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International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict: Spotlight on our Field Research

By Alexandra C. Budabin and Natalie F. Hudson

June 19 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, a day created by the UN General Assembly “to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes.” International Days have been embraced by the UN as a key advocacy tool, and June 19 will be marked by campaigns to raise awareness and push for change. 

The global pandemic has been cause for renewed focus on the elimination of sexual violence, since women and girls are at heightened risk due to confinement, financial hardship, and the loss of protective environments like schools.  Emergencies, crises and conflicts exacerbate toxic environments and gender inequalities, and  COVID-19 is no exception. UNDP reports “an exponential increase in gender-based violence.” This year was meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda that was realized in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000). In this context, Njoki Kinyanjui underscores the role of women’s networks in fragile contexts and calls for increased support for “women’s participation in COVID-19 decision-making, prevention and responses.”

Our current research When Advocates Securitize: Confronting Sexualized Violence in Conflict pays attention to these developments and takes into account new circumstances and urgencies. Our project examines transnational advocacy campaigns around sexual violence in conflict that followed the adoption of UNSCR 1325. Specifically, we study  the campaigns that were generated around situations in Darfur and Congo as well as the campaign launched within the UN called Stop Rape Now. These advocacy campaigns seek to coalesce political will among the mass public, political elites, and UN member states to push the international community to respond to situations of sexual violence in conflict. We examine the messaging, advocacy narratives, leadership, and mobilization tactics deployed to elevate the issue of sexual violence in conflict and connect it to emerging norms around protecting women and girls. We also explore these campaigns against the backdrop of current debates in the field of human rights advocacy: Do women activists working on women’s issues face particular constraints? Can celebrities raise awareness or do they simplify the message? How can fundraising and consumer activities lead to political mobilization and change? How has the issue of sexual violence in conflict posed ethical challenges of presentation and representation in advocacy? 

In addition to reviewing media coverage, government hearings, and campaign materials, we seek to better understand what it is like to be an advocate on the issue of sexual violence in conflict. Since 2016, we’ve traveled to New York, London, Brussels, and Washington, DC to meet with representatives from NGOs, IGO, humanitarian agencies, and media outlets. We operate with a dozen set questions while permitting the conversation to take its own course. Arranging interviews with busy advocates can pose various obstacles. We resort to cold-calling, sending and resending emails, and leaning on contacts and referrals from previous interview subjects. 

Here, we wanted to share some of the field research we conducted in January in Washington, DC. For this trip, we were fortunate to have been helped by some extraordinary University of Dayton Human Rights Studies alum! When we enter the offices of our subjects, we take stock of our surroundings and do our best to collect relevant materials. We also bring consent forms to protect our interview subjects; not everyone is comfortable being recorded and some participants request to review the quotations we will use. For this blog, we briefly reflect on the interviews of two of the advocates.

Ridelphine Katabesha is the Program Coordinator for Human Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa for Vital Voices.  Ridelphine’s advocacy work began in her home country with the South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM) where she learned about the power of her women’s advocacy organization listening to women survivors in eastern DRC and providing a platform for them to articulate the violence they endured and for their voice to be heard. She talked about the role of women’s organizations stepping in when the government cannot, ie,“when the system is broken.” Ridelphine highlighted the role of women journalists in empowering women to talk about their trauma, survival and health; she spoke of the difficult and time-intensive work of identifying  the language to talk about rape and women’s bodies in a space where cultural traditions and stigma made the subjects taboo. This work was possible because of the relationships and trust built and nurtured between women. She also directed us to role of women leaders, like Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu in bringing the world’s attention to sexual violence in the DRC, and the role of  female celebrities in creating programs, like the City of Joy. Ridelphine’s advocacy work and experiences in the DRC demonstrate the many ways women emerge as advocates against sexual violence, both those considered insiders and those who are outsiders, those working in official security governance spaces and those maneuvering and mobilizing in less formal ways.

We also met with Laurie Adams, the CEO of Women for Women International, who has over two decades of experience in the development and humanitarian fields as a gender rights advocate. Ms. Adams directed us to the recent report by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy that uses a Women and Girls Index to quantify charitable giving. Despite the increased visibility to women and girls’ causes, funds raised do not reflect this elevated status; a review of contributions to US NGOs finds that only 1.6% of charitable giving is directed to organizations benefiting women and girls. WFWI works with corporations to create cause-related marketing campaigns that, in addition to raising funds, serve to raise awareness. A fascinating example of this is a partnership with the UK-based make-up artist Charlotte Tillbury who created a Hot Lips lipstick line that was linked to 10 prominent celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Amal Clooney and Kim Kardashian. Ms. Adams recognizes that some may raise eyebrows over this alliance between traditional and new actors in development, however, they provide greater possibilities for public outreach. Acknowledging the uneasy link to femininity and consumerism, the founder of WFWI noted that even women in conflict zones asked for lipstick: to feel beautiful was to feel empowered. Ms. Adams also described that her organization chooses which corporations to partner with and the communications teams of the NGO and corporation stay in constant contact to monitor how the issue is represented. The pressure to raise private funds has made such partnerships a critical avenue for increasing  attention to women’s issues. However, there remain concerns from many development practitioners and scholars over the increasing role of the private sector in feminist activism, representations of beneficiaries, and transparency over funds raised and distributed

Through these specific interviews, we gained key insights into the many ways women emerge as advocates in the DRC against sexual violence and the dynamics behind corporate partnerships that have become a popular modality for raising funds and awareness for combatting development and humanitarian challenges like SGBV. Overall, our research continues to identify and assess trends in transnational advocacy for SGBV. We show how advocates and organizations are continually seeking to create new entry points and innovative approaches for the inclusion of women’s leadership and agency in security spaces. Though the terrain for human rights advocacy remains contested and under pressure by social, economic, and health crises of today, we seek to spotlight the importance of women as activists on women’s issues and center grounded research for why and how women’s engagement in advocacy matters to peace and security.   


Dr. Alexandra C. Budabin is a Senior Researcher at the University of Dayton Human Rights Center. With Dr. Natalie F. Hudson, she is Co-Pi on the project When Advocates Securitize: Confronting Sexualized Violence in Conflict, funded by the Shana Alexander Charitable Foundation. She is a Co-I on the research project "Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things", funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research 2017-2021.   

Dr. Natalie F. Hudson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton, where she also serves as the Director of the Human Rights Studies Program. She specializes in gender, the politics of human rights, human security, and transnational advocacy.  Her book, Gender, Human Security and the UN: Security Language as a Political Framework for Women (Routledge, 2009) examines the organizational dynamics of women’s activism in the United Nations system and how women have come to embrace and been impacted by the security discourse in their work for rights and equality. She is a co-author of Global Politics (OUP 2019) and numerous articles appearing in journals, such as International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review, Journal of Human Rights, International Journal, International Peacekeeping, and Global Change, Peace and Security.  

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