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Global recognition of need to tackle sexual violence must lead to action

June 16, 2014 8:06 PM
By Lindsay Northover in Liberal Democrat Voice

If you had told me twenty or even ten years ago that there would be Global Summit on combatting sexual violence against women, attended by the majority of the world's countries, as well numerous individuals and organisations, I would not have believed you.

For ever, it has seemed, sexual violence against (mainly) women and girls has been seen as simply inevitable. Especially in time of war. "War, rape and pillage" just went together.

But just as in the 20th century, when genocide gave huge impetus to the formation and strengthening of international institutions, including of course the UN, the International Criminal Court and international humanitarian law, now there is increasing recognition that sexual violence must be covered by those same protections. Rape, so often invisible, was recognised as a weapon of war in Rwanda 1998, and explicitly so by the UN in 2008.

I am very proud that it was our Coalition Government that hosted the Summit, the largest gathering ever on this subject. It was co-hosted by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for UNHCR. Our own Lynne Featherstone has done much to shine a light on this problem.

Social norms break down in conflict. But we also know that rape is often used as an explicit weapon of war. It can be used to destroy lives (those raped are then often killed, or kill themselves, or are expelled from their communities, or have children whom they and their communities reject). It is widespread, destructive, devastating; it undermines women, men, children, communities, societies.

As I sat in the plenary session, in the huge, packed, hangar-like Excel Centre, I was enormously struck by the voices and views that we heard. Thus:

William Hague: "Rape in war is not a lesser crime: it is an atrocity of the first order".

Angelina Jolie: "We are here for the raped 9 year old Ugandan girl and all the forgotten others, for all the hidden survivors who have been made to feel ashamed or abandoned, and for the children of rape".

Peter Maurer, International Committee of the Red Cross: "Rape does not happen by accident".

Jordanian Foreign Minister: "We must seek a change of culture".

Foreign Minister from Bosnia Herzegovina: "We must be outraged".

Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister: "Gender inequality drives this".

Moroccan Minister: "Sexual violence undermines human security in all its aspects".

The Gender Minister from Liberia: one alleged rapist from her country's conflict is now a Parliamentarian, legislating, never brought to justice.

In the panels that followed plenaries, experts and leaders sought how best the military and all others could be engaged positively, how evidence could be collected, how cases could be brought to expunge the notion of impunity.

And what could be done to challenge culture. I was asked to represent DFID on a panel on the role that faith leaders and communities could play, with representatives from many religions from around the world, Muslim, Christian, others.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke of the "universal and unspeakable" use of sexual violence right now in South Sudan - in one town he visited "every woman of every age" had been attacked.

You could hear a pin drop as Solange Mukamana of Tearfund South Africa recounted how she had survived the Rwanda genocide, fled to the DRC, was raped, and fled onwards, spending the last 20 years as a refugee. The meeting gave her hope, she said.

This was a powerful conference, showing profound understanding of the need to combat sexual violence in conflict. The next stage will be how we take that forward. A huge challenge, but we owe that to Solange and all those who have suffered as she has. And for all those in the future, who are so very vulnerable.

* Lindsay Northover is Government Spokesperson, House of Lords, Department for International Development, Women and Equalities, DfE, DEFRA