|Friday 24th March 2023 saw the British Embassy to the Holy See host a discussion on “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Raising Awareness” at the Istituto Maria SS Bambina in Rome.
Guests were invited to take part in person or online and consequently a number of people were present at the venue in Rome.
The British Embassy to the Holy See is proactive in bringing attention to such matters as violence towards women, particularly sexual violence in times of war. Appreciation must go to the organisers from the British Embassy to the Holy See as the audience was “moved to tears” during some sharings, just as the Moderator Sr Bernadette Reis, FSP, from the Direction Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See suggested might happen.
Particularly challenging for the audience was the testimony of Nyota Mapendo, a gender-based violence survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nyota bravely shared her story of being repeatedly raped by soldiers in DRC when she was still a young teenager, resulting in pregnancy. This brave woman shared her dreams to go on and study and is able to do so due to the assistance of the Jesuit Relief Services (JRS). Unfortunately, Nyota has to bear cruel and discriminatory treatment in her society as she has Albinism, a congenital absence of pigment in the skin and hair, which is prevalent in Africa, and people are treated badly due to fear of the afflicted person.
The mission of Nyota today is to spread the word on behalf of victims of gender-based violence and to help them live in peace. Her final plea to those listening was to help build peace in DRC.
The testimony of Nyota and the words of other speakers from whom the audience heard on the prevalence of sexual violence in war situations made it clear that this kind of violence is primarily directed at women. Sexual violence has become a weapon used against women and must rightfully be considered a war crime.
Evidence presented by Natalia from Caritas Ukraine showed how so many women in Ukraine are forced into engaging in sex simply in order to live. Her stories of women who have been raped showed that:
Humanitarian groups such as Caritas are present in Ukraine and are ready to support the women and girls. Natalia appealed for people to stand with Ukraine, to pray for the country and to pray for peace.
Sr Barbara Paleczny SSND, who ministered in South Sudan for twelve years, shared experiences of working with the people of that war-torn country in seeking to facilitate some healing from the sexual violence that dominates the fighting within the country. Soldiers are not well paid so they take their “payment” in the form of raping of innocent women and girls. Barbara trained leaders in physical healing from trauma using the Capacitar method, a method that is recognized throughout the world and that focuses on the healing of the physical body. The theory is that the body is capable of healing and the trauma does not have to be a “life sentence”. Body work is as essential as talk therapy. During her years in the country, Barbara worked with thousands of people who suffered from sexual violence and its after-effects, and she focused on the healing of the body. Her legacy lives on.
The discussions of the afternoon included talks from those involved in programs in health and healing for those affected by sexual violence. This violence is used to subjugate and displace populations, and coming back from that violence and displacement can take many years. There are no instant solutions, but we are called to support populations, to accompany peoples affected, to strengthen health systems, and to do whatever we can to support the innocent. We can speak out against the perpetrators.
The British Government is to be appreciated for bringing these issues to the fore and enabling people to speak out, to tell their stories, so that many others become aware of what is happening on the ground in places of conflict and war. The bombing is, of course, bad enough, but the attacks on the physical integrity of women particularly is profoundly demeaning and leaves emotional scars that remain long after the effects of the bombing have disappeared. Women often do not report these attacks due to the embarrassment and shame they feel. Let us be there to support and encourage them so as to help in their healing.
The role of the media is very important in raising awareness of the sexual violence attacks that take place. Raising awareness is a difficult challenge, but with social media in this age there can be immediate reporting of what is happening on the ground.
Speakers quoted Pope Francis when he said to victims of violence that he met: “Your tears are my tears. Your pain is my pain.” The message is for each of us to be able to empathize with those suffering just as he does ……. and to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, this repugnant violence. We are called to stand with our innocent sisters and support them.
11 April 2023
Sr Margaret Scott, RNDM
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