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 for 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.