Baroness Lindsay Northover writes…Global recognition of need to tackle sexual violence must lead to action

Eliminating violence against women - Some rights reserved by European ParliamentIf 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 yrs 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 was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, 2014-15, and is Liberal Democrats Spokesperson on International Development in the House of Lords.

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5 Comments

  • Charles Rothwell 16th Jun '14 - 12:12pm

    Thank you for the detailed report of this important conference which goes to the heart of the kind of issues of human rights which form absolutely key components of the party’s philosophy and raison d’etre. Well done to Lynne Featherstone and others from the party involved in bringing this about.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jun '14 - 1:21pm

    When seeing the barbarism that takes place around the world, I am puzzled as to how this ‘change in culture’ can be brought about other than to make it a war crime. It seems that every ounce of common humanity and empathy is lost by the perpetrators of this and other forms of violence. In what way will attitudes and behaviour be challenged?

    Although a feminist, I think that the rape of men should not be mentioned as though it is a mere footnote. Rape is about power not sex.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Jun '14 - 1:46pm

    Jayne said

    “When seeing the barbarism that takes place around the world, I am puzzled as to how this ‘change in culture’ can be brought about other than to make it a war crime”

    It is Jayne, the only problem is that the Geneva Conventions are not taught or are ignored by some countries armed forces or by rebel forces.

  • Rabi Martins 16th Jun '14 - 2:42pm

    I too am pleased that our Foreign Secretary took centre stage in this long overdue examination of sexual violence – particularly sexual violence in war and conflict sitiuations

    I spent two days at the conference and sat in on various fringe meetings listening to testimonies of many who had either experienced or witnessed sexual violence – much of it but by no means all of it in conflict situations

    Much of what I heard bears out Lydsay’s assertion
    “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 ”

    It is also encouraging that all the leaders Lindsay quotes agree these crimes are abhorrent – Call me a cynic if you like but would you really expect them to say anything else in that forum
    What I would like to know if what possible solutions this gathering of the graet and the good discussed and more importantly committed to ? Perhaps Lindsay can enlighten us

    If as I result of this conference there is indeed …” profound understanding of the need to combat sexual violence in conflict ” which countries are prepared to take a lead in addressing the problem ?
    This coalition government has less than eleven months to run
    If the resources and energy invested in running this conference and to raise this inhumanity of Man is not to be wasted somebody needs to frame a strategy designed to bring these atrocities to an end
    @ Lynne Featherstone and Lindsay Northover – I think you two are uniquely well placed and fully qualified to pick up this baton ?

    The next stage will be how we take that forward.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jun '14 - 4:34pm

    @ A SocialLiberal,
    Thank you for your response.

    Rabi Martin raises some of the questions I have about the subject and the outcome of the conference. It is all very well being opposed to the barbarity involved, but what strategies are going to be put in place to combat it. Whilst the conference was taking place there were reports of rape and murder taking place in Syria and we seem powerless to stop this happening.

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