Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Picture: REUTERS
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Picture: REUTERS

Oslo — From Congo to Ukraine, efforts to end sexual violence in conflict and humanitarian crises will fail unless they empower survivors to speak up, victims of rape and abuse said on Friday.

Sexual and physical violence disproportionately affects women and girls, with one in three experiencing it in their lifetime, according to the UN — a proportion that significantly increases in armed conflict and disasters.

But too often aid interventions ignore survivors' needs, and fail to provide access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, delegates heard at the UN’s first conference on ending sexual violence in humanitarian crises, in Oslo.

“We know what’s been done to us, we should be the first ones involved in responding to this crime,” said Guillaumette Tsongo Kanyere, who was raped in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where multiple armed conflicts and an Ebola outbreak are raging.

"We are not asking you to speak in our name but to amplify our voices," said Kanyere, a women's rights activist who is part of Sema, a network of survivors started by Congolese doctor and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege.

Women are often the "first responders" in humanitarian crises and those whom survivors of sexual violence will turn to for help, said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Yet their efforts remain "critically underfunded", she said, with less than 1% of aid funds going towards tackling gender-based violence in crises, according to research commissioned by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Survivors urged world leaders at the conference to end the impunity that fuels gender-based violence.

Irina Dovgan, a Ukrainian woman who in 2014 was tortured and publicly abused by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern city of Donetsk, said her abusers were "well known but still living freely in Russia".

"They tied me to a pole, kicked me and hung a sign around my neck that said 'killer of children'," she recalled.

"How can this violence be stopped? Only by inflicting just punishment."

Caroline Kende-Robb, secretary-general of charity CARE International, also highlighted sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers, security forces and others in positions of power.

"If impunity prevails, there will be little hope for survivors that violence will decrease," she said.

The aid industry has come under scrutiny after revelations in 2018 that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during an earthquake relief mission in 2010 snowballed into widespread reports of harassment and abuse in the sector.

Thomson Reuters Foundation