Investigating Sexual Violence in War

16 June, 2014

New guidance on investigating sexual violence in war has been released at an international conference in London. Movie actress Angelina Jolie helped organize the four-day-long gathering, which took place last week. She is a special representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The goal of the conference was to end the impunity -- the freedom from punishment -- for those who are guilty of sexual violence in conflict. Christopher Cruise has more.

Lejla Damon was 18 years old when her parents told her about her adoption. She was born on Christmas Day 1992, in the city of Sarajevo, as Yugoslavia was violently breaking up. Her mother did not want to see her newborn child. She gave her away.
Investigating Sexual Violence in War
From left, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress and campaigner Angelina Jolie gather at a summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London, June 13, 2014.

"My mother, who was Bosnian Muslim, was raped repeatedly in the concentration camps at the time and she, she became pregnant and then in the end ended up having to give birth to me in the central hospital in Bosnia, in Sarajevo."

Lejla grew up in Britain. She was adopted by the husband-and-wife team who filmed her birth.

The fighting in Bosnia has ended. But Lejla says the Balkans war continues to affect people.

"Out of so many rapes that went on in Bosnia, I think the only, I think there were only 12 that actually went to court. It's probably my birth mum's story, this kind of sense of injustice that nothing ever really got done to help her."

Lejla Damon now works for an aid group called War Child. It took part in the conference, where organizers released guidance on how to record and investigate sexual violence in conflict. Actress Angelina Jolie spoke during the conference.

"I have met survivors of war-zone rape around the world. And almost without exception, they ask for one thing: justice -- the right to be accepted, not shunned by society. The right to long-term economic and health support. And above all, the right to see their attackers held accountable in a court of law."

In many African countries, few sexual attackers are punished. And conference organizers say the use of rape as a weapon of war is common in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Helen Kezienwha is Uganda country director for the aid group ISIS-Women's International Cross-Cultural Exchange. Her group gives medical and emotional support to victims of rape.

"Most times, when women are raped, their families, especially their husbands reject them, so they suffer from depression, loss of memory sometimes, and sometimes they feel, have suicidal thoughts because of the anger that is resident in them. Sometimes they see the perpetrators of the violence and nothing has happened."

The international community has praised political reforms in Myanmar, also known as Burma. But activists say the situation for women there has not changed -- especially for ethnic minorities in areas where there is still conflict. Zoya Phan is Campaigns Director at the group Burma Campaign UK.

"In Burma Campaign UK, the reports of rape and sexual violence that we received has been increased since President Thein Sein started this reform process. And many of the women who have been raped, they have been gang raped."

Conference organizers hope the new guidance will end the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict.

I'm Christopher Cruise.