The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is calling for more political commitment and concrete actions on the ground to help end sexual violence she says is destroying the lives of millions of girls in Africa and around the world.
Prosecution and ending impunity, she says, will go a long way in helping curb sexual crimes on the continent and beyond.
Speaking exclusively to VOA on the sidelines of the historic Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, Dlamini-Zuma lamented that women and children continued to bear the brunt of conflict.
She said although 148 countries endorsed the declaration of commitment to ending sexual-related violence in conflict last September, practical and concrete actions were needed to strengthen the political pledges.
“We must ensure that if somebody perpetrates these crimes, that the law takes its course so that people know there’s a price to sexually abusing anyone,” said Dlamini-Zuma, the first and only woman yet to occupy the AU Commission chairmanship.
She said there’s an urgent need for a critical mass of women in all sectors in government to ensure their perspective is integrated in all areas of governance, adding women who have experienced sexual violence in conflict need help to get their lives back on track with support from communities and governments.
“We are going to work with our member states to ensure that the policies are in place at their systems, especially the judiciary, the social systems to support the victims; policies and programs to prevent and protect women,” the AU Commission chief added.
“But in the long run it’s also important to look at the status of women in society because until we address the status of women in society, we will find these brutal acts will not stop.”
British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and film star Angelina Jolie, special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, co-chaired the conference, which ended Friday in London with the objective of creating "irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict".
Also important, the Dlamini-Zuma says, is awareness and training programs targeting peacekeepers and others working in conflict zones. Some peacekeepers in war zones have previously been accused of abusing vulnerable women.
“We are already training peacekeepers to know that we have zero tolerance against sexual violence,” said Dlamini-Zuma.
“But more importantly is that they have the responsibility to protect the women against sexual violence.
Raising awareness about sexual violence within schools would also help reduce the incidents of sexual violence on the continent.
“Once that generation comes through then we will probably have less of this sexual violence than we have now,” said Dlamini-Zuma.
“A self-respecting man, a dignified man does not need to abuse women. And we as women we must work together to support each other. We must fight against this, not only as women but also bring progressive men on board to fight this scourge and show other men that it is possible to be a man and yet not commit sexual violence acts.”
While applauding the historic London summit, Dlamini-Zuma warned much still needs to be done to rid the continent of sexual violence.
“This struggle is a marathon, not just a sprint,” she says. “It will take a long time because in the end you have to change society.”
Child rape was also discussed at the conference. Children are “soft targets” who are particularly vulnerable and such crimes often go unreported, Leila Zerrougui, a UN special representative on children and armed conflict told the conference.
According to the UN agency for children, UNICEF, more than 150 million girls and 73 million boys experience sexual violence every year, with children in conflict zones being the most vulnerable.
Many children in countries such as Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Congo and Syria face abuse dangers every day.
UN Women used the summit to highlight economic empowerment as a key issue for women, especially in post-conflict areas.
"Part of our emphasis is to bring together economic empowerment and ending impunity," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women.
"We are very pleased that justice and ending impunity has reached this level of visibility, but we don't want to set that apart from economic matters. We want to make sure these issues don't lag behind."