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Is this the beginning of the end of the war on women’s bodies?

The recent summit in London has grabbed headlines, but whether we have now reached a turning point in the fight to end sexual violence in conflict remains to be seen.

The rude intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. Photo: Foreign Office on Flickr
The intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. Photo: Foreign Office on Flickr

So it begins again. Soldiers are systematically raping women, men, and children, this time in Syria. Piecing together testimonies gathered over the last three years, NGOs and journalists have identified case after case of sexual violence used to terrorise civilians.

The world is one in unanimous horror on this issue, but only in recent decades have governments and multilateral agencies classified rape as a crime against humanity.

Special tribunals for the prosecution of war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia also investigate crimes of sexual violence, as does the International Criminal Court created under the Rome Statute in 1998. In 2000 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which called for a greater role for women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations.

And yet, as with prosecuting rape and sexual violence during peacetime, progress has been slow. Instead, there is a culture of impunity as around the world again and again soldiers “wage war on women’s bodies”.

Recently William Hague has taken up the cause and, working with the film star Angelina Jolie, begun an international campaign for justice and reparations for survivors. These efforts culminated in the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, which, thanks to the celebrity factor, attracted acres of news coverage and popular support.

What does this mean for the women, men and children being raped in Syria, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan today? Can a renewed campaign address the needs of rape survivors in Bosnia waiting for prosecutions 20 years on? Is this the push needed to finally end sexual violence in conflict?
 

What about Iraq?

As the summit drew to a close last Friday thoughts had already turned to events unravelling in Iraq.

Hundreds of campaigners, activists and government ministers had flocked to London for the four-day event organised by William Hague and Angelina Jolie.

The summit launched a new protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence against men, women and children in conflict. The protocol is a first draft designed to end impunity for perpetrators and military leaders.

But even as delegates streamed from the darkened auditorium in London’s Excel centre, the buzz from the soaring rhetoric of Nobel prizewinners and revered former statesman still in the air, thoughts had turned to Iraq.

William Hague, John Kerry and Angelina Jolie addressed a press conference organised to answer questions about practical next steps. But most of the questions were about the possibility of a US-led military action in Iraq, not the practicality of policing and implementing the protocol.

A conference to address the devastating impact of war in some countries, hijacked by impending war in others. This was summed up neatly by Jolie’s response to a question about her inspiration. She spoke of an Iraqi refugee and rape survivor she met in Syria, who then went back to Iraq after the war broke out in Syria. As Jolie’s expression changed from composed to bewildered, her last words hung in the air: “I don’t know where she is now.”
 

An impossible task

The rude intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. While the protocol focuses on investigating crimes, the summit itself was heavily marketed as a push to end sexual violence in conflict completely, an impossible task without addressing wider global problems.

Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese women’s rights activist who works with and for rape survivors in Eastern Congo, was greeted with whoops and cheers when she raised these issues. The material in your phones, she told delegates, is a source of support for the armed groups who rape and pillage villages. “We would like to see work against the underlying causes of sexual violence, one of these is war and the other is backward customs keeping women in positions of inferiority.”

At another event, panel members were flummoxed when a Syrian gynecologist stood up and asked: “Is there a plan in this summit for dealing with the sexual violence in my country, Syria?”

The simplicity of the summit’s premise was called into question again when around 20 protestors turned up to condemn Britain’s treatment of female asylum seekers. Some had fled conflicts themselves and then experienced further sexual abuse in the UK at the hands of detention centre guards. They were ushered from the summit’s entrance as they shouted: “Close down Yarl’s Wood, we want protection, not detention”.

It was the delegates themselves who repeatedly raised these questions. They questioned the absence of a public statement from the Nigerian foreign minister (who attended and gave a speech at the summit) about the kidnapped girls in Boko Haram, for example. And the lack of discussion about Britain’s deportation of Sri Lankan victims of torture.

Referring to the official summit hash tag #TimeToAct, the American Nobel laureate Jody Williams said: “Time to act? We have been acting for decades.” Williams won the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for her campaign against the use of land mines and cluster munitions. Speaking at a fringe event she added: “Our role is to push governments to make them do what they should do anyway.

“It is not enough to talk about sexual violence in conflict. Sexual crimes against women, girls, and sometimes men, are a continual violence happening in every country, every single day.”
 

#TimeToAct ?

Throughout the summit there was a sense that governments had only just woken up to this particular war crime. #TimeToAct, a useful tool for engaging the public who might not otherwise access the summit’s content, littered the speeches of ministers from 113 countries, who universally condemned the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and pledged support for the protocol. "As was said of slavery in the 18th century,” said William Hague in his opening speech, “now we know the facts, we cannot turn aside."

