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PRESS BRIEFING BY UNICEF

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

28 February 2005

The United Nations Children's Fund’s two highest ranking officials declared today that rape and the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls was not collateral damage, but a war crime for which perpetrators could be tried under international law, although few ever were.

Executive Director Carol Bellamy and her Deputy, Rima Salah, told a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon that it was time that the international community stopped being afraid of talking about the realities of what it meant to be a woman or girl caught up in armed conflict today.

Briefing correspondents about the tenth year review and appraisal of the Beijing Plan of Action -- the so-called Beijing + 10 -- as well as sexual violence and exploitation of women, which began here today, the two officials called for changes in the interests of human rights, human decency and human dignity, and urged the international community to ensure that women and girls were provided with a safe supportive environment in which they could heal and become empowered as active agents for peace and reconstruction.

Since 1990, 90 per cent of conflict-related deaths had been civilians, and 80 per cent of those had been women and children, said Ms. Bellamy, observing that all civilians caught up in conflict had to battle diseases, poor nutrition, and a lack of shelter and health care. But evidence showed that men and women were affected differently by armed conflict, she said. While it was true men and boys were forced to fight and kill -- boys were forced to become child soldiers and made to witness and commit despicable acts of violence -- the world had addressed the disturbing phenomenon of child soldiers and had embraced the goal of getting them out of the ranks of rebel groups and back into society.

What about the girls swept into the horror of conflict? she asked. Over the past two decades, there had been a dramatic increase in the use of rape and sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war -- a way of demoralizing and humiliating the enemy and destabilizing entire communities, she explained. In situations of armed conflict, girls and women were routinely raped, trafficked, used in prostitution, held by armed groups in sexual slavery, mutilated and forced to carry pregnancies.

“It is decent and right -- and not radical -- to demand an end to the systematic rape of girls as young as five and women as old at 85”, she said, adding that the world should insist that governments held their troops accountable when they were on United Nations peacekeeping missions. In the 10 years she had been at the helm of UNICEF, she had been accused of being “a radical feminist” who singled out girls and women for preferential treatment because of the importance she attached to women in the lives of children. When labels like that were tossed about disparagingly, the end result was that people became reluctant to speak out against discrimination for fear of being accused of promoting special interests.

“But who else are we to speak on behalf of than those marginalized, discriminated and abused groups who are denied a voice of their own?” she asked. She said in her travels in conflict-ridden areas, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur and Liberia, she listened often to women and girls tell her how they were afraid to tell family and community members that they had been raped.

But the stigma of rape went far beyond the village level, she asserted. It extended up to the highest levels of power, where it unfortunately collided with something even more damaging -- apathy. In conflicts around the world, government authorities simply did not care that thousands of women and children were being raped and the perpetrators were going unpunished. The perpetrators of those horrendous crimes against women could be men, but there were also men, and women, in a position to prevent and punish those misdeeds, and such people should not be afraid to speak out for and defend the rights of women and children.

Reviewing what had been accomplished for women since the landmark conference of 10 years ago in Beijing, Ms. Bellamy further said she was sorry that positions of power continued to elude women at the United Nations. While she was happy that her successor at the Children’s agency was a woman, she was dismayed that UNICEF was among the few UN agencies currently headed by a woman. To that end, she wanted to see some affirmative action in the Organization, starting with the openings heading up the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank.

On her part, Deputy Executive Director Salah, recalled that her six years as the UN agency’s Regional Director in West and Central Africa were filled with life-changing encounters with children and their families. She witnessed first-hand the devastation of conflicts in the region and the brutal impact of violence on civilians. Although each country in the region, from Liberia to Côte d’Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was unique in many ways, there was a common and consistent threat that united them: War was particularly brutal if you happened to be a female.

However, she also noted that rape as a tactic of war was not invented in West and Central Africa. Between a quarter and a half million women were estimated to have been raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. During the Balkan conflict, at least 20,000 Muslim girls and women were raped, with teenagers especially targeted. In Bangladesh, Myanmar, Uganda and East Timor, the bodies of women and girls were and are being violated as part of battle, she said. According to Ms. Salah, most such attacks were carried out with impunity -- with permission to rape being given as a kind of payment. Instead of money, leaders gave their soldiers carte blanche to rape, knowing that there wouldn’t be any consequences.

In response to a correspondent’s question on the apparent discord generated among Member States over the issue of the rights of abortion, Ms. Bellamy said while there was still much to be done, the Beijing Declaration had served everyone well up to this point and she urged the international community not to go backward. She said the meeting was a governmental gathering and the participants would work out whatever they would work out, as the matter had been tackled at previous global conferences.

Asked to comment on the charges of rape and violence committed by United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UNICEF chief declared that there was no justification for rape whatsoever, regardless of who the perpetrator was, whether by a husband against his wife, as a tactic of war by governments engaged in a conflict within their own country or serving as United Nations peacekeepers. It was “a right” to demand that governments in all those cases must hold their own troops accountable.

To another correspondent who wanted to know what qualified her successor to the position other than being a woman and “a not so successful Secretary of Agriculture”, Ms. Bellamy said while she did not know her successor very well, she had had an opportunity to “engage” with her and that she had run a very large Department. She believed she would bring some experience to UNICEF and her success would be measured by her performance.

Asked if the United Nations should assume legal responsibility for the children left behind by peacekeepers across the world, she said the United Nations needed to review what its responsibilities were needed to take on more responsibility than it had up to this point. She further believed that the issue of the rape of women and girls was getting worse, rather than better, due to the fact that there were increasingly wars within countries, rather than between countries.

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