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U.N. envoy draws on her own past to help abused women

AMMAN, Jordan » Her father wanted to marry her off by the time she was 12. Her mother most definitely did not, and for this conviction, she paid dearly.

Zainab Bangura’s father walked out on the family, leaving her mother to make ends meet by selling whatever she could in the market — firewood, food, fabric to make dresses.

"She decided it doesn’t matter how much it costs. I will send this girl to school," Bangura recalled.

Education radically changed her destiny, eventually landing her one of the most unnerving jobs within the United Nations.

As the secretary-general’s special envoy for sexual violence in conflict, Bangura documents abuses against women — the wars within the wars for power and riches. Then she goads the men who lead those wars to do something about it.

The daughter of an imam from Sierra Leone, and a onetime refugee from war herself, Bangura, 55, is certainly no stranger to stories of despair and survival.

But the ones she heard on a recent visit to the Middle East tested even her limits.

In Syria, she heard of girls who were given up by their parents, to be raped and enslaved by jihadis. In Iraq, women recalled being bought and sold like livestock. One afternoon, a counselor at a women’s shelter in Jordan recounted the story of a Syrian refugee forced to "marry" 15 men in the course of a year.

Bangura looked up from her notes, as if she misheard. "What?" she asked. The counselor repeated the numbers: 15 men, one year.

Bangura covered her face with her hand.

"It is still cost-free to rape a woman," she said afterward. "That’s the biggest problem for me. It is not punished enough."

In seven successive reports, the United Nations has chronicled how women and girls are abused on and off the battlefield, by strangers and by family members, not just as an accident of war, but also in a deliberate strategy to terrorize and humiliate, from Myanmar to South Sudan to Colombia.

In Syria and Iraq, jihadi groups have taken it a step further: They are selling and enslaving women as part of a deliberate strategy, Bangura said, to raise funds and recruit.

Bangura is Muslim, and this infuriates her.

"The religion I grew up in doesn’t ask you to sell women in the market," she said. "Women are being taken three centuries back."

According to Bangura’s latest report, 45 armed groups around the world use sexual violence as a weapon, both government forces and rebel groups. Among those, three jihadi groups issued statements denying the accusations, which at least shows that they are paying attention, she said.

But in wartime, the dangers women face are not at the hands of gunmen alone, she has learned. As refugees, they are at risk of higher levels of domestic violence at home and sexual harassment when they step out. They are stigmatized if they are known to have been detained. Poverty can make them especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Bangura’s fate was the subject of that early clash between her parents. Had she not been an only child, Bangura said, her mother would never have been able to muster the money to send her to school.

Her mother’s death was another turning point. By custom, it fell to her father to bury her mother — and not to her because she was still unmarried. Bangura was outraged. And so, the day of the funeral, she married the man she had been living with. Together they laid her mother to rest. (They are still married, 22 years later.)

"Because of that experience, I decided to become an activist," she said. "I said, ‘This is wrong.’ "

That activism eventually took her out of her safe, stable job in insurance and into the streets to organize women to demand their rights.

It was the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone was churning. A military coup had led to the suspension of the constitution. The country was on the brink of a civil war that would shock the world’s conscience with its gory rapes and amputations.

In June 1997, as fighting engulfed the country, Bangura fled on a fishing boat to neighboring Guinea.

After the war’s end in 2002, Bangura agitated to ensure that rapists were convicted. She remembers bringing throngs of women to demonstrate on the steps of the courthouse in Freetown, the capital. The laws were changed to ensure that survivors could testify privately in court.

Bangura went on to become her country’s foreign minister, before the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, named her his special representative in 2012.

While the issue of violence against women is on the global agenda in a way that it was not a generation ago — in June, a full 20 years after the war in the Balkans, a Bosnian court for the first time gave compensation to a rape survivor — tackling the problem is not necessarily easier.

Rape victims are often loath to report crimes. Law enforcement officials and health workers do not always know how to collect evidence, which makes prosecutions difficult. No person suspected of war crimes has yet been convicted of rape in the International Criminal Court.

Bangura’s critics say that neither she, nor the Security Council that created her office, have done enough. Her backers say that by persuading governments to commit to punishing rape, she helps activists on the ground hold their leaders accountable.

"She has put a lot of pressure on governments to make public declarations and pledges," said Karen Naimer of Physicians for Human Rights, which is based in Boston. "Her office is in a challenging position. They don’t have the power of enforcement. They have only the power of advocacy and pressure."

Bangura persuaded the Democratic Republic of Congo to hold its soldiers accountable for sexual violence; over the past year, more than 130 of them have been convicted in military courts. In June, she negotiated a deal with military commanders in Ivory Coast to prosecute soldiers accused of sexual violence.

She has tried to extract a similar promise from the rival leaders in South Sudan’s civil war; girls were raped by soldiers and then burned alive, according to a U.N. report released this week. But, Bangura said bluntly, the leaders have yet to demonstrate that they care about anything other than their own power.

Drawing attention to sexual violence is also to wedge open discussions on other delicate issues. She often describes herself as a camel that pokes her head in the tent. Before you know it, the whole camel is in there.

In the Middle East, Bangura realized that she would have to take on a range of issues with government officials: laws that restrict refugees’ ability to work in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which drive families into poverty and, she said, make women vulnerable to domestic violence at home — or harassment if they dare work.

In most countries in that region, mothers cannot pass on their citizenship to children, which means that many children born of rape are stateless. Safety is elusive even in a fenced-in refugee camp. Doctors at one camp here in Jordan told Bangura of a 4-year-old girl who had been raped.

In Damascus, Syria’s capital, Bangura was allowed a rare visit to a government-run detention center — a "dungeon," she called it, where contrary to the government’s initial declarations, women were held in custody.

She did not interview them — it was pointless, she said, to speak to them in front of the authorities — but she introduced herself and told them that she would be going on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the coming months.

A brave voice called out to her from behind bars, "Please pray for us."

A U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry has documented allegations of rape in government detention centers. Bangura has tried to persuade the government to allow visits by international observers — with no luck so far.

The government detentions were still fresh in the minds of refugees she met here in Jordan one afternoon.

"I left Syria because I wanted to protect myself and my daughters," one woman said.

"They put chains around my legs for 17 days," said another, before her eyes filled with tears. She said her husband was executed and her son was made to watch. He was 15 at the time.

"He just sits alone and daydreams now," the woman said. Bangura hugged her.

She chose her words carefully, as if wary of making a promise the world could not keep.

"The crimes committed by whoever are not going to go unpunished," Bangura said.

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