By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law students Amy Belsher ’14, Anthony Bestafka-Cruz ’13, and Saira Hussain ’13 recently spent a week in Uganda and three days in Washington, D.C., as part of human rights project designed to better protect victims of wartime sexual violence.
Enrolled in the International Human Rights Law Clinic, the students are working with the law school’s Human Rights Center (HRC) under attorney Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the center’s Sexual Violence and Accountability Project.
Seelinger’s multi-year initiative gathers data on sexual and gender-based violence during and after war across all sectors of society and government—medical, law enforcement, courts, and community—to help develop better accountability methods.
After completing initial work in Kenya, Liberia, and Uganda, the center will examine response policies in eastern Congo, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire before moving on to Southeast Asia and Latin America. Nila Natarajan ’12, Lea Nehme ’12, and Michelle Ben-David ’13 worked with Seelinger on the Liberia study, and Ben-David is helping her draft a final report.
Last semester, Belsher, Bestakfa-Cruz, and Hussain conducted extensive research to prepare for their fieldwork in Uganda. They wrote memos on how different societal sectors respond to sexual violence, researched and compiled a database of Ugandans to interview, and drafted interview guidelines.
“The people we interviewed there were very candid and open about their experiences and recommendations on how to improve their country’s response to this violence,” Hussain said. “By replicating similar studies in other countries, stakeholders will be able to identify common challenges and best practices.”
In Uganda, the team met with directors of national and international NGOs, police officials, prosecutors, judges, and human rights experts, among others. After conducting detailed interviews during the day, the students typed up their field notes and updated research partners on their findings.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Belsher said. “We learned a great deal about the issues and field interview techniques, as well as the challenges of working in another country. I was pleasantly surprised by how open, friendly, and willing Ugandans were to speak with us.”
Coordinating a global response
A little more than two weeks after returning from Uganda, the students traveled to Washington for the Missing Peace Symposium. Seelinger had worked for nearly a year to organize the event with the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Sexual violence against women, men, and children during war is a human rights abuse that threatens international peace and security,” Seelinger said. “Even when fighting ends, sexual violence often does not.”
The symposium convened international scholars, policymakers, human rights advocates, and foreign military leaders to identify priority areas for research and policy development—as well as ways to improve documentation and response.
Belsher, Bestakfa-Cruz, and Hussain provided logistical and social media support for the event, while meeting with fellow researchers and senior academics. They also took notes on the panel discussions and lectures—to gain insight into tactics employed by countries around the world and to distill them into short summaries for participants. The notes will be used to draft a policy brief that Seelinger is preparing with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“Sexual violence is not only a problem in post-conflict states, but throughout all communities,” Bestakfa-Cruz said. “Because it requires responses that are legal, medical, and psychological, understanding how these sectors interact to address violence is key to any future reform proposals or policies.”