3 demands to leaders, as momentum builds against sexual violence

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague with U.N. Special Envoy and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie. From Tuesday, they will co-host the four-day Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Photo by: Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

Aiming to turn the tide on sexual violence in conflict, a four-day summit — co-hosted by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, and William Hague, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary — begins Tuesday in London.  

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict aims to end the culture of impunity which persists in conflicts from Guatemala to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has severely limited prosecutions to date. It also seeks to improve and standardize the investigation of large-scale sexual violence committed in wartime.

It’s the culmination of a concerted two-year effort, following the May 2012 launch of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative; hopes are high that such high-profile endorsement and large-scale public engagement can combine to good effect.

PSVI itself was launched following the release of Jolie’s 2011 directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which portrays prisoner camps set up during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, where many women were raped by their captors. Despite reports suggesting that as many as 50,000 women were raped during the conflict, to date only a handful of perpetrators have been held to account.  

Global momentum

Driven by the personal commitment of Jolie and Hague, the summit’s focus on sexual violence fits in with the prioritization of the U.K. Department for International Development on gender in recent years — one that has also seen the agency call for an end to female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage.

But according to Jelke Boesten from the International Development Institute at King’s College London, it should also be seen as part of a global momentum pushed by a number of powerful women, including within the U.S. government and the United Nations, sustained activism by the global women’s movement, and the growing visibility of women’s suffering in conflicts particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

It is hoped this week will finally turn that momentum into practical action on a global scale — specifically, an international agreement on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence; national legislation to allow prosecution of international crimes; training of soldiers and peacekeepers to prevent warzone sexual violence; more support for human rights defenders; and improved global coordination.

Channelling public outrage

Billed as “the biggest global meeting on this issue ever convened,” the summit is expected to host representatives of the 148 countries that have so far endorsed the U.N. Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Alongside formal discussions, at which 113 countries and 48 foreign ministers are expected to attend, the event includes a broad public engagement component. This so-called “fringe” program of cultural and informal events will invite members of the public to explore the wider issues around sexual violence. This, in turn, will be reinforced by a big social media push — which has already seen Hague take part in a live Twitter Q&A hosted by the popular U.K. website for parents, Mumsnet.

“We refuse to accept that sexual violence is too vast and complex a problem to be tackled,” wrote Hague and Jolie in a joint op-ed published in the U.K. broadsheet, The Sunday Times. “The same thing was said about the slave trade or banning the illegal arms trade … The truth is, governments will never achieve this by themselves.”

That acknowledgement of the need to engage citizens was welcomed by Alice Allan, global head of advocacy at CARE International. The major advantage of what looked to be “quite a new way of doing diplomacy,” she said, was that “more people will be aware of what governments will commit to.”

Demanding more

The stakes are high, but what do delegates aim to take away from the summit in London? We spoke to some of them:

1.   Concrete, measurable commitments

As ever, the challenge is translating political will into action, and some observers are concerned that leaders will be content with high-profile — but vague — statements of intent.

According to Hannah Wright, gender, peace and security adviser at the nongovernmental organization Saferworld, there are already several “really good” international policy frameworks, including seven U.N. Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security; the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women,  known as CEDAW; and a number of commitments made at last year’s G-8 summit.

Now, she said, civil society wants to see governments saying “publicly and very concretely” what they aim to do and what timescale they aim to work to. Practically, Wright asserted, that means “seeing something with numbers attached” — for instance, a more gender-sensitive justice and security sector might mean targets on the number of women police officers — and “robust accountability frameworks” that would allow for keeping tabs on progress.

International donors, for their part, could do more to help countries take active responsibility by “shifting the international narrative,” suggested Amelia Knott from Integrity, a research and consulting firm specializing in conflict, post-conflict and fragile environments and whose findings suggest that the level of violence against women in conflict and post-conflict settings remains “staggeringly high.”

Instead of a discussion dominated by “abhorrence, disapproval and reprimand” of whole countries, Knott said, the focus should be on “support for current efforts that recognize the challenges.”

2.   Prevention, education and justice

While women’s rights organizations welcome the summit, for some the focus remains too narrow.

“There’s a lot of focus on high-level prosecution of perpetrators,” said Lee Webster from Womankind Worldwide. “We need more focus on community-based prevention work.”

Such a perspective was echoed by CARE International, which has tweeted: “We want there to be a focus on education, not just on justice, so future generations challenge attitudes.”

That would include engaging men and boys in the discussion, said Allan, whose organization has convinced both the Kosovar and Serbian authorities to integrate gender education in their national curricula.

For Boesten, the focus on sexual violence in conflict “overlooks the roots of such violence — that is, inequality and everyday sexism, which are exacerbated in war.” As a result, she said, support is targeted at justice “for violence within conflict specifically,” including training courts to prosecute only specific cases, even if those not defined as war crimes may be much more common.

Furthermore, the focus on rape as a weapon of war may obscure the fact that “a lot of violence that occurs during war is opportunistic,” she said. Research in northern Uganda, for instance, has shown that most violence was perpetrated by partners, not by combatants. According to Boesten, societies therefore need to be able to deal with the roots of everyday violence in peacetime — not only during conflict.

3.   Support the grass roots

According to Knott, there should be a focus on helping local communities “take their own actions against eliminating sexual violence,” building their capacity to address conviction rates, gather evidence and tackle the stigmatization of rape victims.

When it comes to prevention, services provided by community-based organizations — and the understanding they bring — are “essential,” Webster said. More support and an increased recognition of their role is “urgently needed,” he added.

Paradoxically, according to the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, although issues surrounding women and girls have become a priority “in nearly every funding sector,” this has had “relatively little impact” on funding for a large majority of women’s organizations around the world. Indeed, research by AWID found that the 2010 median annual income of more than 740 women’s organizations in 140 countries was just $20,000.

It’s not just about funding, though.

“U.K. embassies and missions could more effectively consult and engage with the grassroots [to] inform their foreign policy,” said Allan, instead of working only with the organizations already known to government.

What are you watching out for at the summit in London? Will it succeed in helping to end the culture of impunity for perpetrators? And will recent momentum be translated into practical action on a global scale? Have your say by commenting below.

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About the author

  • Headshot anna patton

    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.

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