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"Let's replace the word gender for power": Madeleine Rees on sexual violence in conflict

The former UN human rights lawyer, and one of the Foreign Secretary's advisers on ending sexual violence in conflict, on how everyday sexism and rape in warfare are on the same continuum.

Madeleine Rees, who advised William Hague about ending sexual violence in conflict. Photo: Yasmine Akim

“How is he a Tory?” cries Madeleine Rees when I meet her, before she even sits down. “I find it shocking. He totally gets it!”

She is the human rights lawyer who has been advising the Foreign Secretary William Hague on his work against sexual violence in conflict. She has just been awarded an OBE for services to human rights – particularly women’s rights and international peace and security. I meet her on the last day of the global summit, where she has just met with co-chairs of the conference: the Foreign Secretary and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, to discuss the summit’s findings. She also met Jolie’s husband and global superstar Brad Pitt. She grins at this revelation, but is more fixated with Hague’s apparent astuteness on rape as a tool of warfare.

“Some of the things that William Hague articulates, especially in relation to this issue of sexual violence against women, he is explaining in terms of women's economic empowerment, the need to create structures,” she enthuses. “And he totally gets it. Which is wonderful. And irreconcilable with the Tory administration, some would suggest...”

Sitting in a sticky meeting area within the warren of garish lanyards, plastic coffee, and free biros that is the ExCeL exhibition centre in London, Rees is dry but impassioned about the conference’s cause. She has worked in the area for over 20 years, as a human rights lawyer on discrimination cases, for the UN and elsewhere.

She currently heads the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a Geneva-based NGO. It was Rees who blew the whistle on the complicity of some UN officials in prostitution and the sex-trade in Bosnia, where she worked with victims of rape following the war.

A complacent lack of concern given to the subject of rape in armed conflict has recently been exposed by media voices suggesting Hague should have been concentrating on Iraq rather than “hobnobbing” with celebrities at a sexual violence summit. In this way, the event highlighted the absence of attention paid to this aspect of warfare, as well as allowing people to speak up for its victims.

Rees’ thesis is that everyday sexism and rape in warfare are on a continuum, and until we tackle a worldwide “system” that treats women as secondary, rape will “work” – will be viewed as acceptable by the perpetrators – as an act of war.

“Clearly you have to look at social constructs of gender – that's what gender is. It's a social construct. Therefore you have to look at constructs of masculinity, because the vast majority of the perpetrators are men. So what is it that enables men to use violence as a way of attaining, maintaining, retaining power?” she asks.

Rees suggests it could be a good idea to “stop talking about gender, because gender so far has only ever been seen as ‘women’. Like, what men do is normal and then you add ‘gender’ on, and it’s women,” she sighs. “What we should be looking at is replacing, perhaps, the word ‘gender’ for ‘power’. And then we have a completely new conversation of who's got it, who hasn't got it, and the vast majority of that power is occupied by men, but what about the rest, too?”

She argues that thinking in this way might give us “a clue” as to why men who don’t have power then use violence against women “because of their absence of power”. As an example, she refers to the terror to which women can be subjected in refugee camps, where she describes the men as, “distressed at having not fulfilled their masculine identities as protectors, warriors, providers for their families, so they become extremely violent.”

For a lawyer, it must be rather frustrating to rely on such wholesale cultural change, rather than international military law, which she admits can be “extraordinarily difficult” to implement. She suggests social policy and education are what can bring about such a structural transformation.

“Essentially what we're looking at is: do we want boys to be brought up to fulfil the sort of role models that have been created for them by current social structures? Is that what we want? Are we still constructing little soldiers for Queen, country and Empire?” she asks, drily. “Or are we actually having a more civilised conversation about militarisation, which is a logical consequence of creating stereotypes of masculinity? How should we be bringing up little boys so that there's not this automatic assumption of privilege and power?”

Rees admits this focus on young men does jar with the style of the “old feminist, always confronting men – it’s not about men, it’s all about us”, an approach with which she says she was brought up. But she clearly believes in this route to protecting women both in and outside warzones.

Cameramen below us suddenly begin surging to the entrance of the main exhibition centre. They’re probably swarming around Jolie and her husband. Rees raises an eyebrow. “Poor woman,” she exhales. “I don’t know how she has the patience”. Yet on a subject that unites Conservative ministers, celebrities and veteran human rights campaigners like Rees – around which stigma, sexism and stupidity nevertheless endure – it may be time for some impatience.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Will anyone sing for the Brexiters?

The five acts booked to perform at pro-Brexit music festival Bpop Live are down to one.

Do Brexiters like music too? If the lineup of Bpoplive (or more accurately: “Brexit Live presents: Bpop Live”) is anything to go by, the answer is no. Ok, former lineup.

The anti-Europe rally-cum-music festival has already been postponed once, after the drum and bass duo Sigma cancelled saying they “weren’t told Bpoplive was a political event”.

But then earlier this week the party was back on, set for Sunday 19 June, 4 days before the referendum, and a week before Glastonbury, saving music lovers a difficult dilemma. The new lineup had just 5 acts: the 90s boybands East17 and 5ive, Alesha Dixon of Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing fame, family act Sister Sledge and Gwen Dickey of Rose Royce.

Unfortunately for those who have already shelled out £23 for a ticket, that 5 is now down to 1. First to pull out were 5ive, who told the Mirror that “as a band [they] have no political allegiances or opinions for either side.” Instead, they said, their “allegiance is first and foremost to their fans” - all 4our of them.

Next to drop was Alesha Dixon, whose spokesperson said that she decided to withdraw when it became clear that the event was to be “more of a political rally with entertainment included” than “a multi-artist pop concert in a fantastic venue in the heart of the UK”. Some reports suggested she was wary of sharing a platform with Nigel Farage, though she has no qualms about sitting behind a big desk with Simon Cowell.

A spokesperson for Sister Sledge then told Political Scrapbook that they had left the Brexit family too, swiftly followed by East 17 who decided not to stay another day.

So, it’s down to Gwen Dickey.

Dickey seems as yet disinclined to exit the Brexit stage, telling the Mirror: "I am not allowed to get into political matters in this lovely country and vote. It is not allowed as a American citizen living here. I have enough going on in my head and heart regarding matters in my own country at this time. Who will be the next President of the USA is of greater concern to me and for you?"

With the event in flux, it doesn’t look like the tickets are selling quickly.

In February, as David Cameron’s EU renegotiation floundered, the Daily Mail ran a front-page editorial asking “Who will speak for England?” Watch out for tomorrow’s update: “Who will sing for the Brexiters?”

I'm a mole, innit.