Manuel Elias

World News


Support without Stigma

Speaking on the BBC’s Today program just before the turn of the new year, actor and humanitarian, Angelina Jolie, seemed unperturbed by the trappings of the slow news season in her bid to shed light on the plight of sexual violence survivors.

“Nothing happens to the men that commit these crimes,” she told BBC Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb, “so we live in this culture of impunity.”

It is this impunity that Jolie is determined to tackle head-on. By openly talking about the scourge of sexual violence, the activist is determined to put the focus on both men and women as vehicles for change. That she is finding audiences sympathetic to her cause is an encouraging sign of a changing tide in response to violence that is as old as war itself.

For six years, Jolie has campaigned assiduously on behalf of survivors as part of her work with the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), a campaign launched in partnership with the former British foreign secretary William Hague. Her interview came just weeks after the opening of the ‘Fighting Stigma Through Film’ festival, where 38 movies and documentaries presented survivors with a platform through which to tell their stores – a platform which they are so often denied.

“Female and male survivors, and children born of this rape,” Jolie asserts in a recent interview with women’s magazine Marie Claire, “are often treated as if they are the ones who have done something wrong. They are rejected and stigmatized, while their attackers go unpunished. That’s what has to change, and breaking the taboo is part of that.”

Indeed, the fact that many survivors feel they cannot talk about their experiences – or the long, painful recovery process – only adds to the impunity of perpetrators, who evade justice in the absence of adequate reporting mechanics and due judicial process.

It is in this vacuum of discussion that the ‘Fighting Stigma’ festival unveiled the Murad Code, designed to set the standard for sexual violence investigations and evidence-gathering efforts in the wake of conflict. The code has already received the backing of UK special representative, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, to the tune of £500,000, earmarked for PSVI’s Team of Experts currently deployed to evidence gathering efforts in Syria, Burma, and Nigeria.

The code is named for Nobel Peace Prize winner and Yazidi human rights activist, Nadia Murad, a survivor of sexual slavery at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) and a dedicated advocate for the rescue of thousands of women still in captivity. “As we are talking here, 3,000 women and girls of Yazidi villages are still in the hands of ISIS,” Murad told Al Jazeera, “I still feel shameful of what has happened to me and many other Yazidi girls…[but] if we don’t speak up today, tomorrow this will continue.”

Murad’s work on behalf of other Yazidi victims despite her own escape to Germany has no doubt wrought a heavy personal toll on the young activist. Accepting her Nobel Peace Prize award last year alongside fellow activist and Congolese gynecologist, Denis Mukwege, Murad’s tone was one of optimism – but also frustration. “I hope that today will represent a new era where peace will be everywhere,” Murad declared at the Oslo ceremony, calling on the international community to extend itself beyond awards and provide tangible rescue to her people – of whom more than 6,500 women and girls have been kidnapped, raped and traded in ISIS’ dense network of human exploitation. Not one member of the terror group has yet been brought to trial.

As part of her tireless global advocacy for her cause, Murad is also set to appear at an upcoming event in London on behalf of the advocacy group, Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH), which advocates for Vietnam War rape survivors and their children. Between 1964 and 1973, thousands of South Korean soldiers were deployed to Vietnam to fight alongside their American counterparts; amid the bloodshed, they raped and inflicted sexual violence on countless civilians – some of their victims were girls as young as 12.

The mothers of the Lai Dai Han, a generation of mixed Korean-Vietnamese heritage conceived by rape, have been banished to the margins of Vietnamese society ever since, denied education and access to basic social services, including healthcare. At the same time, the South Korean government has yet to acknowledge their claims in the decades since the crimes were committed, let alone apologize for the crimes of Korean soldiers.

After a lifetime of stigma, the more than 800 Vietnamese survivors alive today are beginning to call for justice, strengthened by what appears to be an unstoppable global alliance of survivors of sexual violence demanding to be acknowledged. Indeed, while JLDH’s remit seems a daunting one in the face of a lifetime of denial and ostracization, the very public work of Jolie and Murad cannot be viewed in isolation: the tide is turning for survivors of sexual violence, even if their trauma took place years, or even decades, ago.