Posts Tagged sexual violence in conflict
From 10 to 13 June, government representatives from more than 123 countries and over 1,000 experts, faith leaders, lawyers, Nobel laureates, activists, survivors and youth groups gathered together in London for a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Chaired by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, the summit considered key areas for change including accountability, support for survivors and reform of security and justice. But, perhaps more important than all the talk of political leaders, was the encouragement of public engagement with the summit. The Global Summit Fringe included public seminars, theatre, film showings, a market-place, photography exhibitions and representation from many charities and NGOs. Topped off with a vocal social media campaign, the summit and its fringe were designed to once and for all break the silence that has, for too long, surrounded the issue of sexual violence in conflict.
Unfortunately, rarely do perpetrators of sexual violence during war-time face consequences to their actions. Knowing it is unlikely that anything will be done to bring their abuser to justice is one reason why too few victims report what has happened to them. This in turn leads to a lack of proper data on sexual crime, which further hampers resolution of the problem. Thus, one immediate and effective way to end such violence is to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of these acts. To this end, the summit saw the launch of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which ‘sets out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence, whilst protecting witnesses, in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators’. In future, countries will be held to account for their prosecution of those who believe that war is an excuse for committing appalling acts of sexual violence against women, children and men.
Support of Survivors
During the summit it was agreed that further funding was needed to support UN and NGO efforts to provide assistance to those who have survived sexual violence during conflict. Importantly, it was also recognised that ‘preventing and responding to sexual violence must be prioritized from the start of any humanitarian response and most importantly, recognised as life-saving activity, not an afterthought’. Such help needs to be delivered swiftly and include holistic and integrated services, from full sexual reproductive health rights to psycho-social support, livelihoods support and shelter. Key to such work in helping survivors is also the provision of access to justice, including reparations. Indeed, reparation is often cited by victims of sexual violence as key to their recovery, and not just in financial terms. Often, reparation is about ‘the restoration of dignity, status and health’, but at the moment it is an underused means of justice.
Security and Justice Reform
Security and peacekeeping forces are often the first responders to sexual violence. They have access to information about events that is otherwise unavailable to civilians and they may be the only protection that vulnerable sections of society have against sexual violence. They may also be perpetrators. Yet security forces are often not properly equipped to deal with this sensitive and difficult problem. To this end, the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has made ‘the commitment to ensure national military and police doctrine and training [is] aligned with international law’. Efforts are also to be made for the promotion of gender equality within the justice and security sector as a means of helping to tackle sexual violence. The participation of women (who often have more access and legitimacy than official negotiators) in peace processes also needs to become the norm.
Not Just Politicians
Resolutions, laws, pledges and international agreements are all well and good but unless attitudes change this will not be enough to end sexual violence in conflict. It was, therefore, recognised by the summit that faith groups have a key role to play. They often have access and influence with local communities and thus are ‘uniquely placed to change hearts and minds, and challenge cultural and social norms, including notions of masculine identity as it affects sexual violence’. Faith-based organisations also play a part in providing care, treatment and support for survivors, and so should be engaged as active partners in the fight against sexual violence. Likewise, local community activists are often best placed to make a difference on the ground, including in changing attitudes and behaviours that underpin inequality and the spread of violence.
The Sound of Silence
For too long sexual violence in conflict has been a taboo subject, or seen as an inevitable part of war. And it is this silence over the issue which has been one of the greatest barriers to ending it. Silence from the victims who are often afraid to speak out about what has happened to them for fear of further persecution or blame; silence from the survivors and their families because of the shame that it is felt when female ‘purity’ has been compromised; silence because what is the point, when so often the perpetrators face no consequence for their actions; silence from forces of security and justice who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem; and silence from governments who prefer to ignore the horrific nature of a problem than admit its existence. The greatest triumph of the Global Summit is, therefore, quite simply the breaking of the silence. Politicians, military leaders, faith leaders, NGOs, charities, survivors, activists and ordinary people from all backgrounds came together for a few days to talk. To talk and to share and to listen. But the summit is just the beginning – we must keep the conversation going.
