Last week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit saw dignitaries from 155 nations descend on London’s ExCel Centre. A magnificent effort from both Angelina Jolie and Foreign Secretary William Hague, the four-day summit highlighted the atrocities and dangers that women (and indeed, men and boys) face in conflict times. The event’s fringe was fantastic, with incredible collections of artwork beautifully complimented by engaging and emotional discussions, as well as innovative and powerful theatre discussions.
I was moved to tears by Save the Children’s performance highlighting the stories of three very different girls, all affected by rape. I could not help but be inspired listening to Congolese gynecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege speak on how his resolve to end sexual violence in conflict only grew following the assassination attempt on his life in 2012. There were also some incredibly painful testimonies that will stay with me for some time. Hague and Jolie are to be commended for successfully getting the world to momentarily sit up and take notice of a humanitarian issue long accepted as a just another byproduct of war.
There were some great ideas and initiatives discussed and put forward during the summit. One in particular was the push to implement a mixed court in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the judiciary is badly letting women down by not holding perpetrators properly to account. This means that generals, who often order the rapes to happen, are routinely escaping justice. A mixed court system, with the international community supporting the existing system, would operate at a higher level of efficiency. Another excellent initiative put forward during the week was Care International’s long standing project of engaging men in conflict nations. Their work tackles gender inequality and gender stereotypes, with the aim of reducing instances of sexual violence through an amplification of women’s rights and equality. Women for Women International’s policy of empowering women through economic independence is also worthy , as is the protocol itself.
This protocol is the result of extensive consultation with various expert working groups and reviewers, with editorial authority resting with the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office. According to the document, the International Protocol has the main aim of promoting accountability for crimes of sexual violence under international law. Whilst the protocol isn’t binding on states, it can serve as an effective tool to properly document sexual violence as a war crime, a crime against humanity or an act of genocide- all enshrined under international law.
The protocol recognises that it will not tackle every sexual violence crime. Instead it focuses on those that occur under international criminal law. But survivors of sexual violence crimes outside of this context are still in chronic need of support. It is hoped that the protocol will be a springboard for increased action on prevention and accountability for all forms of sexual violence in conflict.
However, there are some criticisms of this that must be addressed. Whilst the aim and launch of the protocol itself is admirable, there is some conflict with our own domestic policy here in the UK. On the opening day of the summit’s fringe, both the Black Women’s Rape Action Project and the All African Women’s Group held a brutally honest demonstration. Their demonstration sought to highlight the conflict between the UK’s treatment of survivors of sexual violence claiming asylum and the aims of the summit. They called for an end to the disbelief and slandering of asylum seekers.
I spoke to two of the demonstrators. They explained to me that the UK was currently detaining survivors of sexual violence in immigration detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood – women who, having fled their home nation, were claiming asylum. How then, could the UK lead the way on sexual violence in conflict, when it was deporting and treating survivors in such a manner? The abuses at Yarl’s Wood are well documented and show the level of honesty that will be required from all the signatory nations if we are to truly help survivors across the world. How can we hope to tackle sexual violence on a global stage when domestically, we are failing women?
There’s also the question of efficiency. The international community is failing to make the most of it’s current resources. How then, can we be confident the protocol will not go the same way? There is a vast range of international legislation on peace and security, women’s rights, protecting women from violence and gender-based violence. They’re simply not being properly implemented. A commitment is laudable, but without real progress it is merely words. The time has come for action.
Countries need to be seen to be doing better. States need to work with women’s rights organisations in their respective countries to ensure the resources on offer, be it through funding or policy, are being efficiently used. In 2010, there was a coalition of 50 non governmental organisations all working together and sharing resources, with a focus on DRC. This coalition eventually folded due to a lack of funding. It’s initiatives like this that the UK, who announced a further £6 million in funding to help survivors of sexual conflict, need to make sure are properly funded. Too often, pledged money gets lost in International NGOs. We need to make sure a lot of more that is reaching smaller charities on the ground.
Looking forward, I am reservedly optimistic that the protocol will be beneficial to tackling sexual violence in conflict. I commend Jolie’s dedication to this subject, and her commitment to making real lasting change. The summit is nothing to be scoffed at. Indeed, when Sunday Times columnist Adam Boulton refers to it as “trivial”, it serves as a sharp reminder of just how difficult it is to get people to take rape seriously. For Angelina Jolie to use her celebrity in this fashion is refreshing. Often, we see famous people engage in charity work in a very superficial manner, benefiting from the good press without any type of dedication to the cause. That Jolie continues in this field of work, despite media scrutiny and, at times, criticism for her involvement, is worthy of recognition.
Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr
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