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Fiona Hodgson: Sexual violence has become a weapon of war, reaching unimaginable scales

Hodgson Fiona NewFiona Hodgson is the Vice-Chairman (voluntary) of the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF), a national group chaired by Oliver Letwin MP that gives its members the opportunity to discuss the major policy challenges facing Britain today. Over the coming months she and other members of the voluntary team will be writing a regular post for ConservativeHome.

The last week has brought fresh horrors in Syria, where appalling brutality continues to rage unabated.   One of the less reported aspects of this terrible civil war is the rampant sexual violence that is taking place there, only known about because of the shocking number of refugees who are reporting having been raped.

This highlights why the groundbreaking Initiative to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post Conflict Countries, launched by our Foreign Secretary with Angelina Jolie last May, is so vitally important and is so desperately needed.  This Initiative tackles a war crime that everyone has been silent about for far too long.   Sexual violence has become so endemic in conflict that in trying to turn back this tide, William Hague draws cultural parallels with the ending of slavery and describes shattering the culture of impunity for those who use rape as a weapon of war as the next great global challenge of our generation.

In discussing this Initiative I have sometimes heard people comment that ‘women have always been raped in war throughout the ages’ -  as though this somehow makes it OK!  Well the first myth to bust is that sexual violence doesn’t just happen to women and girls, but it happens to men and boys too - an even more hidden and taboo subject .

Over the last 50 years the nature of war has changed– no longer are wars fought by two armies meeting on a battlefield.   Today 70% of people killed in wars are civilians.

As Major General Patrick Cammaert, the Deputy Force Commander of the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, stated in 2008, "It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars."

However in recent years, sexual violence has become a weapon of war, reaching unimaginable scales. Accurate data from conflict countries is hard to obtain, but the estimates are truly terrible –  50,000 women systematically raped in Bosnia, between 250,000 to 500,000 women raped in Rwanda, 400,000 women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo just in the years 2006 and 2007 alone, Columbia 500,000 women raped and one could go on – Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua Mexico, Egypt… In spite of this the conviction rates up to now have been pitifully small  – none after World War II, 29 in Bosnia, 11 in Rwanda and 6 in Sierra Leone!

One has to ask why does it happen?   Raping a woman in front of her family or her community disarms all the men, and for those witnessing such an event, it is an image that haunts them for the rest of their lives. Not only are there psychological scars, the physical consequences can be truly horrific too – gang rape can kill and maim, many contract HIV and unwanted children are born to women as a result - and too often in these circumstances there is no access to any kind of health care.  The victims are frequently stigmatized, and in some countries may be thrown out of their homes or imprisoned for having committed ‘immoral crimes’. And terrible as the stigma is for women who are raped, it is even worse for the men and boys.

At the root of this epidemic in many of these conflict countries is the issue of gender equality – as the Ulema Council in Afghanistan proclaimed last year “men are fundamental, women are secondary”.  Too often once the conflict ceases, the attitude to sexual violence seems to have become embedded in the society.   Visiting Liberia recently, it was sobering to hear how many girls are still raped or are forced to participate in ‘transactional sex’ to survive, with a pervading patriarchal culture that doesn’t really consider that rape is a crime.

For too long has there been a culture of impunity for those who should be held responsible, however, this initiative will bring justice, shifting the stigma from the victims to the perpetrators.  Although the UN Resolutions of 1820 and 1888 have raised this subject previously, they made little global impact.   By launching this Initiative and making it a focus for the G8 during the UK Presidency, William Hague will encourage other world leaders to join him in helping address this as an urgent priority by adopting a new protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence, and to make practical contributions to UN bodies and affected countries.   This campaign will then be taken to the UN in the second half of the year, to try to enlist wider support and agreement.

So how is this Initiative being tackled?  There has been much high level consultation to get the advice of experts as to how to best galvanise concerted, effective international action and global leadership on this issue. The Stabilization Unit based in the Foreign Office has recruited a team of 70 multi-disciplinary experts – including psychosexual specialists, police officers, criminal lawyers and specialists in gender-based violence, -  to be deployed to fragile and conflict-affected states to support national and international efforts.   The team is already operational and the first deployment took place to the Syrian border in December.   However, this is not all going to happen overnight – it will be a ‘marathon’ rather an a ‘short sprint’. This is work in progress, but it has started and has huge political goodwill.  

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March, we should be proud that William Hague and Britain are leading the way with this Initiative.   It is a product of compassionate Conservatism and showing that we, as a Party, and as a nation, are truly committed to making the world a better place.  

As the Foreign Secretary has stated: ‘Sexual violence is an issue which is central to conflict prevention and to peace building worldwide. ‘Where there is no justice, the seeds of future conflict are sown, and development is held back.’


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