Photo above: Ministry of Foreign Affairs specialist Irma van Dueren
'Our country wants to play an active role around the world when it comes to conflict management and peacebuilding. This is how we can contribute to a stable and just world. Ensuring women’s safety and equality is part of that. Sexual violence is not.'
'In eastern Congo, government forces and rebels have been fighting for almost 20 years. With the MONUSCO peace mission the United Nations is seeking to foster stability and support the government in fighting armed groups. As a foreign ministry staff member, I have been stationed with MONUSCO for several years now. My work focuses on the epidemic of sexual violence in the country. The perpetrators can be found both within the army and among the rebels. The UN would like to help the government put a stop to it. The Netherlands very much endorses this aim.'
Irma van Dueren is a specialist in the field of sexual violence in conflict zones. When the UN called on its member states to provide specialists for the peace mission, the foreign ministry knew that it had a talented go-getter to offer.
Just as harmful as guns
'This is the kind of proactive attitude we need. As Van Dueren sees on a daily basis. ‘The violence in eastern Congo impacts all people and communities. Sexual violence is the order of the day. Both government soldiers and rebels know all too well that it is an effective way of destroying communities. A woman who has been raped will be shunned by her fellow villagers. Any children that she may have will be disowned. Every time I come to eastern Congo, I see the results. I see neglect. I speak with victims who live in isolation. They tell me about the deaths, as a result of HIV or suicide. Sexual violence is truly a terrible weapon. Often many women will be raped in a single attack, sometimes by the dozen. It is just as harmful to a community as guns.'
'All too often, rebels and government soldiers are given free rein to do as they please. No one seems to be doing anything to stop them. This is why our work is so important. The UN mission is making a real difference, but we cannot solve the problem alone. We are part of a broader approach by the government, with the support of the UN. Unicef, UNFPA and other UN bodies are also working hard on this front. Other initiatives sometimes come from unexpected places. Take the Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege. He has helped thousands of women who have been maimed by sexual violence. Now he’s travelling around the world to raise awareness of sexual violence and the culture of impunity in eastern Congo.'
Investigations and conversations
Irma van Dueren heads the UN team that is working to curb sexual violence in eastern Congo. 'We have two main tasks. The first is to investigate and draw up reports. We follow up on as many reports of sexual violence as we can. We want to know exactly what happened and who the perpetrators are: an armed group or the army. We then submit the results of the investigations to the UN and the Congolese government. This way, the country’s leaders know what we’re talking about when the time comes to discuss concrete measures with them. And it works. The Congolese government doesn’t like Congo being known as the country with the world’s worst record on sexual violence. They understand that having that reputation doesn’t help build a positive image.'
Empowerment and protection go hand in hand
‘Women play a key role in post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding. Getting women fully involved in the peace process offers the best chance of achieving a lasting peace. This is why we need to mobilise women and girls in conflict zones. We have to help them by improving education, economic opportunity, political influence and healthcare. This can re-vitalise societies in conflict zones. It can provide them with a new type of power.'
'Empowering women goes hand in hand with protecting women. Women cannot take part in the peace and recovery process if they are being physically threatened. This is why the UN Security Council has designated sexual violence as a threat to international security and an obstacle to peacebuilding.’
Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN envoy
‘Our second task is to support the government and the army in punishing the guilty parties. I’ve spoken a lot with generals and other military commanders. We also support military justice. Previously, cases could drag on for years. In many cases perpetrators are punished much more quickly now. The army is just as guilty of engaging in sexual violence as the rebels.'
'These meetings require all my diplomatic skills. You have to find the right tone. We try to be good listeners and gain our interlocutors’ trust. The army commanders need to understand what we’re talking about. They need to have the motivation to do something about sexual violence and confront the guilty parties. We have in-depth conversations about that.'
'We need to make them appreciate the necessity of taking action for themselves. As long as the Congolese army continues to commit sexual violence in its own country, it cannot contribute to peace missions, which is something they’d very much like to do. You can make use of that. At the end of the day, the country itself has to take the initiative; the UN can only play an advisory and supporting role, for example by organising exchanges with other countries where this type of work is being done. This is important. It is the only way Congo can focus on its recovery.'
'In the meantime the army, with our support, has begun to take concrete steps to stop sexual violence within its own ranks. They’ve even draw up a plan of action. In 2016, 200 high-ranking officers signed personal statements that they would apply a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to these crimes and punish any of their troops who had committed sexual violence. Even a number of generals with questionable human rights records signed the statement. This is a major victory. It helps to build better relations between the army and the population.'
These two tasks make for a very full schedule. It’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job. ‘I travel a lot,’ says Irma van Dueren. ‘My base of operation is Goma, but the capital is Kinshasa, around 2,000km away. Once a week I go to Kinshasa to talk to government representatives. I also travel a lot in the conflict zones in eastern Congo. I always go by helicopter, because the roads are impassable, and the distances are much too large anyway. It’s an immense country. And an immense problem.'
'The women of Congo depend on our success. They are fed up with the culture of impunity. It’s good that the foreign ministry and the Netherlands can make a valuable contribution to these efforts, even though they’re so far away. But distances don’t matter. Violence on the other side of the globe affects the Netherlands too. We face the repercussions of warring groups, refugees and the threat of terrorism. We can’t sit still. There’s still a lot of work to be done.'