This week, London will host the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. It is to be co-chaired by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and by Angelina Jolie in her capacity as Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Angelina Jolie has an impressive record when it comes to her humanitarian work and raising the profile of difficult issues that could not be further removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. William Hague has also played a key role in bringing this conference to London. He hasn’t always received the credit he deserves from some in his own party on this issue, but he will receive Labour’s support for his efforts to put sexual violence on the international agenda.
Representatives from across the globe will come to London to agree action to tackle the use of rape as a weapon of war, to end impunity for those who resort to sexual violence with no thought for the victims and no fear of reprisals, and to help the survivors of such an abhorrent, cowardly act.
I hope it proves a landmark success – we only need to look at the brutal reports of the conflict in the Central African Republic, where conflict-related sexual violence is described as epidemic, to know that the stakes could not be higher. There are countless other countries struggling with the legacy of sexual violence in conflict, or failing to end its systematic use today.
In Colombia, six women every hour were the victims of sexual violence and an estimated 12,809 women were the victims of conflict-associated rape between 2000 and 2009; few will have received support, let alone seen justice. In Burma, there are terrifying reports of the military’s use of sexual violence, particularly against ethnic minority women and girls; the victims are often killed, while the perpetrators can carry on with impunity. In Somalia, sexual violence is pervasive, particularly in the camps for those who have lost their homes, but they do not have the medical services or justice systems to support survivors or secure justice and protection. According to UNICEF, one third of the victims of sexual violence in Somalia are children.
War Child reports that one in three men fleeing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo have suffered sexual violence, while sexual violence has also been used against men, women and children in the Syrian conflict. Tragically, the list goes on of conflicts in which bodies have been taken as a prize and people have been violated as a means of warfare. So we cannot underestimate the importance of this summit for those still living in terror, or living with the scars of vicious attacks.
I hope, too, that this international focus on sexual violence in conflict can provide a springboard for a more concerted focus on sexual violence in other contexts and on other abhorrent acts of cruelty being committed against women across the globe.
Over the last month alone we have been appalled by the case of Meriam Ibrahim who was sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy because she had married a Christian man and refused to recant her Christian faith. She gave birth in prison, where she is being held with her 20 month son. Meriam, her husband and now the whole world are waiting for the outcome of her appeal; waiting for a court to agree she can fall in love with whoever she wants and is free to choose her own religion.
We have been horrified, too, by the public stoning of a pregnant woman in Pakistan. Farzana Parveen was killed by her family outside Lahore High Court because she had married against their wishes. The viciousness of the attack, and in such a public place, has rightly attracted the world’s attention, but Farzana’s murder should highlight wider problems in Pakistan, where there are hundreds of “honour” killings every year.
And then we have the two teenagers in India, whose bodies were found hanging from a tree after they had been gang-raped. Sexual violence is an increasing concern in India, but Indian citizens protesting about the shocking prevalence of such a heinous crime were confronted by a water cannon.
These are just three high profile examples from the last few weeks. There have been many, many more whose plight we will never hear about, just as there are so many thousands who are silently recovering from sexual attacks inflicted during conflicts that have devastated their countries.
In too many countries women are living in fear of horrific acts of gender-related violence, and facing cruel and inhumane punishments for “transgressions” that we would consider basic rights. So I hope that this week’s summit is not the culmination of the UK government’s efforts, and they will have Labour’s support in their work going forward. We must make it clear that such abuses cannot be tolerated, just as the survivors need to know that they are not alone.