Petrified Survivors: A memorial for all survivors of sexual violence in conflict around the world.

“If in years to come, the world continues to do nothing to bring perpetrators to justice, the victims and survivors who are suffering now will be like fossilised trees who were never able to truly move on and  bloom. Through the symbolism within it, Petrified Survivors memorial celebrates survival, strength and justice, by putting the needs of both historic and present day victims at the front of the drive for change.”

Rebecca Hawkins, artist behind Petrified Survivors

Petrified Survivors pays tribute to all survivor groups of conflict-related sexual violence across the world through its message, objectives, and intricate design. The sculpture will be the first memorial of its kind, amplifying the forgotten voices of conflict and raising awareness about the ongoing prevalence of sexual violence. Inclusive of stories and contributions of international organisations and global groups, the memorial celebrates survival, strength, and justice, by putting the needs and wishes of both historic and present-day victims at the front of the drive for change.

The sculpture is part of a collaborative project led by Justice for Lai Dai Han, involving organisations around the world who are working to raise awareness of sexual violence in conflict, supporting individuals and communities who are affected, with the goal of eliminating the practice of conflict-related sexual violence in its entirety. These organisations include:

The Concept

In prominent cities across the world there are many sculptures representing the heroism and bravery of male combatants during war. Victims of conflict-related sexual violence remain instead invisible within public spaces, despite their long and brutal suffering.

This is what inspired the creation of Petrified Survivors; a sculpture about survivors for survivors. Petrified Survivors is the first ever memorial for all victims and survivors of rape and sexual violence in war and conflict. It is the result of collaboration between JLDH, The Mukwege Foundation, Nadia’s Initiative, and many other likeminded groups.

The design, by UK artist Rebecca Hawkins, involves a petrified woman, with a baby strapped to her back, ensnared by strangler fig vines. She stands on a rotatable compass, symbolising the universal prevalence of the issue. The woman and her child are bound together by entwined roots and their shared suffering, unable to move on and forward with their lives until their perpetrators are brought to justice. The design centres around the concept of a petrified tree and celebrates the strength of survivors. Many survivors identify with trees or mountains as symbols of strength, and trees herald a defiant nature with their roots that travel down a long way. The word ‘petrified’ refers to being so frightened that one is unable to move, an emotion that many survivors of sexual violence will relate to, and if a tree is petrified, it is unable to bloom and grow.

“The tree-like figure stands strong, rooted to the spot, leaning forward and looking to the sky for light. The woman has her hands bound behind her back by vines with her hands splayed out like wings of a bird, trying to break free, yet trapped by trauma and silence. The sculpture will be of human size and will be able to be turned to face different compass points. The symbolism of trees reflects the strength of these women who have endured so much, as well as the long history of this issue. The sculpture will depict trees that have rotted away, leaving only the petrified vines and strangler fig tendrils, referencing the suffocating cages that survivor’s lives are trapped in. Among the vines, national flowers and birds, cultural symbols, and engravings of survivor quotes and stories are nestled, representing different survivor groups, and signifying the dreams that have been taken away from them.”

Rebecca Hawkins

Work in progress

The Petrified Survivors initiative is an evolving project and a work in progress, with talks with survivor groups and focus groups still occurring to ensure the sculpture resonates and represents all victim groups across the world. The complexity of the vines of the sculpture, which will be engraved with cultural symbols and survivor quotes, is still being informed by input from additional organisations and survivor groups. The final design will be completed in 2023.

An augmented reality (AR) version of the physical sculpture, accessible via a mobile smartphone, is being developed to give a global audience the chance to view Petrified Survivors within their homes, project it onto a public space, or look at it within an cultural institution or gallery. It will also give survivor groups and organisations that have contributed to the piece the opportunity to view the sculpture in a realistic way and see their cause represented. On the AR version, the symbols nestled into the design are accompanied by a wealth of supporting information about the associated conflict and the significance of the chosen symbol. In this way, the digital version of the sculpture provides an extra educational dimension – helping to broaden understanding about the issue of conflict-related sexual violence and its wider impact.

