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International Director reflects on World Refugee Day

Jesuit Refugee Service International Director Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J. at the JRS headquarters in Rome last year. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Monday, June 20, 2011

By Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J.
Jesuit Refugee Service International Director

(Masisi, DRC) June 20, 2011 — This year's World Refugee Day commemorates the 60th anniversary of the 1951 UN refugee convention in Geneva. This document was truly ground-breaking in its support for the rights of refugees, as well as its assertion of the international community's responsibility to care for refugee populations.

It continues to have far-reaching effects for an ever-increasing number of displaced people throughout the world. Far from being simply a landmark treaty, however, it was a deeply human response to the horrors of racial and political discrimination, World War II, the Holocaust, and its aftermath.

Two aunts of mine, who were young women at the time, used to speak of how they fled the war front with their parents. Their greatest fear was they would fall into the hands of soldiers and be sexually assaulted.

To make herself appear less attractive, one aunt dressed in scruffy clothes and smudged her face with dirt. The other aunt recalled how the fear of rape drove her mother to keep lethal pills in their home. Committing mass suicide was a preferred option to being forced to endure such a horrific violation. Fortunately, they were never assaulted.

Regrettably, this terror and the use of sexual violence still continue throughout the world, rampant in many armed conflicts. All over the world, sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) is employed as a weapon of war, violating the most intimate privacy and integrity of human beings – both old and young.

I am writing this reflection from the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Here, JRS teams work with women and girls in the districts of Masisi, Mwezo and Rutshuru. Many of them have been sexually assaulted. North Kivu is one of the SGBV capitals of the world.

JRS activities may appear simple: literacy and skills-training programs. Yet the impact is far more than educational. Literacy and skills help rebuild the dignity of the women, who have always been considered less important in their culture

Now that they have skills, they are better able to take care of themselves. Everyday, they come together: women who have gone through similar horrors and others who fear the same might happen to them. Collectively they share their wounds in a protected space.

The courses are only for women. But sometimes men get interested when they see the change that learning has brought about in their wives and sisters. Indirectly and directly, the women influence their husbands and brothers. Gradually they dissuade the men from being sucked into dynamics of male domination and aggression.

Violence, even war, has deep roots in culturally distorted gender relationships. In their healing process, these violated, wounded women can help to heal men and prevent them from repeating what other men have done. Such changes, on a deeper cultural and societal level, take time but they are necessary for long-term protection against SGBV.

The 1951 UN Geneva convention rose up out of the wounds of hundreds of thousands of refugee women and men. Today more immediate protection needs to be guaranteed to women under the 1951 convention.

This means giving refugees, particularly women and girls, asylum and protection in host countries, creating safe zones in armed conflicts and making camps and schools secure places. It is an ongoing challenge to contribute concretely to the protection of women and girls from SGBV. In DRC and other countries across the world, we commit ourselves to this goal in line with the JRS mission and with the refugee convention.