Dutch documentary filmmaker Femke Van Velzen, Co-Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies Janine Benedet, and Executive Director of Allard Prize Initiatives Nicole Barrett.
On December 9, 2015, the Allard Prize and the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies hosted the screening of Fighting the Silence, a globally acclaimed documentary about sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The film was produced and directed by Femke and Ilse van Velzen, independent Dutch filmmakers.
During the DRC’s seven year war, more than 80,000 women and girls were raped. The film focused on the survivors’ stories of brutality and the resulting social stigma placed on victims and their families. In the film, Congolese soldiers and local police discuss how rape is a common act because men in the DRC are conditioned to understand it as culturally acceptable. The protagonist is a Congolese social worker who, within her community, works to change this norm.
The film was followed by a thought-provoking panel discussion with Femke van Velzen and two faculty members from the Peter A. Allard School of Law — Professor Janine Benedet, the Co-Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies and Associate Dean, Academic Affairs, and Nicole Barrett, Executive Director of Allard Prize Initiatives and Director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic.
Van Velzen stated that she produced Fighting the Silence as a means to encourage discussion on sexual abuse amongst international audiences. She and her twin sister, Ilse, set up the Mobile Cinema Foundation in 2011 to educate communities throughout the world about social issues relevant to their lives. The Foundation sets up temporary cinemas in communities to show tailor-made educational films and documentaries. The intention of the mobile cinemas is to generate awareness, stimulate debate and initiate positive change in societies.
Professor Benedet pointed out that the issues of social stigma present in the film exist in Canada as well as the DRC. She discussed key developments in Canadian sexual assault law that came about thanks to feminist advocacy, including the abolition of the marital rape exemption, the move to an affirmative consent standard, and the addition of limits on the use of a mistaken belief defence. She highlighed that while the law and legal reform are important to effecting change, it alone cannot eliminate the problems with prevalence and reporting of sexual violence if sex inequality remains unaddressed.
A native Congolese UBC student asked the panel if the film provoked a reaction from the Congolese government. Van Velzen explained that the Congolese government admits to the existence of the problem and the need for action. Nicole Barrett added that there had been significant international pressure placed on the DRC to address the issue, with leaders such as Hillary Clinton and President Obama calling for the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda, the military chief of staff of an armed rebel militia group in the DRC, who is now on trial for rape and sexual slavery at the International Criminal Court (“ICC”). Barrett further explained that the ICC has numerous specific legal provisions for prosecuting crimes of sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and “other forms of sexual violence.” Despite the broad law, however, the ICC has been challenged with securing convictions on these crimes.
The event drew an audience from a wide range of organizations such as the Ministry of Justice, Amnesty International, the Justice Education Society, Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada, Equitas the International Centre for Human Rights Education, the BC Lions, Vancity, Capilano University and students from the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC.
There was an overwhelming consensus during the discussion that the problem was not just an issue for women, but one where men must play a key role in order to effect change. Attendees at the post-show reception described the event as inspirational and motivating, expressing their will to support global initiatives to combat sexual crimes against women.