Partner organisations

Lai Dai Han Logo

Justice for Lai Dai Han

A campaign seeking justice for the Lai Dai Han, the tens of thousands of children of Vietnamese women abused by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, and their mothers

Nadia’s Initiative

An international NGO founded by survivor, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Nadia Murad, which rebuilds communities in crisis and advocates for survivors or sexual violence.

SEMA Network

A global network of victims and survivors dedicated to ending wartime sexual violence

The Mukwege Foundation

A foundation dedicated to supporting the international work of Dr. Denis Mukwege, human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate, and ending sexual violence worldwide

Foundation Rwanda

An organisation that uses photography and new media to create awareness about the consequences of genocide and sexual violence and that provides funding for education, vocational training, psychological, and medical services to empower both, the second-generation survivors born of rapes committed during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and their mothers.

Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has defended women’s rights since 1993. For every woman’s right to be safe and to be heard. Today it exists asone of the world’s leading women’s rights organisations, working directly in areas affected by war and conflict to strengthen women’s influence and power. The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation currently support 150 local women’s rights organisations in 20 conflict affected countries across the world, to end violence against women, reach lasting peace and close the gender gap once and for all.

Impact: Center Against Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence in Conflict

An organisation working to prevent and address human trafficking and conflict-related sexual violence through research and advice; education and awareness; training and capacity building; and empowerment projects and advocacy.

Post-Conflict Research Centre (PCRC)

Peacebuilding, women-led organisation and research center dedicated to fostering a culture of peace and preventing violence conflict in Western Balkans through peace education, creative multimedia, conflict prevention, post-conflict research, human rights and transitional peace.

Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice

An international women’s human rights organisation advocating for gender inclusive justice and towards an effective and independent International Criminal Court (ICC)

Grace Agenda

A community based organisation that was registered as a response of personal experience of rape during Post Election Violence of 2007/8 in Kenya. Children were born from the human rights violation and inspired the walk towards justice, reparation, healing and memorialization. Grace Agenda uses strength to build the capacity of survivors and self-agency and walks with them, especially those with children born from the violation.


The sculpture will be embellished with subtle cultural and symbolic references to pay homage to various victim groups, including national flowers, the inscription of key words and quotations, and other cultural icons. A number of symbols have already been established through focus group discussions led by collaborating organisations with the survivors they support. Following consultations with additional survivor groups, more symbols will be identified and incorporated into the working sculpture design, and ultimately the finished memorial.

So far, the established symbols and their background are:

During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), between 10,000 and 50,000 Bosnian women and men were raped or sexually abused. Rape was a policy of mass systemic violence and today there are believed to be 2,000-4,000 children born out of rape during this war.
Many consulted Bosnian survivors said that a white rose could represent their community as it symbolises purity, innocence, humility and chastity.

In August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist organization, attacked the Yazidi’s ancestral homeland in north-western Iraq. Among other atrocities, they abducted thousands of women and girls and traded many of them into sexual slavery, with estimates of at least 6,000 victims. A Nissan flower is a red tulip and is a special flower to the Yazidi community. Nissan flowers are hung on doors during new year’s celebrations.

The butterfly symbolises historic survivors of sexual violence, and their hope for change. Butterflies are thought to represent change and transformation, comfort, hope, positivity, and new beginnings.

Around 320,000 South Korean soldiers were deployed to Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 to fight alongside American soldiers, and many of these soldiers and other military personnel sexually assaulted and raped Vietnamese women, some of whom were as young as 12 or 13 at the time. The victims, and their children born of these acts – known as the ‘Lai Dai Han’ – have suffered a lifetime of stigma and suffering, with many unable to access social services. The strangler fig tree is a parasitic plant native to Vietnam. The strangler fig is as a metaphor for what happened to the Lai Dai Han, and to all victims of sexual violence, and the strangling legacy of rape on a person’s future. This symbolism is also used in the Justice for Lai Dai Han Campaign’s ‘Mother & Child’ sculpture situated in St. James’s Square, London.

