Keynote Address of SRSG Pramila Patten, Conference on Alleviating the Stigma of CRSV

Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. Photo: H. Memija

Honorable Semiha Borovac, Minister of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, His Excellency Ambassador Edward Ferguson of the United Kingdom, United Nations Resident Coordinator Sezin Sinanoglu, UNFPA Representative Dr. Doina Bologa, members of the Parliamentary Assembly, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I am delighted to join you for this important conference, which marks the launch of the Stigma Alleviation Programme for Bosnia and Herzegovina – the first country to adopt such a plan.

During the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York, I was pleased to co-host an event with the United Kingdom’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, to launch the new Principles for Global Action to tackle the stigma of sexual violence. My Office is proud to have contributed to this global document and to the anti-stigma campaign more broadly.

Although this is my first official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, my two predecessors visited in 2010 and 2013 respectively, and we have provided on-going support in terms of programmatic funding and political advocacy. In many respects, I am pleased with the progress that has been made to date, though much remains to be done in key areas, such as the adoption of harmonized and non-discriminatory legislation and equal access to services, justice and reparations for all survivors, wherever they may reside.

It was important to me to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina early in my tenure, as this country has been the torchbearer of efforts to combat the stigmatization of survivors of wartime sexual violence, through not only the commitment of the authorities, but that of civil society and regular citizens as well.

I believe we have many things to learn from the Bosnian experience, which marked a turning point in the recognition of rape as an international crime of the utmost gravity. These lessons include the importance of efforts at the local level to combat stigma and promote healing, because communities are where change truly takes root. It also shows us the importance of a comprehensive approach to justice, including social and economic justice. In other words, what the survivors need, deserve and demand is official recognition and the experience of justice, not just law.


The issue of stigma, which we are focused on today, is a widespread, almost universal phenomenon, across a range of countries dealing with the reality or legacy of conflict-related sexual violence.

When I took up this mandate in June, my first priority was to hear directly from the victims across a range of settings.

I have met a number of Yezidi survivors of sexual atrocities committed by Da’esh who had been granted asylum in Germany. Their stories were harrowing. One woman had been held captive for 14 months; sold eight times; and raped repeatedly – five or six times a day. She eventually became so thin, and so ill, that she was able to convince her captives to release her by telling them she was HIV-positive.

I visited an IDP camp in Maiduguri, in Northeast Nigeria, where I met with women and girls who had escaped the grip of Boko Haram. I learned from these women how their release did not mean the end of their ordeal. After being rejected and cast out of their communities, they were stigmatized and viewed with suspicion even by the other IDPs, on account of their so-called “Boko Haram babies”.

In Abuja, I met with the Chibok girls who shared with me their worst nightmares, but also their greatest aspirations for peace, justice, education and opportunity. A few weeks ago, these girls were reunited with their families and the Government is now sponsoring their education.

I also visited Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where displaced women expressed grave fears about the closure of their camp – although it afforded them barely life-sustaining conditions. They did not want to return to their communities without assurances of socio-economic support. In particular, they requested the continuation of a microcredit programme that had been available in the camp. This illustrates the vital links between economic security and physical security for women affected by war.

Yesterday, a male survivor of the conflict here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, eloquently summarized the frustrations that he and many like him continue to face. He said: “During the war, we were victims of the crimes and the criminals; today, we are victims of the system”. Too many survivors have had to wait years – even decades – for their proverbial “day in court”. Sadly, these crimes are still seen through the prism of politics and ethnicity, rather than in terms of universal human rights. Another survivor described the pain of negative public perceptions, saying: “We are not known as the Association of Women Victims of War; we are sneered at simply as ‘the raped women’. We have no name or family name now, other than ‘the raped women’”.


The manifestations of stigma, which vary from region to region, are multiple, intersecting and often lethal. It is not one stigma, but many stigmas that follow in the wake of rape.

- Some victims resort to suicide rather than face the censure of their families; others have been executed for adultery, or subjected to so-called “honor killings”.

- Girls who have been raped may be deemed “unmarriageable”. Some survivors are rejected by their spouse, while others are forced to marry their rapist in the name of restoring social harmony and family honor.

