To temper war and conflict, empower women

By Fatou Bensouda


Fatou Bensouda
Photo credit: Sikkenk

Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia was elected by consensus as the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in December 2011. She has received numerous accolades, including the International Jurists Award from the World Jurists’ Association, and was named among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2012 and by Jeune Afrique as one of 50 African women who, by their actions and initiatives in their respective roles, advance the African continent (2014 & 2015). The former Head of the Legal Advisory Unit of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and former Deputy Prosecutor of the ICC, she has played a key role in many far-reaching international cases over the last three decades.

In September 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, in which the international community reaffirmed its commitment to equal rights and inherent human dignity of women. In the 20 years since, we have witnessed unprecedented advancement in global recognition of women’s rights. These gains are to be celebrated, yet challenges remain.

As I reflect on these challenges, I am reminded of my formative years when I served as a clerk of the court in my native home, the Gambia. As a young girl, I recall witnessing countless courageous women – survivors of sexual and domestic violence – relive their ordeals through the court system. Their agony and suffering in the face of a judicial system, and indeed society, which could not fully afford them the protective embrace of the law is still etched in my memory. I knew from that moment that, through the force of the law, vulnerable groups in society and those whose rights have been trampled upon must be protected and afforded a measure of justice. These convictions were only reinforced through my experience at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda where my work exposed me to the horrors of atrocious crimes, including mass rapes and murders of women. One, and indeed the world, cannot remain silent and indifferent in the face of such atrocities.

As Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, I have done my best and will continue to do whatever I can to help restore dignity to the shattered lives of the survivors of atrocities. I witness daily the consequences of armed conflict on the lives of women and girls. In the courage and dignity of victims and survivors, I have seen human nature at its best. And in the sheer brutality of crimes against them, I have seen it at its very worst. Sexual and gender-based violence is sadly characteristic of so many conflicts, often perpetrated as a deliberate weapon of war or repression.

I am acutely aware that for women and girls especially, the cost of armed conflict is more than the already weighty burden of physical and psychological scars. Women and girls are often doubly victimized. Not only do combatants see their bodies as legitimate battlefields, but their own communities then reject and ostracize them for what they have endured.

While the suffering of war is felt by entire communities, prevailing inequalities exacerbate the consequences for women and girls. Conflict intensifies their vulnerability to poverty as they endure inadequate access to health services and welfare, fewer economic opportunities as well as diminished political participation. Women’s education and land rights also decrease as illiteracy and maternal mortality substantially rise.

Survival too, exacts a toll. But from the darkest places come the greatest beacons of hope. Women have a unique understanding of the adverse impact that violence has on themselves, their children and societies. Greater inclusion of women in positions of responsibility gives voice to a group intensely affected by war but rarely participant in the decisions that lead to it. With the direct and meaningful involvement of women in decision-making processes, it can be reasonably deduced that the likelihood of lawless wars will decrease, while prospects for sustainable peace will be enhanced.

I add my voice to the chorus of others who champion women’s rights. There are many ways to strive for and ordain peaceful change. Mine is the language of law.

Just two months after the Beijing Declaration was adopted, the UN heralded a new era in ending impunity for the world’s worst crimes by establishing the Preparatory Commission for the ICC. This led to the Court’s establishment just under three years later. It is the first international court to include in its founding instrument – the Rome Statute – a comprehensive catalogue of crimes involving sexual and gender-based violence.

The need to curb such reprehensible crimes and to change the culture of impunity in which they thrive has been an intrinsic part of my work and personal commitment as a woman, as a lawyer and as a Prosecutor. My Office is steadfast in its commitment to end impunity for mass crimes. We recognize that an important aspect of challenging the culture of discrimination that allows sexual and gender-based crimes to prevail is the effective investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for such heinous crimes. With this in mind, I have elevated combating such crimes as a strategic focus for my Office. In June of last year, and after extensive consultation, including with UN Women, we adopted the first comprehensive policy paper by an office of the prosecutor of an international court or tribunal aimed specifically at addressing this scourge.

Through agreements such as the Beijing Declaration, the timetable for gender equality was set. Twenty years later, we can and should celebrate those achievements but we must also recognize where that work desperately needs to continue. Perhaps nowhere is the need more starkly apparent than during and in the aftermath of war and conflict.

Change has been slow but it has also been steady. Until women and men can stand as full equals the world over, our work is not done. Equality for women is progress for all.

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