Last Tuesday evening I attended a public talk hosted by Chatham House at the Global Summit on Sexual Violence which has been taking place this week in London. This particular talk was focused on the increase in violence against women in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Syria since the Arab Spring. With a panel of four inspiring women and their chair the event was one of the highlights of the summit. The speakers included:
Ghaidaa al Absi, a Yemen activist and anti-harassment campaigner
Dr Fida Shafi, a senior fellow at Chatham House who has recently conducted research among female Syrian refugees.
Dr Nervana Mahmoud, Egyptian journalist and commentator
Dr Nicola Pratt, Reader of International Politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick
An emotive and compelling discussion, some of the key points made during the event included:
- Violence against women and children has increased significantly with the events of the Arab Spring for a variety of reasons.
- The problem is chronic and endemic. It takes many forms, from harassment to sexual assault and rape. Pratt emphasised the need to differentiate between the various forms that such violence is taking in order to better understand the problem, but broadly the issue affects women from all backgrounds and is perpetrated by men of all backgrounds too. Thus, the solution to the problem needs to be multi-faceted.
- Egypt is currently the worst country in the Arab region for violence against women, with 8 out of every 10 women being harassed every day in the country. Mahmoud pointed out there is a real risk of Egypt thus developing the terrible reputation as ‘a country of rapists’.
- Women tend to be blamed for the acts of violence that are perpetrated against them, with accusations about dress and condemnation of their participation in political protest, while men are often excused for their actions.
- Violence against women thrives on silence. There is a huge issue of stigma and shame which is preventing the reporting of and, therefore, in turn the resolution of the problem. It is difficult to have accurate figures on violence against women since so many are too ashamed to talk about what has happened to them.
- Such shame is intrinsically linked to the pervading culture regarding the purity of women, and the sacredness of virginity.
- Violence against women can be used as a way to emasculate male opponents in times of war or political conflict. Because in such cultures men are supposed to be protectors of their women folk, violence against a man’s wife, sister, daughter etc is often used to inflict harm against the man. In this way, women are deemed, effectively, as little more than tools of war.
- The shame of men in regards to violence that has been inflicted on their women helps perpetuate the silence on the issue, since neither men nor women want to speak out about what has happened to them or their family.
- This state of denial and a tendency to blame the victim are the greatest barriers to tackling violence against women.
- As Shafi explained, fear of rape is so great that it can cause women to flee their home countries rather than run the risk of being subjected to such violence.
- In Egypt feminism has traditionally been centred on the First Lady and the cities, and is often seen as a Western idea. Therefore women in rural areas eschew feminist ideas.
- The new anti-harassment law in Egypt is a good law, but it will not address the problem if the perpetrators are not properly found and tried. There is also the issue of the police harassing women. Until women in Egypt feel protected by police and confident in the legal system, the law will be ineffective.
Such are the snippets of information from the talk which demonstrate just how complex the issue of violence against women is. Change is happening, as younger men and women start to struggle against regressive thinking. However, cultural norms, views on female rights, and the stigma attached to matters of a sexual nature are deeply rooted in the Arab region. It will take a lot to tackle such entrenched problems, but events such as the Global Summit are a great step in the right direction.
This week sees the largest gathering ever to end sexual violence in conflict take place in London. From 10th to 13th June the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, will be co-chairing a global summit at the ExCel Centre.
The summit will include 3 days of free public events, from cinema screenings to theatre productions, seminars, debates and a market place. Highlights include talks from Chatham House, Oxfam and Unicef, a silent cinema show-casing award winner films on sexual violence and the play Liberian Girl presented by the Royal Court Theatre.
The aim of the summit is to create ‘irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground’. As William Hague has said, this is a summit like no other in the world, largely because public involvement is one of its key aims.
So if you’re in London this week, get down to ExCel, show your support via social media (#timetoact) and lets make sure real progress is made to end sexual violence in conflict.