During the 1994 genocide, Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence on an immense scale, perpetrated by members of the Hutu militia groups (known as the Interahamwe), by other civilians, and by soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces, including the Presidential Guard. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped, gang raped, and sexually abused with brutal objects. Many victims became infected with HIV, and an estimated 20,000 children, or ‘second-generation survivors’ were born. The national flower for Rwanda is a red rose, and survivors shared that they wanted to be treated in the same way as a beautiful rose which is cherished. The passionfruit reflects the resilience and success of the Rwandan survivors which they compare to a ‘tree full of ripe fruits.’

During the Kosovo war between 1998-1999, an estimated 20,000 rapes of Kosovar women were carried out by Serbian soldiers and police. Only one account of rape has been prosecuted by a court of law, and is now under appeal.
Sexual violence was used as a weapon of war and instruments of systemic “ethnic cleansing”. According to Human Rights Watch, the assaults may have served as a means to “discourage women from reproducing in the future” which suggests genocidal intent. The anemone flower symbolises suffering but also the strength, courage and hope of survivors of sexual violence during the war in Kosovo. The book “I am Anemone” includes the stories of 24 women and one man who survived sexualised violence during the war in Kosovo, and exists as the first book of its kind written in the country.

During the Guatemalan civil war, between 1960 and 1996, more than 100,000 women were victims of mass rape, between CIA-backed right-wing generals and left-wing insurgents, with many indigenous women forced into sexual slavery by the military. Gender violence was used as a weapon to eliminate ethnic groups. The State refused to acknowledge the rapes, and it took over 20 years for any of the rapes to be brought in the public arena. The effect of such impunity is evident in the deep scars on Guatemalan society, where cases of rapes, torture, feminicide, and dismemberment are regularly reported. Guatemala’s national flower is a White Nun Orchid. Consulted survivors have also selected the Flor de Maguey, an edible flower which represents the collective of survivors of sexual violence within the survivors network (AJR, Tx’umil, Mujeres, Valiente) which will be incorporated into the final sculpture.

Whilst many survivors have visible physical impairments and scars from the assaults they have suffered, they also sustain invisible wounds and scars. Many consulted survivors said that they felt defined by the visible and invisible scars that they carry, and the gaps between the vines of the memorial represent these wounds. Traumatic events leave very deep psychological wounds which can haunt a survivors lifetime and their subsequent experiences.

Many of the survivors consulted shared that they wished for their experiences to be represented by a phoenix. A phoenix symbolises renewal; the overcoming of darkness and rising to become defiant, powerful and successful. It is commonly associated with rebirth, eternity, progress, and hope.

Children born of conflict-related sexual violence, the often ‘forgotten victims of war’, face challenges and discrimination in many ways and on many fronts. Many of these children have been stigmatised for their dual-heritage and stereotyped as ‘symbols of misfortune’. The baby strapped to the mothers back symbolises the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child, but also of the heavy responsibility the woman bears raising a child that she had no choice in conceiving.

The woman has her hands bound behind her back by vines. A dove is trying to loosen these vines, but she remains trapped by her trauma and silence. The dove is a symbol of peace, humanity, and innocence across many different cultures. White, pure, humble: their sight is calming and beautiful – symbolising the freedom and peace that so many survivors long for and hope to see in the future for themselves and everyone.

The children’s shoes represent children who are survivors of rape in war, as well as the dreams that have been taken away from both the survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and their children.

Although women are disproportionately affected by conflict related sexual violence, men and boys are also targeted. Sexual violence perpetrated against men and boys remains largely overlooked and neglected. This reality is due to under-reporting, a reluctance by male survivors to come forward due to stigma, as well as the prioritisation of female victims.

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