When bodies become the battlefield

Pramila Patten consoling survivors in a Protection of Civilians site in Juba, South Sudan in 2018. Photo by OSRSG-SVC. More here.

Some people I meet in the course of my work just floor me with their drive and passion. For these people, their role isn’t just a job, it’s a legacy, and they’re willing to withstand trauma and hardship to improve the lives of the people they’ve vowed to help. The UN’s Pramila Patten is one of those people.

Pramila is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. I recently spoke to her for my podcast, Awake at Night, about her work to end rape as a weapon of war, what she calls “history’s greatest silence.”

Rape has been used as a weapon since the dawn of time. But this simple fact has only recently been acknowledged by the international community, Pramila told me. Over the past decade, the world has begun to understand that sometimes bodies are the battlefield. Survivors’ voices are now being heard.

Originally from Mauritius, Pramila’s work has taken her all over the world. Wherever she goes, she focuses on the survivors of sexual violence, who are increasingly eager to talk. After listening to survivors in Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Sudan, she raises their voices and their stories to the world.

These harrowing accounts must be told. Not only for the survivors, often stigmatized and in desperate need of support, but also for their offspring. Babies born of rape remain stateless, even nameless, in many places. Long-term, they are at risk of radicalization, causing ripples through communities for generations.

There is a huge mountain yet to climb. Systematic rape is being used in conflicts even now to humiliate and dominate, or to disperse populations during ethnic cleansing campaigns. Pramila points to the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and women in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia as recent examples.

So, what can be done? Pramila wants more emphasis placed on prevention. Wherever she goes, she asks survivors what would help. They give surprisingly simple answers, from getting kids into school, to providing wells and stoves in remote villages to end dangerous excursions to collect water and firewood.

But perhaps the central solution is also the thorniest to implement. For barrister Pramila, the fight against sexual violence is a battle for justice. Society must redirect stigma from the survivors of rape to the perpetrators, who are often shielded. Whether terrorists, soldiers, or civilians, rapists must know there will be consequences. Survivors must have their day in court.

Inevitably, this heartwrenching work takes its toll. One meeting with 500 Rohingya women stands out for Pramilla. The women, some of whom as young as 12, had been gang raped after watching their loved ones murdered. Their collective pain was so intense they could only be calmed by a prayer.

Ever since, Pramila has kept the clothes she wore on that trip to one side, unworn, in a cupboard. For her, they are infused with the tears of those women. During the pandemic, as travel ground to a halt, she has often opened the wardrobe, gazed at the dresses, and remembered them. Their pain acts as her moral compass, she says. It keeps her fighting for her legacy. For a time when her job is no longer necessary.

Listen to our full interview here.