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Supporting survivor leadership


Wilton Park programme director Julia Purcell reflects on our recent retreat for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).

Placing survivors at the centre of discussions around preventing conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is key to making progress in the field. ‘For Survivors, With Survivors’ is a mantra for action, not just a slogan.

In practice, providing a truly safe space for people who have suffered the worst crimes that can be committed against a human being, to talk about their experiences and discuss ways to prevent such violence happening to other people, is a challenging but essential task.

Wilton Park has been working on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative since its inception over ten years ago. The proposal to hold a Survivor led retreat was first raised six years ago. This year, with FCDO support and the leadership, advice and inspiration of the UK’s PSVI Survivor Champions, Nadine Tunasi and Kolbassia Haoussou, it finally happened.

The people we brought together are all survivors of sexual violence inflicted on them during armed conflict, representing women from DRC, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, men and boys from Colombia and Nepal, young Yazidi women, and children born of rape in Bosnia, Kenya and Uganda.

All are now in positions of leadership, running projects to support other victims; providing training, legal, medical and psychological support and advising governments; using their own experiences to inform and improve policy making as it affects survivors.

They came to Wilton Park to share that learning, to discuss ways in which to improve peer support, and to strengthen links with people from government and non governmental organisations, so that they can further influence policies and legal processes in their own countries and regions and through the international system.

The discussions were rooted in the deeply personal and there were moments of strong emotion. Overall there was inspiration, power and positive energy. We re-connected with many long-standing friends of Wilton Park, thrilled to be back and making the most of the uninterrupted time to plan and strategise and we met newer faces, some at an earlier stage in their journey of healing – arriving with apprehension but gradually relaxing and opening up, overcoming initial trepidation to contribute their ideas.

Participants identified key actions required to address CRSV, including promoting gender equality, taking a survivor-centred approach to justice and accountability, and providing support to families and the wider community.

The report from the retreat also emphasised that survivor empowerment should go beyond ‘just’ engagement and consultation. It should promote survivor leadership and policy input, whereby survivors shape the agenda and are supported (e.g. through funding and capacity-building) to take on activist leadership roles.

Convening an event that creates a supportive, humane and sensitive space for such discussions, while also enabling results and action to come from reflection, requires everyone involved to be a co-curator of care. The Wilton Park events team work hard to be responsive to changes in timing that allow flexibility for important and thought-provoking discussions.

We hope to hold more survivor-led retreats in future, and for other organisations to be able to build on recommendations from the event to centre survivors in their own work. The obstacles to effective survivor engagement are considerable, from lack of funding to political will, but they must be overcome if we are to make progress, with survivors leading the way.

Click here to find out more about the CRSV survivor retreat.

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