News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration

Center co-hosts global symposium on conflict-related sexual violence

Written by Adriana Aramburu and Riley Novak, Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration

2023 Missing Peace Symposium participants pose for a photo at the U.S. Institute of Peace

The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration recently had the honor of collaborating with the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Women in International Security (WIIS), and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), to host the 2023 Missing Peace Global Symposium on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: Taking Action Together with Survivors, Policymakers, Practitioners and Scholars.

Center Director, Kim Thuy Seelinger, and colleagues from USIP, PRIO, and WIIS established the Missing Peace Initiative in 2012. The initiative connects policymakers, practitioners, scholars, and survivors to strengthen understanding of, and evidence-based response to, conflict related sexual violence (CRSV). In November, USIP hosted the 10-year anniversary symposium in Washington, DC with more than 120 participants from around the world attending. The center supported the travel for several CSRV survivors to ensure their full participation alongside researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Center Manager, Adriana Aramburu, contributed substantial organizing support and WashU undergraduate Riley Novak and Brown School PhD student Luissa Vahedi, also participated.

Center Director, Kim Thuy Seelinger, far left, moderates the first plenary session with experts including Dr. Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, Margot Wallstrom, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, and Kolbassia Haoussou, UK Government’s “Survivor Champion” and founder of Survivors Speak Out.

Many sessions, such as the Lessons Learned on CRSV from Different Conflict Settings, delved into survivor myths and misconceptions. This led to an explanation that survivors are not fragile. “There is a duty of care, but not so, that it prevents survivors from accessing a platform,” emphasized Nadine Tunasi, an advocate from Freedom from Torture and one of the UK government’s “Survivor Champions”. Panelists reminded the audience that survivors have a wide variety of experiences, feelings and ideas about justice and they need a diverse strategy of support.

The session on Research into Practitioner Guidance focused on how to translate academic discussions about CRSV into effective methodology and implementation. Longtime center collaborator, Sofia Cardona Huerta, from UNHCR Mexico, discussed her participation in the development and evaluation of the center’s Gender-Based Violence Disclosure Toolkit. Cardona mentioned how its concise structure with tangible tools was exactly what overwhelmed and underfunded resettlement agencies need. Speakers in the Improving Support and Protection of Survivors of CRSV panel emphasized how important it is to work towards risk mitigation and prevention. Christine Seisun of the International Committee of the Red Cross expressed, “If gender-based violence is predictable, then it can also be preventable.” Ali Bitenga Alexandre from the Panzi Foundation, founded by 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, noted that there is still life after experiencing CRSV. Alexandre reminded the audience that people tend forget that survivors are more than just the reflection of a violent experience, and many survivors move forward to transform their pain into power.

Kolbassia Haoussou (one of the UK government’s “Survivor Champions” and founder of “Survivors Speak Out”) , left front, discusses survivor-centered approaches in research
with Center Director Kim Thuy Seelinger, center, and other guests

Other sessions such as Children Born of War, Intersecting Identities, and Masculinities and Evidence-based Prevention expanded on those who are often left out of the conversations of CRSV. In Intersecting Identities, one panelist, Rosa Emilia Salamanca, from the Corporación de Investigación y Acción Social y Económica in Colombia, called on academics to move from researching “what the discriminations are for indigenous communities” and move into researching “how to challenge those discriminations.” All speakers emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to research and services and all programs must be designed and implemented in survivor-centered ways.  

The symposium was unusual in that it incorporated art as a medium of communication about CRSV and highlighted how art can be a form of action. Pádraig Ó Tuama, who introduced himself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, gave a powerful poetry reading noting how connected this form of violence can be in both peacetime and war. Participants also engaged in an immersive art exhibit titled, Nobody’s Listening, created in collaboration with Nobel Peace Laureate Nadia Murad. The exhibit incorporates art, photography, sculptures, and a virtual reality component to commemorate the Yazidi genocide committed by ISIS in northern Iraq.

In all, the event was a testament not only to interdisciplinary approaches to CRSV research and response and the need for survivor-centered approaches to this work, but also to a partnership that spans over a decade. “It’s been such a joy to convene, mentor, and learn from scholars focused on conflict-related sexual violence with USIP, PRIO, and WIIS since 2012,” said Seelinger, who started her collaboration with these partners years ago at Berkeley. “We’ve joked about how we are sitting on the same stage as before, but with more grey hair now,” she laughed. “But having a 10-year anniversary symposium was really a wonderful way to celebrate how far we’ve come in this work – and to take stock of how much good work remains.”

Center participants at the Missing Peace Symposium left to right: Luissa Vahedi, Kim Thuy Seelinger, Adriana Aramburu, Julia López and Riley Novak, far right