Zainab Hawa Bangura, the minister of health and sanitation in Sierra Leone, a country that not long ago rose from a brutal civil war, will take over in September as the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict. Bangura, 52, who replaces Margot Wallstrom, 57, of Sweden, has also been the country’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation and a chief adviser and spokeswoman for the president on international issues.
Bangura’s appointment keeps the recent conviction of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, in the spotlight. Taylor was found guilty by the United Nations-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone for aiding and abetting the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, which prolonged the conflict in that country. It is estimated that about 50,000 people were killed and endured rape and other atrocities during the civil war there from 1991 to 2002.
The new role for Bangura, who is married with two children, has been welcomed by advocates for women’s safety and rights in Sierra Leone.
Dr. Nana Pratt, the coordinator of the National Organization for Women-Sierra Leone and a member of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, said in an interview that Bangura’s appointment delighted the women of her country. “She is a true champion of women’s rights and, as a Sierra Leonean, she and the women in our country and region have confronted the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war.”
“Sexual violence remains a major problem in Sierra Leone,” Dr. Pratt continued. “Recently, we heard about the conviction of Charles Taylor, who has caused us so much suffering. Justice for the past victims of sexual violence in Sierra Leone and our neighboring country, Liberia, has finally come. We are very hopeful that Minister Bangura’s appointment, coupled with the expected fulfillment of commitments by member states [at the UN] and other stakeholders will lead to full justice to the victims of sexual violence and contribute to ending impunity on such crimes.”
The news of Bangura’s appointment occurred while the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a worldwide coalition of women’s groups, was organizing local workshops on Sierra Leone’s national action plan to carry out Security Council ResolutionsResolution 1325 and 1820, which are meant to protect women’s rights in conflicts and ensure their role in peace negotiations.
With help from the Canadian government and the Folke Bernadotte Academy of Sweden, the workshops join district and city counselors, chiefs and tribal heads, women leaders, religious leaders, police and the military and family support units to write bylaws and community development plans that would enable the resolutions to be implemented in local communities.
In June, Bangura came to the workshop in Kissy, a neighborhood in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. She thanked the women of Sierra Leone for her achievements and said she counted on their support as she takes on her new post at the UN. She also vowed to work with the women peace-builders network and encouraged it to contact her once she arrives in New York. Bangura has a bachelor of arts degree from the Fourah Bay College of the University of Sierra Leone.
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Mavic Cabrera-Balleza is the international coordinator for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. She leads the group’s programs that carry out Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which ensure women’s role in peace and security in conflict situations. Most recently, Cabrera-Balleza, a Filipino, was in Sierra Leone, working on such a project. Her previous job was coordinator of the International Women’s Tribune Center’s human rights, peace-building and human security program. She has a master’s degree in communication research with a focus on women’s studies.