- Some women, who have been held as forced wives by armed and violent extremist groups, are later shunned as “enemy affiliates” and sympathizers, or detained as intelligence assets in counter-terrorism operations.

- Some contract HIV because they did not dare to come forward and report rape in time to receive post-exposure prophylaxis. This can leave victims literally dying of shame.

- Women have resorted to unsafe abortions in the wake of rape and forced impregnation; others have died while giving birth in lonely, gruelling conditions, foregoing medical care to avoid public hostility and humiliation.

Stigma knows no gender, age or ethnicity.

It traverses cultures and continents, regions and religions.

- Male survivors have had their social status, identity and sexual orientation called into question. In some countries, this can even result in their arrest. Here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, conflict-related sexual violence against men remains a taboo topic more than two decades since the war.

- Stigma is as cruel to children as it is to adults, darkening what could be bright futures.

- Children born of rape are often left in a legal limbo: without their father’s name or presence, they may be denied birth certificates and identity papers, which can cause them to become stateless. The circumstances of their birth may rob them of social acceptance and belonging.

This litany of hardship and horror explains why many survivors of sexual violence describe the ensuing, long-lasting stigma as worse than the violence itself.
What I have seen and heard during my first four months in Office, about the impact of stigma, has not only shaped my understanding, it has reshaped my priorities.
We need to recognize that shame and stigma are built-in to the logic of sexual violence employed as a tactic of war and terror.
In other words, rape is the action of the perpetrator; stigma is the reaction of society – both must change, or neither will.
Victim-blame, leading to social exclusion, is precisely what gives the weapon of rape its uniquely destructive power. This includes the power to shred the social fabric.
Aggressors understand that this crime can turn victims into outcasts, and will therefore rarely be reported. Indeed, for many survivors, whose lives and livelihoods would be shattered by social rejection, silence can seem like a survival strategy.
It is unacceptable that survivors risk being twice victimized: first by the perpetrator, then again by society and the State, which is often unresponsive, sometimes even punitive and discriminatory. We know that here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as in many other conflict-affected settings, the pace of justice can be painfully slow.
But let us have no doubt about the urgency of this issue.
There cannot be inclusive and durable peace, justice or reconciliation so long as the divisive force of stigma persists.

This is both a question of long-term cultural change and a matter of peace and security as well.

Conflict-recovery is not only about rebuilding homes and infrastructure; it is fundamentally about rebuilding trust. Tackling stigma cannot, therefore, be a secondary consideration; it must infuse all of our strategies and programs from the outset. We need to address stigma as an emergency because lives are at stake.

Indeed, many victims who survive sexual violence do not survive its social repercussions.

Rape is still the only crime for which a society is more likely to stigmatize the victim, than to punish the perpetrator. And it is the only crime that casts a long shadow of social disgrace upon the victim, rather than the victimizer. We must reverse and redirect this stigma, to send a clear signal that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding or condoning it.

This will require consistent, visible accountability processes to deter would-be perpetrators, as well as structurally transformative reparations to empower victims and help them truly feel like survivors.

The word “recognition” literally means to “think again”. And, ultimately, I believe that the global anti-stigma campaign, and the national programme we are launching today, compel us to re-think our responses by recognizing that victims of conflict-related sexual violence are legitimate victims of war. They are entitled to equality before the law, and to the same status, public sympathy, reparations and redress as any other veteran or victim.

This is critical as social stigma is reinforced by lingering perceptions that rape is somehow a “lesser crime”. We must recall that wars are not just fought, they are also told, and the telling is steeped in relations of power. To prevent stigma, we must first prevent sexual violence from being minimized and trivialized in the conflict narratives that are passed down to future generations. Never again should we underestimate the devastating impact and enduring legacy of these crimes.

Curbing stigma demands a shift in laws, policies and practice, coupled with a deep and enduring shift in ideas.

To this end, governments, regional organizations, journalists, traditional and religious leaders, civil society activists, and survivors themselves, all have a critical role to play, in their respective spheres of influence.

This includes shifting harmful social norms around honor and shame, as well as gender stereotypes and myths related to victim-blame and the inevitability of rape in war, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In addition to political will on the part of State officials, the willingness of traditional and religious leaders to use their moral authority to support the reintegration, empowerment and autonomy of victims can make a real difference.

