The article ‘William Hague’s summit against warzone rape seen as “costly failure”’(Observer, 14 June 2015) deserves a response. It raises, perhaps not by intent, some of the crucial issues which need to be discussed as part of a strategy to combat gender-based and sexual violence (rape, mutilation, forced prostitution etc) in armed conflict: what needs to be prioritized, what does it look like, how do we determine budgetary allocation, what are the appropriate responses and how should we measure results?

By Madeleine Rees and Christine Chinkin

These are all big questions, but they do not address the question which is the summation of all those parts. That question is on sexual violence itself: why does it happen, how and why does it work, what are the integrated strategies that civil society, governments and the international community need to pursue in order to address it.

The Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) set some very clear objectives, the end of impunity for the perpetrators of such crimes being the foremost. Lost in most of the media, however, was that this was the entry, not the end, point.

In 2014, WILPF participated in the PSVI summit in London. The photo above is from our side event on Syria.

There was an understanding that there is an entire sub text, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the group of advisors brought together by William Hague. That sub text is about understanding the circularity of violence, particularly against women, and how we have to understand and address the political economy of that violence from a gender perspective if we are ever to end sexual violence in armed conflict.

Simply put; if men think of women as property, if violence at home or committed by family members is considered a private matter, if society continues to judge the conduct and dress of women in sexual violence cases, if the state fails to insist upon real and tangible equality for women in all fields – political, social, economic and cultural – and fails to engage with men in resolving the issue, then sexual violence in conflict and non-conflict will continue.

Some of this we have heard from William Hague whose commitment, we know, to be absolute. He publicly asserts that the leading issue of these times is the empowerment of women; he speaks of the need to address the root causes of sexual violence, of the need to see sexual violence in conflict as a matter of international peace and security. And he is right. Because of the socio-cultural subordination of women, rape will, and does, destroy communities, for all the wrong reasons; stigma shame, isolation, displacement and rejection.

Without peace within the family and community, forget peace nationally. The consequences are international. PSVI is thus a component of a global women, peace and security agenda that recognizes that “women’s and girls’ empowerment and gender equality are critical to efforts to maintain international peace and security.” Rape and sexual violence in conflict are thus a threat to international peace and security. It is that big. And wars will continue as long as States pursue belligerent foreign policies and flood the crisis areas of the world with ever more weaponry in compounding the sexual violence that conflict brings with it.

In response to the criticisms leveled; it is wrong to look at short term indicators such as the number of prosecutions, the number of experts deployed etc. Results will take many, many years. Rape in DRC will not end before the conflict does and even then will continue unless attitudes towards women also change. Legal frameworks have to be reformed and applied, mindsets transformed, social and economic systems put in place. These can only be achieved by national governments and hence the need to bring them on board and to keep them committed, a job started at the PSVI Summit in 2014 and continuing through UK embassies. Budget is important and funding has been used to support elements within the UN and also for work with local and international non-governmental organisations. Greater coherence is needed in this to ensure that money is most beneficially applied. To those who complain about the £ 5 million spent on the Summit, in relative terms, that was a tiny investment and it got over 100 States to sign up to commit to the cause. This should be compared with the more than £ 250 million pumped into the NATO conference in Wales in the autumn of 2014 to discuss military deployments – and look at how gendered that was!

The funding strategy should match what we know, and are continuing to learn, about effective prevention strategies. There can be no serious prevention without respect for, and delivery of human rights, including economic and social rights and equality. State legal systems must incorporate these fundamental obligations and they must be complied with.

PSVI has the potential to make a serious difference; it has started to do so and now needs to be strengthened.  Combatting gender-based and sexual violence against women is a fundamental obligation on governments, at home and abroad. It should inform all policies from trade to development assistance and absolutely in all foreign policy. The UK must not miss opportunities to advance the cause, whether it be by backing Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, when she calls states out on their human rights records, particularly on violence against women, and takes action. We need the UK to be robust in demanding accountability for sexual violence by peacekeepers. The UK must insist on the participation of women in all peace processes in which it plays a part and must facilitate this. We need the government to stop the everyday sexism that is part of politics and to show they are seriously engaged. The government must become a party to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women, including domestic violence to which it committed three years ago.

William Hague stood out as a man of principle when he started this Initiative; the principles he enunciated are above politics and are not negotiable. This government must reassert its manifesto commitment to continue with the work he started and respond to the gain sayers by an even greater and coherent and very public commitment. Those of us who work in civil society want this initiative to succeed and will give it the support is so merits. We also understand that there is no quick fix and that we all need to be in this for the long haul.

Read our article: WILPF Reflects on the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict

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