The situation on the ground demands more than condemnation and speeches. One aim of the summit, for example, was to challenge impunity and deter future sexual violence. But this could prove difficult when the stigma of rape lingers on the ground.

Speaking at a fringe event, Nerma Jelacic a former journalist from Foča, where the Serbian army set up rape camps, told the story of a Bosnian woman who first testified in 1996 about the murder of her two brothers and husband during the war. In the decades since she has been an active campaigner for justice and has assisted the criminal courts in compiling evidence. “It wasn’t until a year and half ago that she told me she was raped in front of her two children [then aged 2 and 5]”, said Jelacic. “It took her 20 years to speak out.”

Even when rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina do speak out, support varies from state to state. One law dictates that survivors must provide two witnesses to qualify for reparations set aside specifically for civil victims of the war. This is mostly impossible, according to Denis Dzidic, an editor and trainer at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). It is one reason why at least 50,000 women were raped during the three-year war and so far just 60 cases have been prosecuted.

Since 2005 BIRN has documented the destitution of many Bosnian rape survivors. “The punishment of the perpetrators is only one part of their struggle,” says Jelacic. The lack of aftercare – economic support to help women rebuild their lives and medical care to tend physical and psychology wounds – was a recurrent theme across the summit, raised not just by Bosnian delegates, but by delegates working in the DRC, in Kenya, in Liberia, in Uganda.

Ruth Ochieng has spent more than 20 years campaigning for women’s rights in Uganda and her current work in South Sudan and Liberia is spent trying to secure economic, legal and medical support to survivors of sexual violence. “Women’s bodies are battered during conflict and afterwards they have no access to services, despite the fact that they mutilated. They are walking corpses.”

But, she added: “People underestimate the power of the women’s network. We are the least funded, the least recognised and last to be asked around the table to discuss solutions. The solution is in the women’s movement. Give money to the women’s movement.

“Grace Nekaski. Raped by 19 people, she got HIV and was disowned by her husband. However, Grace today has mobilised 450 other HIV survivors from her community. They run their own farms, grow oranges and keep cows. The women in that community have taken her as their leader. There are so many Graces.”

 

What happens next?

The protocol itself is a comprehensive document built on the expertise and testimonies of campaigners, NGOs, rape survivors themselves. The emphasis is on supporting investigations with the standards and definitions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a starting point.

In it is current form the protocol is a blueprint for those documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict. It provides a framework that includes guidelines for different groups on how to work together to bring about a prosecution and templates for interviewing survivors to avoid causing further trauma.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will spend the next sixth months developing an implementation plan and carrying out more field testing. An FCO source said the UK would oversee the protocol’s development before eventually handing it over to a multilateral institution.
 

The beautiful line

Several times during the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit delegates were told that “this is a moment”. A turning point in history where something was going to change. Yet women and rape survivors working on the ground remain cautious. This is not their first moment and nor will it be the last. Instead they have a specific set of wants, and only when politicians and governments act on these will they believe that the summit does indeed reflect a significant change attitudes to all victims of sexual violence.

They say their work will continue, but it is complex and needs financial backing for grassroots organisations and adequate reparations for the women and men they work with. Before perpetrators can be prosecuted there must be structures in place so the police can properly gather evidence and sensitively question rape victims. Amnesty for rapists should not be part of peace negotiations.

Women must also have a seat at the table during conflict resolution negotiations. There has to be an end to institutional sexism, which complicates the process of justice and treatment for rape survivors across the world, not just in post-conflict countries. Mary Robinson, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, spoke at the summit about her battle to include women’s voices in the peace process, when the 13 heads of states she works with are all men, as are their technical advisors. These frustrations were echoed at a grassroots level. Sofepadi, a local charity working in Eastern DRC, has begun training women to stand in local elections, so they can “speak for themselves”.

Civil society and women’s rights activists are doing the work, but there are problems beyond their control. “We believe that without peace there is no end to sexual violence,” Nyota Babunga, a young Congolese campaigner. “We came to speak about peace, because we believe without peace there is no development. We need development for women. We can stand for women's rights, we can fight for women's rights, but if there is still conflict, then the men, the things that they are doing, the killing, the violation, will continue.”

Underlying all of the grassroots activity, which spanned the globe, was a deep commitment to women’s rights and feminist solidarity. Women from these countries are too often mute in mainstream Western consciousness, victims of terrible circumstances or entrenched patriarchy. Yet for a few days their voices were heard. During one presentation, Nobel laureate and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee, a charismatic presence with a deep, booming voice, said:

“In the middle of all of those stories there is something that I realised was happening: rape, depressed, lost hope. Then the women came, then my sister came. Then a sisters’ association came. I gained strength, I had hope and now I can make it again.

“That was the beautiful line in all of the stories. While the world called Congo the capital of rape, I call Congo the capital of sisterhood and solidarity.”