Healing, hope and justice for victims of wartime sexual violence

 Healing, hope and justice for victims of sexual violence
Photo: UNDP

“The other day my husband asked me—all concerned and serious—how come I seemed so different these days. I asked him what he meant and he said something like ‘Well, it’s just I haven’t seen you so calm and okay for so long. What’s changed?’


  • Sexual violence, typically against women and girls but also against men and boys, has been a feature of virtually every armed conflict on record.
  • Entitled ‘I am much more than my trauma’, the project supported by the UNDP adopted a comprehensive, holistic approach to enhancing the quality of the lives of the women who participated.

I knew what he meant. The truth is I’d hardly smiled for the past twenty years. I was so bitter about all that happened during the war and so angry about the lack of justice for me and other victims of sexual violence that at first I didn’t even want to take part in the recovery programme.

Thankfully I eventually came round to the idea. After a while I began to look forward to the sessions. And by the end I’d worked through a lot of that anger and reached a point where I am determined to get on with enjoying the rest of my life. I guess that’s what they mean by ‘closure’—I didn’t really believe it was possible before.”

A victim of sexual violence during the War for Croatian Independence. (For the sake of anonymity, here referred to as ‘Kate’) -

Twenty years ago, ‘Kate’ was the victim of a crime aptly described as ‘one of history’s greatest silences’—a crime whose impact is devastating but whose perpetrators almost invariably go unpunished, a crime whose victims almost never receive legal redress but instead are often socially stigmatized and afraid to seek compensation: the crime of sexual violence during armed conflict.

Kate is one of eight women from Vukovar in Croatia who recently participated in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-supported project to provide psycho-social support for victims of rape, multiple rape and other forms of sexual abuse perpetrated during the Croatian War of Independence of 1991–95.

The scope of this project was far broader than typical trauma therapy programmes. Entitled ‘I am much more than my trauma’, the project adopted a comprehensive, holistic approach to enhancing the quality of the lives of the women who participated—providing them with support in such fundamental areas as: perception, strengthening of body and mind, personal space and boundaries, love and awareness, conflict-resolution and accepting self-help. 

This wide-ranging approach—as part of a Systemic-Integrative Programme—involved several supportive methods, including Osteopathy, the Feldenkrais somatic educational system, neuro-linguistic programming, as well as psychotherapy sessions. The shared aim of these methods was to support the women to develop an effective and constructive attitude towards the many emotional challenges they face and help them overcome some of the negative patterns of behaviour they have developed in coping with their trauma. These patterns include negative physical responses, and the project thus paid special attention to the wellbeing of the body.

As well as workshops and therapy sessions, the women were helped by being given their own space to meet and organize discussions—a house in Vukovar dedicated only for their needs.

The results of the systemic-integrative approach exceeded even the expectations of the course-designers. “The programme really did enhance the women’s psycho-social wellbeing,” says Branka Devčić, the leader of the therapy team. “All of the women show a much greater recognition of their own needs and most have already adopted a new and more constructive way of tackling difficult situations and emotional challenges. Their ability to regulate and express feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and depression has improved.” 

Three participants have recorded video statements that reflect this transformation.

Each of the eight women who participated in the programme say their self-esteem has increased and their communications with their families have improved. Some of those who were taking a lot of tranquilizers to help with their trauma have either stopped or reduced their reliance on pharmaceuticals. Most say they feel empowered by a stronger sense of control over their lives.

“I don’t see myself as powerless the way I used to,” says ‘Ana’. “One step at a time, the breakthroughs we made in the sessions made me start believing I could really change. I’ve started taking a lot more care of myself and stopped just thinking of myself as a service to my family. For example, I don’t take all my daughter’s responsibilities onto myself any more. And that’s turned out better for both us because now I let her take responsibility for her actions and mistakes and she gets the freedom that goes with that responsibility.”

“I have become a lot less explosive in my reactions to difficult situations,” says ‘Dina’, “And though it still sounds strange to say it, I’m feeling well for the first time in years. A major part of the programme was focussed on making us more aware of our behaviour patterns—things like self-protection and avoidance strategies. Because when you know your own behaviour patterns you’ve got a lot more chance of controlling your reactions.”

“The Programme made me feel that I have choices again,” says ‘Sara’, “I say what I want and what I don’t want. I’m more connected to myself and I have more energy.”

Seeking justice for crimes of sexual violence during armed conflicts

Sexual violence, typically against women and girls but also against men and boys, has been a feature of virtually every armed conflict on record. Yet even after its clear designation as a war crime in the 1990s, rapes and other violent forms of sexual abuse committed during conflicts remains a largely unpunished crime. In the words of the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, it “is still a largely 'cost-free' crime”—and its use as a form of terror is widespread.

In 2009, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in its Resolution 1670 on sexual violence against women in armed conflict, noted that almost no cases of rape from the Yugoslav conflicts had been prosecuted in domestic courts and that victims had been denied access to justice and reparations. This situation may at last be set to change, however, owing to the growing determination of governments, civil society organizations and the UN to correct this dismal record.

Croatia is setting a good example. According to research conducted in 2013 by UNDP, up to 2,200 people are estimated to have suffered severe forms of conflict-related sexual violence in Croatia during the armed conflict of 1991-1995. However, the police, prosecutors and civil society organizations have only 147 specific cases of sexual abuse currently on record. Even where survivors have come forward to testify, only 36 prosecutions have been started and only 15 convictions handed down. Survivors of wartime rape at present enjoy no special status, privileges or healthcare assistance.

In an effort to address this injustice, the Croatian Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, with UNDP’s support, is sponsoring new legislation that will at last provide victims of wartime sexual violence with the recognition, compensation and support they need – finally recognizing the rights of these women in accordance with UN and European standards.

The Law on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence in the Homeland War, which is expected to take effect in 2014, will assign a special status to survivors, providing additional psychosocial assistance to them and their families and authorizing financial reparations for the horrific abuse they have suffered. The goal of the law is to overcome the isolation and neglect that survivors have experienced, to help re-integrate them into society and restore their confidence in the system, while also reshaping social perceptions to ease the stigma and indifference they face.