Nicola Blackwood MP: Sexual violence as a weapon of war

There is little if any deterrent against sexual violence in most fragile and conflict-affected states, writes Nicola Blackwood MP.

Major-General Cammaert, former UN peacekeeping commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), said in 2008, ‘It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.’ In that very year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in the DRC, since 1998 it is believed 200,000 Congolese women have been raped. Today we hear of widespread sexual violence in Syria and, just last week, reports of a Somali woman who spoke of being gang raped by state security forces was sentenced to a year in prison, along with the journalist who published the interview. This reflects the exponential growth of conflicts that target civilians, especially women and girls, as a means of intimidation and ethnic cleansing. Films like Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs mean that most people now know that abuses these women are subjected to are amongst the most horrific ever imagined.

And as if the failure to prevent this violence in the first place wasn’t bad enough, these women are still routinely denied any access to justice or any engagement in the peace and reconciliation negotiations that follow. Male victims are even more chronically under-reported and face extreme stigma, almost non-existent access to services and it is nearly impossible to estimate the scale of an abuse that is even now largely unreported and unrecorded.

But whether the victims are male or female, their perpetrators prosper with impunity and there is little if any deterrent against sexual violence in most fragile and conflict-affected states.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is the cornerstone of policy on gender and conflict. It was the first resolution which acknowledged that women and girls experience different impacts from conflict and that this mattered for the maintenance of global peace and security. In 2008 and 2009, further Resolutions concluded that sexual and gender-based violence is often a deliberately deployed weapon of war, that a failure to stop violence against women is a failure to stop an abuse which catalyses and perpetuates conflict and that until we start seeing violence against women as a security threat we will never be able to fully achieve our foreign policy and international development goals of conflict prevention and stabilisation.

But there is something else. And that was that even in the face of statistics and horror stories which show that women remain the most vulnerable to the worst human rights abuses any of us can imagine – they are more than that. These women are not just victims. They are not even primarily victims. Many I have met have become human rights defenders and leaders in their own countries. They are among the most effective campaigners I know in calling for their right to live free from the fear of violence, for access to services, for women to be considered and included in the peace processes and for the international community to notice their exclusion and do something more than pass resolutions about it.

These women are indomitable agents for change whose determination and strength of purpose is a resource for peace and security we can ill afford to ignore.

That is why the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative(PSVI) is so welcome and his leadership in making it a key priority of the G8 agenda is so important. But the details of the PSVI commitments and what it will mean for conflict-affected countries have yet to be negotiated by the G8 members.

That is why, in my debate tomorrow, I will make the case that no work on sexual violence in conflict will be sustainable if it does not also commit to protect the very human rights defenders who will ensure that their governments and justice systems are held to account for the long term. That there is clear link between inclusion and the success of peace processes, so if women continue to be excluded from peace negotiations, we will not achieve our foreign policy goals of conflict prevention and resolution and we will not have a sustainable impact on conflict-related sexual violence. That no initiative of this sort will be effective if it does not fully integrate with existing programmes like our National Action Plan for 1325, the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy and the Building Stability Overseas Strategy. And finally, that it will require the Foreign Office, MOD and DFID to build a genuinely cross-departmental delivery mechanism.

To quote HE Ms Joy Ogwu, former President of UN Women, ‘no one can run fast on one foot.’ A security agenda that fails to prevent sexual violence in conflict, supporting women leaders and ensuring women’s participation has been a limping beast but I firmly believe that the PSVI, and the Foreign Secretary’s personal commitment to championing this issue as a key part of the G8 agenda, will mark a turning point in which international rhetoric on protecting women in conflict will finally begin to be put into practice.