Why is important to understand the impact and responses required for sexual violence and torture survivors in conflict and post-conflict countries in Africa?
Since 1998 I have been carrying out applied research with colleagues and African organisations with survivors of sexual violence and torture. This research argues that sexual violence perpetrated in conflict and post-conflict settings causes devastating effects to individuals as well as whole communities. It results in extensive damage to survivors’ psychological, reproductive and gynaecological health. Ongoing research reveals that more women and girl-children survive conflicts than are killed; yet with tremendous wounds to their bodies and minds; assaults on their dignity, their feelings of self-worth and their future. In contrast, there are rarely consequences for the perpetrators. Applied research carried out in Uganda, Liberia and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with colleagues and African organisations, argues that sexual violence is not solely a war crime and although extremely prevalent during conflicts, my research argues it has contaminated the post-conflict domestic sphere with high levels of community-perpetrated domestic violence and rape, particularly against young girls. Survivors’ shame and stigma is exacerbated by severe social rejection, particularly for women and girls who become pregnant from rape, former abductees and those with AIDS and HIV infection. Many resultant physical and mental health problems are not treatable by the grossly over-stretched and under-resourced health care systems. Capacity building within primary health care and justice services needs to address psychological trauma, increase resilience and recovery through support groups, trauma counselling and improvement to mental health policies. It is vitally important that service providers (who have also often experienced human rights abuses) are assisted to develop peer support and supervision groups and receive culturally sensitive training in supporting traumatised survivors and their children born from rape. In conjunction with greater protection for their work, and regular salaries this would assist to prevent ‘burn out’.