Rape in war is one of the most serious violations of human rights, says Swiss-born Monica Hauser, who works with affected women in the world's conflict zones.
The gynaecologist tells swissinfo that peacekeepers often add to the problem of sexual abuse in war zones. Hauser set up the non-governmental organisation medica mondiale, which is active in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The desperate situation facing many women and girls was highlighted on the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.
This year, Hauser was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the "Alternative Nobel". She was praised "for her tireless commitment to working with women who have experienced the most horrific sexual violence in some of the most dangerous countries in the world". medica mondiale is based in Germany.
swissinfo: You have been helping women in war zones since the early 1990s. What have been the biggest successes in the fight against sexual violence?
Monika Hauser: After years of work we have been able to get this taboo topic onto the international political agenda. In the field, we have been able to help tens of thousands of survivors, giving them support to help them overcome their traumatic experiences and to rebuild their lives.
We work tirelessly in every country in which we are active, from Berlin to Kabul, to remind people that rape in war is one of the most serious violations of human rights. Sexual violence has – finally – been recognised as a war crime and several culprits have been convicted by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
We have to keep in mind that in some countries, like Bosnia, women are still held responsible for what they have suffered. Instead of being supported by society, they are stigmatised. They are victims twice over.
Thanks to the experience gathered in the Balkans, we were able to formulate standards on the issue for the first time, which we have made available to experts around the world.
swissinfo: In which areas is there still a way to go?
M.H.: Prevention is certainly an important issue. For ten years we have been trying to make the German defence minister aware of what our soldiers, these so-called peacekeepers, are doing in the Balkans. Instead of protecting the population from violence, they are themselves using brothels in which young girls are treated like slaves.
The same thing is happening with the UN's peacekeepers in Africa and among international organisations' associates. However, the minister did not want to assume his responsibilities and refused to hold talks with us.
There's also the question of impunity. There are international tribunals and UN resolutions, which is positive but, in essence, the real situation is as always a lack of will to apply what exists on paper.
swissinfo: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon several months ago affirmed that violence against women had reached "unspeakable proportions".
M.H.: This is the case. I say it again – it's a question of political will. If the disparity between the sexes and the discrimination of women continues, it will be difficult to take significant steps forward.
Let's take the example of trials in DR Congo or Rwanda. The International Court of Justice's investigations have been conducted badly, the victims are not able to appear in court, and eyewitnesses are not taken seriously. Often reports of rape are simply put to one aside. In Rwanda, perpetrators receive medication against HIV, but their victims do not have this right.
swissinfo: You have defined rape as a "weapon of war". What is meant by this exactly?
M.H.: It refers to a patriarchal society in which a woman is considered a man's property. The rape of a Muslim woman represents a clear message to the husband: 'I can do what I like with your woman, you're not capable of defending her, you're a loser'.
It's a very powerful weapon, which makes a man feel extremely frustrated and dishonoured. Instead of supporting the woman, he also enters this mindset and the practice of rape continues.
swissinfo: The situation in the Congo has become worse in the past weeks. There are many NGOs and UN peacekeepers in the east of the country. But the incidence of sexual abuse is among the highest worldwide.
M.H.: In Kosovo there are 15,000 peacekeepers for two million people. In Congo there are 17,000 for 60 million. It can't work. It's a problem of proportions, but not just.
To avoid another genocide, the mandate of the UN mission has to be strengthened and clarified. Why not integrate the prevention of sexualised violence into the peacekeepers' mandate?
Without political will, soldiers are worthless. Or a more resolute intervention is needed. As a pacifist and feminist I am convinced that war can never be the solution. In Congo, however, we are faced with a crisis situation in which we have to act swiftly.
swissinfo-interview: Luigi Jorio
In Liberia, an estimated two out of three women were raped during the civil war from 1989 until 2003.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo: even after the official end of the war in 2002, brutal violence against women continues in several parts of the country.
Rwanda: studies assume that almost all women and girls fell victim to rape in the war in 1994.
Kosovo: during the 1998/99 conflict, 23,000-45,000 women suffered sexual violence.
Source: medica mondiale
Born in Thal, in canton St Gallen to Italian parents, Hauser studied medicine (gynaecology) in Innsbruck (Austria) and Bologna (Italy). She lives in Cologne, Germany.
The 49-year-old's humanitarian vocation came about in the early 1990s during the wars in the Balkans.
In 1993 she opened a therapeutic clinic in Bosnia to help women victims of violence to overcome their traumatic experiences, both physically and psychologically.
She then founded medica mondiale, which is also active in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Congo, Liberia and Israel. It is a non-profit organisation financed by donations and public funds.
Hauser has received numerous awards for her work.
The UN has recognised that sexual abuse carried out by some of its soldiers is a serious problem and has damaged peacekeepers' reputations. But the UN says that only a minority of its contingent were involved.
To combat the problem it has instigated tougher measures such as evening curfews for soldiers and a ban on unauthorised contact with civilians. A zero tolerance policy ensures strict controls are enforced.
In June 2008, the UN Security Council approved a resolution that stated that sexual violence was a war tactic "to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group".