2022 Alex Trebek Lecture sheds light on conflict-related sexual violence and how to move forward with survivor-led approaches

Nadia Abu-Zahra, Pramila Patten, Padmah Osman, Lou Raisonnier
From left to right : Nadia Abu-Zahra, Pramila Patten, Padmah Osman, Lou Raisonnier
War and conflict cause immeasurable suffering for individuals, families, and communities. One of the least reported, least condemned crimes is conflict-related sexual violence—an invisible, cheap, and effective weapon of war that is rampant across ages, gender identities, and geographies.

This is the backdrop for the work led by Pramila Patten. Since 2017, Ms. Patten has served as the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She delivered the 2022 keynote address as part of the Alex Trebek Distinguished Lecture Series on November 17.

The lecture traced the evolution of Ms. Patten’s mandate since its establishment in 2009 and her strategic priorities. Speaking to an audience online and in-person, Ms. Patten was forthright in explaining that a gap remains between UN resolutions and reality, country commitments and compliance.

Her remarks were, at times, challenging to hear. Ms. Patten spoke about her field missions to conflict-affected countries, and shared stories of women, men, and children who had been subject to sexual violence.

It was a stark reminder of the heinous crimes perpetrated daily. “When she told the true testimonies you became even more aware of how concrete and important the work of her office is,” remarked Lou Raisonnier, a second year PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Raisonnier was one of the subject matter experts who had the opportunity to ask Ms. Patten a question after the lecture and praised her ability to go beyond statistics to make the audience understand the urgency and impacts of conflict-related sexual violence.

Putting survivors first

Another powerful moment was when Ms. Patten spoke about the survivor-centered approach to her mandate. During field missions, she meets with survivors first, as well as civil society organizations. “Then, I engage with the government because my role is to amplify their voice and to convey to government what I hear from them,” said Ms. Patten.

From Nigeria to Iraq to Somalia, Ms. Patten shared that survivors generally ask for two things: livelihood and economic support, and justice.

“Economic support fosters self sufficiency, self esteem, and resilience, which reduces their exposure to risk and bolsters their perceived worth and value in the eyes of their community,” reflected Ms. Patten. “Yet access to education, credit, and economic opportunity remains severely constrained for these women who are often afflicted by the double tragedy of rape and rejection.”

When it comes to justice, Ms. Patten said it’s critically important that it be backed by reparations. That could mean the opportunity to access timely sexual and reproductive health services, education, jobs, land, and other resources to help survivors move forward from the trauma and stigma of violence.

Strategic priorities: From prevention to legislative reform

A key initiative of Ms. Patten’s office has been to focus on preventing conflict-related sexual violence, rather than to intervene only after it has occurred. One outcome is a prevention framework launched in September 2022.

The framework tackles prevention at structural and operational levels. That includes addressing gender inequality as the root cause of sexual violence and putting in place risk mitigation measures so all stakeholders, governments, and UN agencies can swiftly respond to early warning signs of conflict-related violence.

“I’m guided by the firm conviction that the earlier and deeper the seeds of prevention are sown, the better and more sustainable their fruits will be,” commented Ms. Patten.

Two of Ms. Patten’s other priorities are supporting national legislative reform to make it easier to convict perpetrators of sexual violence and ensuring that children born of sexual violence are legally recognized and can exercise their rights.

A mandate based on solidarity and equity

Another expert who posed a question for Patten was Padmah Osman, a fall 2022 graduate of uOttawa’s masters in feminist and gender studies program. Like Ms. Patten, Osman’s research has focused on violence against women and the two both hail from the island nation of Mauritius.

Osman said she was proud and emotional to join a fellow Mauritian on stage. “I was stunned by the honesty of her presentation,” described Osman. “She was humble enough to say that we’re not doing enough, and we need to work harder. That humility is what makes the greatness of this lady.”

Providing closing remarks for the evening was Nadia Abu-Zahra, Associate Professor and Joint Chair in Women's Studies at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Abu-Zahra highlighted Ms. Patten’s dedication to a form of justice that is forward-looking, survivor-led, and grounded in principles of equity and solidarity.

Concluded Abu-Zahra: “I think something we all admire and recognize is the way in which you’ve seen the constraints and then strategized [to overcome them]. [...] And because you know the various systems at your disposal, you’ve been working within these systems long before you came to this position. So you’re able to set an example of how this mandate can be done.”

With mounting humanitarian crises worldwide, Ms. Patten’s lecture was a frank look at the need for stakeholders to direct increased technical assistance and funds towards implementing agreements that prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.

Ms. Patten’s remarks were also a testament to how she has used her mandate to champion the rights of survivors, defend the rule of law, and work across governments and UN agencies. In doing so, she is ensuring that everyone who has experienced sexual violence has the opportunity for justice, reparations, and even hope.