Big Think Interview With Margot Wallström
Margot Wallström was born on 28 September 1954 in Sweden. She entered politics shortly after graduating from high school in 1973. She worked as an Ombudsman for the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League. Then, in 1979, she was elected as a Member of the Swedish Parliament where she served for six years.
Her ministerial career began in 1988 when she was appointed as Minister of Civil Affairs – Consumer Affairs, Women and Youth (1988-1991). She later served as Minister of Culture (1994-1996) and Social Affairs (1996-1998).
In 1998, she retired from Swedish politics to become Executive Vice-President of Worldview Global Media – an NGO based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The following year she was appointed as Member of the European Commission, under President Romano Prodi, and given responsibility for EU environmental policy.
In 2004, when the Barroso Commission took office, she became Commission Vice- President with responsibility for Inter-institutional Relations and Communication.
Margot Wallström has received honorary doctorates from Chalmers University, Sweden (2001), Mälardalen University, Sweden (2004) and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (2005).
Other distinctions include being voted "Commissioner of the Year" by the European Voice newspaper in 2002.
In 2004, together with Göran Färm, Member of the European Parliament, she published the book “The People’s Europe or Why is it so hard to love the EU?” (“Folkens Europa eller Varför är det så svårt att älska EU?”).
In 2010, she was appointed U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Question: What is happening in the Congo?
Margot Wallström: Well, my recent visit to Congo, to the eastern part, that is the north and south Kindu, revealed that there is still rather an unstable situation in the East. And this was a follow-up to the atrocities in the Kelle Valley territory late August, beginning of September. And I was rather worried to visit some of these villages because still, people are traumatized and in a kind of... in a state of shock, I would say. And not only that, but they fear that their attackers might come back or even that the deployment of government troops in this area might mean that they also have to live off the population. They are deployed there without enough to eat, without pay, without barracks. So it means that they are afraid that they will start to loot and pillage these villages as well. And then we can assume rape, unfortunately.
Question: What type of area is this?
Margot Wallström: This is actually an area where close to the mining activities of the BC Mining District. So it means that some of the men of these small villages probably work in the mining business or to support the mining business. But very often, the small mines are controlled by rebel groups or sometimes by government troops as well. And it means that it’s a very sort of unsafe situation for civilians and unfortunately this is something that fuels the ongoing conflict and some of the rebels. So it leaves the civil population very exposed and under kind of constant threat.
Question: What conditions are leading to this crisis?
Margot Wallström: Well, everybody said the same thing. They want peace and they hope that peace will bring peace also to the women. This is not... we cannot be sure that it brings peace to the women because when this is done at the scale that we saw in the Kelle valley territory and in these villages, unfortunately, it brutalizes the whole society. It spills over on the civil society. And that means, you know, a new generation of young men and boys who will also think that this is a natural thing. And women don’t feel that they have... that they’re valued. And one young woman said to us that she... that her impression was, and she was of course very distraught when she said, “A dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman.” And I think this just shows that at the moment, the woman who are very much the backbone of the economy of the DRC are just sort of not valued. They are broken, and that means also it will be so much more difficult to build peace and any kind of economic development in the DRC.
Question: How have the conditions in the Congo disempowered women?
Margot Wallström: They are... they are dead tired. They are so tired of having to work so hard... they carry sort of the heavy burdens. The women, they fetch firewood and water, they go to the market, they grow things, they are the ones that carry the children and take very much responsibility for the families. And if this is also done to them, they are just traumatized, they feel very, very tired and let down. And very often, when they have been raped, they are also rejected by their husbands and by their families. And that means also that they will have no income and will be marginalized and stigmatized. So there are several problems following in the trails of sexual violence.
Question: What can the world learn from what’s happening in the Congo?
Margot Wallström: We can learn that this is such a heavy impediment to building peace and to have any kind of economic development in the country. We can learn that this will affect a society for generations to come. We can learn that this has to be addressed now; it cannot wait. And it is through fighting impunity that we can be effective in doing so. But we also need to make sure that the women who have been exposed to rape/sexual violence, that they are helped; that they are assisted with everything from medical care to psycho-social advice and counseling. So that’s what we all have to take responsibility for.
Question: What did women in the Congo tell you?
Margot Wallström: We listened to some women who wanted to bear witness to what they had been through. And they... one woman said that after the gang rape that she was exposed to, she lost a child. She could not have any more children. And she felt that her life was over. I mean, you kind of kill a person without taking their lives and... or the other way around. You take their lives without killing them. That was her feeling. And when we asked her, "What would be the normal? If this had not happened to you, what would be the normal relationship with your husband?" And... and she didn’t seem to understand the question. She said that "The life of the woman is to work. It’s to work and to give birth to children and then to sort of please your husband and do whatever he tells you sexually at night. That’s the life of a woman." And there was sort of no joy, no love, no concept of what we would think was a dignified life. And that was very, very depressing to hear.
Question: What is the solution to this crisis?
Margot Wallström: There is no quick solution to all of this, but I want, of course, the Security Council to use all the tools available to them, including sanctions. Looking at whether we can put perpetrators to justice and to put them on their lists.
I want the government in the DRC and everywhere where this is a problem, it’s not only an African problem, to take this seriously, also to do everything they can to ensure that we put an end to impunity, to address the problem of impunity and also to assist the women; to empower women, to make sure that they have a voice and a seat at the table where decisions are made.
So there are a number of things that the U.N. has to ensure that in peacekeeping operations that we can protect the civilians and that means women. That we have to look at the best ways to protect civilians.
Question: What are possible solutions beyond peacekeepers?
Margot Wallström: Well, we are contacted by a lot of people that have great ideas about... to equip women with everything from sort of small weapons that could help them to defend themselves to the communication gadgets, you know, that they can warn other women, that they can call for help, etc. And I think everything is worth testing, you know. We have to do everything... but the thing is, it should not fall on the women to actually also have to sort of physically defend themselves. It is also a response. It’s not a women’s issue, this is a peace and security issue. And we have to make sure that we go after the perpetrators. So I would put much more focus on finding the perpetrators and punishing them, to close every exit, every possible career possibility for these guys so that they know there is no mercy for rapists.
Recorded on October 17, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson
A conversation with the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence and Conflict.
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