At 15 years old, Ajna Jusic finally learned the truth about the father she never knew.
"I spent nights thinking about my father," said Jusic, now 26 years old. "I made so many scenarios in my mind, but not just the one where I was born as the result of war rape."
Jusic is one of thousands of children born of the genocidal rape of between 20,000 and 50,000 Bosnian Muslim women and girls by Serbs during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. Today she heads the Association of Forgotten Children of War in Bosnia, which seeks to get these young people the services they need, including help with education costs and psychological and legal support.
"I cannot live in (the) dark, in invisibility anymore," Jusic said. "I need to scream and tell society I'm here, please don't call me a child of hate, because I love and I want to be loved." Jusic addressed a U.N. meeting Monday on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Sexual violence against women is endemic, affecting one in three women globally.
"Sexual violence continues to be used to spread fear and assert control," said Pramila Patten, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. "It remains a cruel tactic of torture, terror and political repression, a brutally effective tool of displacement and dehumanization. The response continues to be slow; impunity remains the rule and justice the rare exception."
She said services for survivors are inadequate and the stigma so intense that in some places, women choose to live with their abusers rather than face families and communities that shame them because they were raped.
"We need to shift the stigma away from the survivor and put it on the perpetrator," Karen Naimer of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) told the gathering to loud applause.
Changing community and cultural mindsets is a priority.
Chinyere Eyoh, herself a survivor of sexual violence, is now the Executive Director of Sexual Offenses Awareness and Victims Rehabilitation Initiative (SOAR) in Nigeria.
"It is important that communities get to understand that sexual violence is a crime and the people who commit these crimes are the perpetrators," she said.
Men as allies
Eyoh noted that in Africa, engaging men as their allies in education and awareness has been effective.
"You find out that other men tend to listen to men when they talk about this issue, rather than women speaking for themselves," she said.
On Monday, the U.N. launched a 16 days of activism event to highlight gender-based violence. It will end on Dec. 10 — Human Rights Day. This year's theme is "Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape!" Orange is the campaign's signature color and Generation Equality refers to the fight for gender equality as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
"Today, we are also calling on governments and services to take the positive steps necessary to scale-up the response, which must include increasing accountability — by making rape universally illegal, including in those countries that still allow marital rape, and holding rapists to account in every country that is a member of the United Nations," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women.