pray that the day never happens that we just get used to these reports.”

Patten is an esteemed Mauritian-British barrister and women’s rights activist. Her impressive CV includes a diploma in criminology at Kings College, Cambridge, and head of law firm Patten & Co Chambers. She was on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for 15 years from 2003 before becoming the third person in history to be appointed UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict at the level of Under-Secretary General in 2017. The Office was created in 2010 after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1888.

We meet in Kensington, south west London at Patten’s hotel on a beautiful, brisk December day. During her time in office, she has visited Bangladesh (Cox’s Bazar), Bosnia-Herzegovina, the DRC, Iraq, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Sudan (Darfur). The scale of the task at hand has been self-evident from the outset, with escalating conflict in Myanmar and South Sudan particular flashpoints, and the vicious nature of the crimes committed by so-called Islamic State emanating from both Iraq and Syria.

In the two weeks before our interview, 157 women and girls are raped or gang raped in South Sudan. This marks a deeply worrying trend in the country, with more than 1,157 cases of sexual violence documented in 2018 compared to 196 in 2017 and 577 in 2016. Other countries, according to UN-verified data, have also seen a rise in conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). For example, in the Central African Republic, there were 308 incidents in 2017, up from 179 a year earlier. In the DRC, the number of incidents rose by almost 300 in the same period to 804 cases.

What are the commonalities that foster this kind of crime? “What I am noting is that new rise or resurgence in conflict is triggering sexual violence. I’m increasingly seeing sexual violence being used as a tactic, as a real strategy, and as a tool to displace populations, to grab natural resources.”

Improvements in reporting of such atrocities, also due to the UN’s Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Arrangements on conflict-related sexual violence (MARA), have helped to shape a clearer picture of the specific nature of the crimes taking place compared to 20th century conflicts, which largely recorded all CRSV crimes as rape.

Sexual violence is not only about rape. Today we have a much broader definition of CRSV which includes inter alia sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence/exploitation.

Patten affirms that her Office has made “significant progress since its establishment”. From “mere collateral damage”, CRSV is now regarded as a threat to security and an impediment to peace. From the “most silenced crime”, CRSV is now “very high on the international agenda”, she argues. From the least condemned crime, today the focus is on prevention through justice and accountability.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize 2018 to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege bears testimony to this. Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi, was kidnapped and held as a sexual slave by so-called Islamic State and has since recounted hers and other survivors’ stories across the globe. Mukwege is a gynaecologist who founded the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, DRC, where he specialises in the treatment of women who have been raped due to conflict.

Survivors are at the heart of Patten’s thinking. She outlined three priorities upon taking up office: to convert cultures of impunity into cultures of prevention and deterrence; to address structural gender-based inequality; and foster national ownership and leadership for a holistic survivor-centred response. Patten underlines that a survivor-centered approach cannot ignore the fact that men and boys are often victims of sexual violence and that their victimization deserves explicit recognition. She also highlights how children born of wartime rape face a lifetime of marginalisation owing to stigma. She explains that these children may be left stateless, in a legal limbo, and are susceptible to recruitment, radicalization, trafficking and exploitation with wider implication for peace and security.

“We cannot look at sexual violence in a vacuum, we need to address the root causes of CRSV which include gender inequality, discrimination, poverty and marginalisation as well as other factors such as increased militarisation, circulation of small arms and light weapons and the illegal exploitation of natural resources.”

Victims of CRSV are often “marginalised women from remote rural areas”, she says. “These women are not participating enough in the public and political life of their country and are not involved in conflict prevention or in peace building processes.”

On a more positive note, Patten observes that now mass rape is not always met with the same level of impunity as before. As evidence, she cites the trial of the DRC militia chief Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka accused of the Walikale mass rape of more than 350 women and girls back in 2010, and the sentencing to jail of ten soldiers in South Sudan for an attack on the Terrain Hotel in which a local journalist was killed and five international aid workers were repeatedly raped.

The UN’s advocacy work has had a positive impact on the reporting of CRSV cases and encouraged more survivors to come forward. “I see how survivors today are more prone to speak out. Before, perpetrators knew that these women will be outcast, and this crime will not be reported. So, it’s a calculated crime for them. But today, increasingly women are breaking the code of silence”, Patten argues.

Margot Wallström, who in 2010 became the first UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “shook the world” when she called the DRC the “rape capital of the world”, Patten highlights. “This made people realise what was going on. This is the kind of impact that this mandate has had.” Since she took office in 2017, Patten has invited a Rohingya woman to speak at the UN Security Council in New York. She has also asked a Bosnian child born of wartime rape to come to the UN and talk about stigma and the plight of children born of rape. And she has invited a woman who had been held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda for 15 years, during which time she had three children born of rape, to share her story.

Though there have been notable improvements in reporting and reducing the stigma for victims, Patten urges the international community to do more. She supports calls for major humanitarian donors such as the UK to allocate a specific portion of their aid budget towards tackling CRSV and supporting victims.

“We are facing critical shortfalls in funding and the humanitarian agencies are struggling. There are huge gaps in service provision for women in terms of sexual and reproductive health and a lack of specialised mental health services for women who are often extremely traumatised by their experiences of CRSV”, Patten says.

“Wherever I go, women want justice, they want the perpetrators to be brought to justice. But they also ask for livelihood support – they don’t ask for charity. In many instances, these women have been rejected by their families and their communities. How do they rebuild their lives?” she asks. “More needs to be done in the provision of livelihood support, housing and access to justice”, Patten adds.

Patten is also working with the Denis Mukwege Foundation to consider the establishment of a victim’s reparations fund with pledges from governments. “Reparations are very critical. If we take a victim-centred approach, we have to consider that not every woman is going to find their way in the courtroom. So, we have to think about reparative justice,” she says.

At a time when there are many forces pushing against accountability with justice having the weakest constituency, Patten expresses support for the establishment of a global mechanism similar to the UN’s IIIM mechanism in Syria that would assist in the collection, consolidation, preservation and analysis of evidence of international humanitarian law and human rights law violations. Patten explains that the creation of such a mechanism would both preserves the possibility of a future tribunal bringing criminals to justice by ensuring that the evidence will be collected and protected from loss or disruption and makes it more likely that the moment of accountability will also be realised.

“Collecting reliable evidence of crimes that can be admitted in a court and that connects specific perpetrators to atrocities will make those crimes harder to ignore”, she concludes. 


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