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Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict: Roha’s Story

A doll found abandoned on the floor of a safe house for young survivors of sexual violence in Liberia

The young woman I speak to is too nervous to let me use her real name or photograph her, even from behind.

After much discussion, we agree on using the name Roha*.

She is 23 years old, softly spoken, but firm in her opinions.

I’d sat down with her to talk about the impact of a recent conflict* on her and her family, but the conversation quickly became much darker.

Reasons to flee one’s homeland

Roha had fled an area known for its heavy fighting and I had assumed that that was the reason she had left her homeland. I said as much, but she shook her head and her eyes darted to the men in room.

She asked them to leave, and I felt a familiar sense of foreboding. I’ve had conversations – too many – which demand the men leave the room, and I know what it means.

“You might think it was the fighting…but no”

“You might think it was the fighting…but no. Although the fighting was very bad, we could live with it, we could survive. What we could not live with was the constant threat of rape…” Roha trails off. I wait patiently.

It’s critical when working with vulnerable people that you don’t stop them from talking about an issue if they want to. It sends the message that it’s ‘wrong’ to discuss it. So I waited.

A warning not to make trouble

Roha explained that the sexual violence escalated swiftly in her town during the conflict. One day she emerged after a heavy bout of fighting to find the dead bodies of five naked girls, all aged between 10 and 12, laid out in her village.

It was a warning to the community not to make any more trouble.

It was clear, Roha said, that they had all been sexually assaulted too. I didn’t ask how she knew. I didn’t want to know.

The stories kept coming – one led to another, to another and another. It was a torrent, unstoppable and harrowing.

“I saw this with my own eyes”

Finally she told me that she witnessed the sexual assault of a 12-year-old neighbour through her window.

Too terrified to help, Roha couldn’t move. She was still deeply shamed that she hadn’t. It had been a punishment for the girl’s father, who had fought in the conflict. As the armed men left, they killed him anyway.

Once she was sure they’d left, Roha rushed to help the girl. “She survived, but actually they both died that day, in different ways” Roha says quietly. “I saw this with my own eyes. I can never stop seeing it now”.

Tears and rage

By now Roha is in tears and I’m sat with her, holding her hand. There is little else I can do for her. Suddenly she gathers her strength and erupts with anger. Anger at those men for what they did, and at herself for what she didn’t do. Rage at the rest of her community, for refusing to talk about it, for covering the issue in shame.

“This is the big issue, but no-one will talk about it – why? Why – because we are ashamed? Let us instead shame those who do this!” she bangs her hand down on the concrete floor.

The men come back into the room then, and the topic changes abruptly. Roha brushes away her tears and stands up. She looks at me for a long minute. “Would you like some tea?” she asks.

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict takes place at Excel, London, today until 13 June. Save the Children’s installation, Unspeakable Crimes Against Children: an Audio-Visual Journey, is part of our demand that national and international justice systems prosecute those guilty of sexual violence against children in conflict, improve monitoring and reporting of such crimes, fund the protection of children from sexual violence, and support their recovery. Please sign our petition to world leaders attending the summit.

* To protect the welfare of Roha and her family, we have agreed not to reveal her real name, or the location in which this atrocity occurred.

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