A meeting of NGOs and Lords at the Houses of Parliament earlier this week explored the various ways to prevent rape in conflict and to ensure that victims are able to receive a full range of support, including access to abortions.
In many of the major conflicts of the last two decades rape has been used as a weapon against political opponents or entire ethnic and religious groups. A study by the American Journal of Public Health found 12 percent of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo had been raped at least once in their lifetime. Yet victims of rape rarely see the perpetrators brought to justice, in Bosnia only 12 cases have been prosecuted out of an estimated 50,000 rapes.
The event, organised by the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, followed a commitment in the Queen’s speech at the opening of parliament that her government would “work to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide”.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has declared that “sexual violence in war is our generation’s slave trade”.
Such language is an important step to preventing sexual violence and ensuring that the victims receive full assistance. On its own, though, such fighting talk achieves little.
Hosted by Lord Beecham, the panel on Monday’s meeting, including Lord Lester, Baroness Gould, and Toby Cadman from Omnia Strategy, picked out a number of areas where governments and civil society could act to achieve meaningful change.
The first step identified was to make adhering to international humanitarian law a pre-condition to states receiving money from donors like the UK and EU.
The second was to persuade the United States, the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, to drop its policy of denying aid for raped girls and women and to lift its abortion restrictions.
The third measure identified was to ensure a fuller implementation of International Humanitarian Law and the existing provisions of the Geneva convention worldwide.
Finally, in those instances where rape and sexual violence were clearly being used as a military tactic, for instance during the genocide in Rwanda, it should be recognised as a prohibited weapon of war in the same category as landmines and starvation, and it should be treated as such.
These steps are all important means of raising the moral stigma against rape in conflict. However, governments, civil society and UN agencies working on this issue should continue to look for ways in which they can turn words to action.
Baroness Northover’s announcement that the UK government is supporting organisations monitoring and documenting instances of rape in Syria, in order to bring about future prosecutions, is a positive example of steps which can be taken to improve the rates of prosecution.
Access to life-saving abortions, for instance, is just one tangible example of the kind of assistance that should be offered to victims of rape. A whole range of assistance including reintegration and psycho-social support also needs to be provided and centres offering these services need to be fully supported.
Lessons can be learned from previous successful campaigns on landmines and cluster munitions, in order to more firmly establish the concept of rape as a prohibited weapon.
Such an ambition is not unfeasible. Sexual violence in conflict now has significant political buy-in and is a key commitment of UK foreign policy. As such, it is vital that this strong position is capitalised and turned into action.
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