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Human Rights

'We call them survivors, not victims'

What started in the Bosnian town of Zenica developed into a successful global relief group for women who have experienced sexual violence. DW spoke to Monika Hauser who founded medica mondiale 20 years ago.

DW: When you started operations in Zenica it was in the middle of a war zone, and people initially dismissed the idea, saying it was crazy. What kept you going?

Monika Hauser: I just had to do it. There were no doubts. I think I was highly motivated, and I found the right people, and we were rather successful in supporting women despite the situation there.

Looking back now, did you expect this project to last so long?

No, of course not. Initially it was just in order to build up meaningful and effective support for traumatized women in Bosnia, but, step by step, we went on and a big organization developed.

What does your organization do to help victims of sexual violence in Bosnia and elsewhere?

A woman at a sewing machine (photo: Sybille Fezer/medica mondiale)

Women in Liberia learn new skills such as sewing - this will enable them to become economically independent

First of all, we support them with professional help: medical support, gynecological support, always in conjunction with psycho-social support. This has to be given in a very safe place, in a very safe and a good atmosphere for the survivors. We call them survivors and not victims because we do not want to create any further victimization of women who have survived all that horror. We have to qualify the local staff so that they can perform this important work in a sustainable way.

Because after a while you hand it over to them, right?

Our philosophy is that you have to work in a sustainable way. That means we educate local staff and we hand over these projects. We are very proud, especially with regard to the program in Afghanistan, that after only nine years we were able to hand it over to our 70 Afghan colleagues.

Over the past 20 years, what would you say has been the biggest challenge?

Of course, having to overcome financial problems again and again; having to build up efficient structures to do such a big and complex project; and overcoming political ignorance. Although we now have important UN resolutions, we see that there is not really the political will to change the situation for women in war zones and post-war areas.

Women in front of a blackboard (photo: Cornelia Suhan/medica mondiale)

Some centers also teach women how to read and write to empower them

What are you trying to do in order to overcome this political ignorance?

This is also long-term work, because it has to do with attitudes: patriarchal attitudes which we can also see in international governments. It is not just a question of Afghanistan or Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries: We really see that international politicians also do not understand why it is so important to support these women and prevent these kinds of sexualized violence in these countries. We have the instruments, we have the tools, international tools, but they are not implemented.

Collage 20 years medica mondiale (photo: medica mondiale)

Hauser and her team were able to help hundreds of thousands of women and girls

Another problem for the victims, apart from being traumatized and injured, is the stigma that is attached to rape. In Afghanistan, for instance, women can be sent to prison for adultery despite the fact that they were the ones who were assaulted. That prevents many women from reporting rape in the first place. How do you deal with that situation in Afghanistan?

It's a very difficult situation, and one thing is to support and qualify local staff so that they can fight and support the clients. We have this new EVAW law there now since 2009; it's a law for the elimination of violence against women. It's a good law, but we have to implement it, so the local staff is educating legal staff in the country. We really can see a little change, because more and more perpetrators are sentenced as rapists. But it's still a long, long task because it really means changing attitudes in this patriarchal society.

One of your most recent projects started in post-war Liberia in 2006. Incidents of rape are still high, and widespread corruption and weak governmental infrastructure enables rapists to buy their way out of prosecution. Can you tell me about what you call "palaver huts" to prevent rape incidents? What are palaver huts?

Women gather in one of the many palaver huts (photo: Sybille Fezer/medica mondiale)

Palaver huts offer a safe space to speak up - women can talk about what has happened to them

These are small huts where, in former times, men would gather to speak about important things. Our local colleagues said, 'We also want to have palaver huts.' Now we've built these palaver huts in a very remote area in the south-east of Liberia, and in these palaver huts women can gather. They can speak with others about what happened to them; they can think about strategies.

Of course it was also important to educate local women there. First of all, they meet women who have survived sexualized violence: They speak with them, they go with them to the police if they want, and they go with them to the hospital if they need medical support. And of course they sensitize their own society, which means awareness-raising, standing in the marketplace with a megaphone and speaking to the community there, and saying that rape and sexualized violence are a clear, grave human rights violation, and men are responsible for that, and the society has to start to change.

Monika Hauser (photo: picture alliance/dpa)

Gynecologist Monika Hauser founded the organization 20 years ago to help women in Zenica

We've even seen now that there was the owner of a shop who was beating up his wife for years, and these women from medica organized a boycott against this shop. So this man has started to change his attitude because for weeks and weeks and weeks nobody was coming to buy anything. So these women are also very efficient in their communities.

So are you going on for another 20 years?

I think it's necessary. I mean, the best thing would be that one day medica mondiale would not be necessary any more because we do not have this problem, but I don't think that I will see this in my lifetime. So of course medica mondiale has to go on, and let's hope that we have the power and the means to go on for another 20 years.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia honored Hauser for her humanitarian work in 2012. She was also awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award) in 2008.

DW.DE

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