Advocating for a regional solution to ending gender-based violence in conflict

The article below appeared on, 8 August 2016

Election protests which began in April 2015 in Burundi quickly escalated to serious clashes between security forces and protestors; soon there were numerous civilian casualties and citizens fleeing their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond. Sonke Gender Justice, a non-governmental organisation based in South Africa started receiving requests, through their partner organisations, to find safe and effective ways to respond to the alarming rates of sexual violence and generalized violence in Burundi. In response, Sonke Gender Justice started an advocacy campaign in February 2016 (expected to run until August 2016) to bring attention to the consequences of the rising conflict in Burundi.

The campaign began shortly after Australia Awards Alumna Itumeleng Komanyane returned from the University of Sydney where she had participated in the Transitional Justice and Gender Justice Fellowship. On her return she was tasked with managing the Gender Norms Transformation project at Sonke Gender Justice where she works as the Manager for International Programs. The project focuses on policy advocacy, movement building, skills building on social justice issues and generating an evidence base for the work around engaging men and boys for gender equality. Periodically, the project also rises to emerging needs on the continent – such as the Burundi crisis – where there are human rights abuses.

Itumeleng says the skills she gained from her short course have had a direct impact on her organisation’s response and her ability to create a fast-acting and high impact strategy. “I have been able to utilise the skills set from my fellowship to provide strategic input into designing the advocacy activity around the current situation in Burundi. During conflict we know that sexual violence is at its peak due to the absence of rule of law; advocating for an end to the conflict will therefore benefit women and girls who are most at risk.”

While the coordination base is in South Africa, Itumeleng says the campaign has been designed to have regional input through partners in the MenEngage Africa alliance, and MenEngage global alliance who are lending their voices to the estimated 258 000 refugees currently affected by this civil strife in Burundi. “Many have fled the conflict, however even those who stayed in Burundi cannot speak freely, there is a need for another voice to speak up about this conflict and convict the powers that be to actively and deliberately work to end the unrest and prevent conflict.”

Furthermore, the campaign seeks to hold political leaders accountable around sexual violence in conflict, and to get the world to pay attention to Burundi, and many other countries currently going through the same. “For over six months, there was silence on the Burundi situation from world leaders, African leaders and international agencies therefore there was a need to develop an advocacy activity around the Burundi crisis,” Itumeleng says.

Australia Awards Fellowships provide ample opportunities for participants to effectively share experiences from their different contexts that are relevant to the work of the group as a whole. In addition to building her skills set around gender and justice, the fellowship provided an opportunity to learn from other participant’s first-hand experience of effective response during conflict situations. Itumeleng recalls lessons she learned from fellow participants: “A participant from Uganda who had been abducted by rebels at a very young age, and only managed to escape in her twenties, shared harrowing stories of her experiences during

captivity. What stood out for me was her call for community education and strengthening the reintegration for ex-captives. Another participant from Kenya spoke about the importance of documenting evidence and ensuring that there are resources for effective prosecution.”

The experience-sharing by fellow course participants coupled with the course material and exposure to various justice institutions’ operations has assisted Itumeleng with the ability to develop multi-tiered advocacy campaign strategies.

As the manager for international programs, Itumeleng is tasked with identifying emerging advocacy priorities, working with other colleagues to develop strategies, coordinating the response strategy, liaising with funders and other development partners such as the UN agencies to secure resources for the strategy, and to ensure that advocacy activities involve other partners in the region. She has also capitalised on her ongoing links with fellow Alumni of her fellowship and included them in designing the campaign.

“Their involvement is critical in not only shaping our response but they understand the nuances around such work.” Itumeleng’s links with Australia are continued through her organisation as Sonke Gender Justice also works with two Australian volunteers who contribute widely to the organisation through project and strategy development, event organising, developing training programs and creating accessible training resources.

Itumeleng is convinced that a regional response to the consequences of civil conflict is essential because conflict always has a regional socio-economic impact and is a breeding ground for sexual crimes. “Conflict in one part of Africa negatively affects economic development in other African countries; the number of Burundian refugees flocking to other African countries including South Africa is well documented. Beyond the need and responsibility of states to provide refuge for refugees and the resulting scramble for sometimes limited resources and xenophobia, what has also been a real concern are the reports of sexual violence emerging out of this situation.”

While the project is still in its initial stages and is designed to complement other advocacy strategies on the Burundi crisis, Itumeleng’s one hope is that the campaign will effectively raise awareness on the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. “The rate of rape in conflict, post conflict and high violence settings in Africa is a major concern and a gross human rights violation. Many of our leaders are quiet about this. The important issue of sovereignty of states should never undermine the plight of women, men and children whose lives are affected daily. We would like to see people in Burundi and elsewhere in the region living peacefully in a country free of conflict, enjoying a good quality of life, as well as full enjoyment of human dignity and fundamental human rights.”

Key results - Itumeleng Komanyane