How can we bring an end to sexual violence in areas of conflict?

United Nations Special Envoy Angelina Jolie’s speech at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London brought the development world to a standstill a few days ago. In what was known as the biggest convening to address the issue of sexual violence in hostile regions that are affected by war, Jolie said that it was a myth that rape is inevitable in conflict. “There is nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians.” she went on, passionately describing at length the abuse that men, women and children in conflict zones encounter every day.

The measures that we must all take towards ending this, no matter where we come from, is to first recognise that discussing sex and sexual violence is important to tackling this problem. Since “sex” is still taboo is various parts of the developing world, discussing solutions with victims is often challenging. These were a few measures that were listed on the website and discussed at the event:

Shatter the culture of impunity

We want to shatter the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict by launching a new International Protocol with international standards for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict zones. The International Protocol will help to strengthen prosecutions for rape in conflict, increasing the prospects for successful convictions. It knocks down one of the key barriers that have prevented successful prosecutions in the past. We will urge countries to strengthen their domestic laws so that those responsible for sexual violence in conflict can be reliably prosecuted both in and outside the countries where they committed their appalling crimes. This includes introducing laws which support the aims and objectives of the International Criminal Court.

Take practical steps

Second, we will take practical steps to reduce the dangers women face in conflict zones around the world. We will call for all soldiers and peacekeepers to be trained not only to understand the gravity of sexual violence in conflict, but to prevent it and to protect people.

Support survivors

Third, we will increase support for survivors of sexual violence, and for the human rights defenders who shine a spotlight on these crimes often at serious risk to themselves. The UK government has already committed more than £140m to this effort, and we will call on others to join us so many more traumatised men, women and children who can access critical support.

Change attitudes

Fourth and finally, we want this Summit to produce a seismic shift in attitudes. We want to debunk the myth that rape in war is somehow inevitable or a lesser crime, to demonstrate the scale of this problem and its impact on every continent, and on men and boys as well as women and girls. We want people, governments, faith leaders and civil society across the world to condemn the horrors of warzone sexual violence, to see the cycles of conflict it creates and to grasp the role they have to play in ending this crime once and for all.

However, the Summit also came under sharp criticism as it seemed to highlight ministerial discussions and focused less on grassroots-level NGOs that were working on the ground in areas of conflict. Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize winner and guest blogger at Women Under Siege, an international journalism project that investigates rape and sexual violence in genocide and conflict, wrote passionately about this in her piece on the project’s website.

 “On the negative side, the segregation of NGO activities to the “Fringe,” literally a floor below the panels and ministerial discussions, was in the view of many, including me, a deliberate decision on the part of the UK Foreign Office to put to one side and diminish the reality of the critical role that civil society always plays in pressuring governments to do what they should do anyway. For many of us who have been involved in various global campaigns involving civil society, governments, and UN agencies over the past couple of decades, being at this summit was like a time warp in totally the wrong direction.” she suggested. 

The positive side, a few like Jody also agreed upon, was that the issue of sexual violence is finally getting the global attention that is needed to push countries towards reforming laws. World over, organisations are also working towards increasing awareness among citizens to help them steer change at the local level. Will inculcating a sense of individual responsibility help us move forward in bringing an end to sexual violence and urging governments to take action? We’ll have to see.

Meera Vijayann is a writer and blogger who focuses on gender rights and social issues in India. Her writing has been published by The Guardian, CNN, Open Democracy and Forbes among other publications. Follow her on @meeravijayann

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