We have seen this in the case of the Iraqi Yezidi community. Following the declaration of support for sexual violence survivors issued by Yezidi spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh, many more women and girls returned to their community and were embraced by their families.

Similarly, to mark this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Bosnian Interreligious Council issued a public declaration denouncing the stigmatization of sexual violence survivors. It called for enhanced efforts to improve their status in society and to prevent the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

For our part, my Office can avail affected countries of capacity-building assistance through our Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, and catalytic funding for joint programmes through the interagency network that I chair, known as UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Specifically, we provide financial and technical support to the Joint United Nations Programme on “Seeking Care, Support and Justice for Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Stigma reduction, through advocacy and sensitization, is one pillar of the overall programme, which aims to comprehensively address the legacy of wartime sexual violence, through legislative reform, health and psychosocial support, economic empowerment and access to justice.

Moreover, through annual reports on conflict-related sexual violence, compiled by my Office, we have built a public historical record for a crime too often met with denial and derision. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the situations analysed within the scope of our annual report and will remain a priority country for my Office.


Stigma, compounded by fear of reprisals and a lack of services, is a major impediment to seeking justice for these crimes. Chronic underreporting sets in motion a vicious cycle of inadequate resources, slow responses, and assumed impunity on the part of perpetrators.

But I am confident that we can push back.

We can convert this into a virtuous cycle of supportive institutional and social cultures, increased reporting rates, enhanced resources, and a swifter, more comprehensive response that is truly centred on the plight and rights of the victims.

To conclude, I would like to underscore three forward-looking points:

Firstly, we need to make effective use of the tools, plans and resources at our disposal. This includes the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which provides guidance on investigating these crimes without re-traumatizing the victims, singling them out, or exposing them to further harm. We also need to disseminate the new Principles for Global Action to tackle the stigma of sexual violence more widely in affected countries. Today’s conference is an important contribution to these efforts. At the same time, we must continually strive to fill analytical and knowledge gaps, to ensure that no one is left behind. For instance, my Office has commissioned research on sexual violence against men and boys, including the associated stigma.

Secondly, we need to work together and join forces, leveraging our comparative advantages for maximum impact. We need to expand the circle of allies, stakeholders and champions, and sustain the political momentum generated in recent years, to propel real change at the community-level. It is also critical to mobilize national political leadership in order to marshal resources for a sustainable response that is equal to the scale of the challenge. Sexual violence is not a “private” burden to be borne by the victims; it is a social problem requiring a sustained public sector response. The fact that we are here in Sarajevo still discussing these issues a quarter of a century since the start of the war shows that stigma is not necessarily alleviated by the passage of time. In fact, it may be compounded by inaction, which can breed new grievances and tensions, as well as new violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. One survivor told me yesterday: “We have grown old working on these issues. I tell the same story today that I have told since the 1990s, only today I tell it without hope”. Discussing this issue is not about “re-opening old wounds”; it is about preventing new ones. This is vital as we know how quickly a climate of impunity can turn (or return) to a climate of intimidation.

Thirdly, and finally, we must reject – once and for all – the notion that either sexual violence or its attendant stigma, are inevitable. These physical, psychological and social harms are preventable, and we all have a role to play in preventing them. More can and must be done to heal the scars suffered by survivors, and to replace horror with hope.

For many survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, here and elsewhere, war is not over when it’s over. It lives on in trauma, depression, unemployment, poor health, and hidden children who are relegated to the margins of society. Peace is not just the absence of war, but the presence of peace of mind. Therefore, any investment in comprehensive services for survivors is also an investment in peace, and in ensuring that the dividends of peace flow equally to all. I am glad that my Office is contributing to this cause, and you can rest assured that we will continue to do so.

Allow me to end by saying, once again, that addressing sexual violence is not a matter of ethnic or political divisions; it is a matter of human rights and dignity, which are universal.

I thank you all for your participation in today’s conference, and for your shared commitment to the cause of alleviating the stigma of conflict-related sexual violence, which has cast its long and sinister shadow over too many innocent lives.