On behalf of the SEMA Network, SEMA Member Leesa Gazi attended a UK parliamentary reception in London on June 19th, 2023. She joined survivors and allies, including Katrien Coppens, Executive Director of the Mukwege Foundation, highlighting SEMA’s Call to Action which urges States to take action, prevent CRSV and bring perpetrators to justice. 

Below is her speech. 

“Today, June 19th, we are here to observe the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. I express my heartfelt gratitude to Honourable Member of Parliament Sally Keeble and Helen Hayes for organising and hosting this important parliamentary event. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak on behalf of SEMA.   

I am a SEMA member. SEMA is the global network of victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence that gathers victims and survivors of sexual violence in armed conflicts from now 26 countries and 6 continents acting in solidarity, mobilising collectively and advocating for justice and change. SEMA means ‘speak out’ in Swahili, chosen by survivors in honour of Dr Mukwege’s mother tongue.

I have been working with Bangladeshi survivors for many years, and I have seen how important it is to them to get the world’s recognition of their truth. It’s been over 50 years since sexual violence was used as a weapon in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, and they are still fighting for this recognition. Meanwhile, we saw perpetrators free at large and war criminals being normalised and their crimes blind-eyed, even here in Britain. 

In 2018, Jabeda Khatun and Anoara Begum, two Birangona women – survivors of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, joined an international call out with fellow survivors for a global reparations scheme at a high-level symposium organised by the Mukwege Foundation in The Netherlands. For them, this was the first and last time ever to attend a global network, meet other survivors from different countries, and speak out before royals and International leaders.

Birangona Freedom Fighter Jabeda Khatun demanded an answer from them in 2018, “I am Jabeda Khatun. I am from Bangladesh. Thank you for this opportunity. We have been recognised in Bangladesh. We want the world to recognise us. We want reparations too. What will you do about it?” It’s now 2023. Nothing has been done about it. 

The world chose to dismiss their accounts of these horrific crimes as isolated incidences of a forgotten war in a distant land committed more than 50 years ago. But the problem is that the same pattern of sexual violence and rape continues to be used in armed conflicts today. 

Unfortunately, the human cost of War does not end when the war itself ends. Marked by its devastating consequences, survivors, their families, communities, societies, and ultimately nations carry the brunt of its transgenerational trauma for generations. 

Despite important steps such as the acknowledgement that it is vital to talk with survivors and not about them, the recognition that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war and is not “just” a side effect of war, the international community and world leaders have not taken enough definitive action to prevent wartime sexual violence, respond effectively when it happens, and repair the unimaginable sufferings sexual violence causes simply because there were hardly any collective, meaningful, resolute actions in the past.

Also, other survivors and SEMA members have been calling for action, and it is unacceptable that their voices are often ignored. The gravity of the impact of CRSV on the lives of individuals and communities is not sufficiently identified, including concerning social stigma and discrimination. We mandate that victims and survivors must be at the centre of all responses and have the right to meaningful participation in developing all measures to address CRSV.

SEMA co-developed its Call to Action with support from the Mukwege Foundation out of deep disappointment and outrage with the international community’s failure and indifference to stop the use of CRSV for decades. Our call is to improve the lives of those affected by the violence in the past and prevent it from happening to others at risk today and in the future. 

We demand your unwavering determination to end CRSV and concrete action from States to ensure justice and accountability. States should hold each other accountable, including high-level leaders and make them pay reparations; sanctions and other punitive measures should be used as a powerful warning to those engaged in such violence or who allow it to happen. Those suspected of perpetrating or enabling the use of sexual violence should not be welcomed in the international community. And reparations must be included as an essential component of the justice process.

We and other actors are working to support our fight for justice, accountability and compensation. We ask you to stand by us because survivors cannot fight this fight alone. Amplify the voice of survivors by supporting this Call to Action.

Please sign the petition on endcrsv.org

As Members of parliament, you can do even more; through the PSVI Initiative, the UK government is a key leader and supporter in the fight to end CRSV. As again highlighted today by announcing new sanctions to hold perpetrators to account: the new sanctions will be asset freeze and travel bans. Please ensure support for this critical Initiative and that the UK government will act with concrete and meaningful plans and measures to eradicate rape as a war strategy. 

This much you owe to all survivors, both the ones that suffered from these crimes 50 years ago and those being sexually abused in conflicts happening today, such as in the DRC, Sudan, Ukraine, Myanmar. 

Thank you so much for your attention.”