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Nicola Blackwood: The horror of rape as a weapon of war. And what we're doing to stop it.

Blackwood NicolaNicola Blackwood is the Conservative MP for Oxford West & Abingdon. Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Women, Peace and Security and Vice Chairman of APPG Great Lakes.

Women have been raped in wars for thousands of years.  Howeverm recent times have seen not only a dramatic increase in conflict-related sexual violence, but also horrific examples systematically-deployed sexual violence as a means of intimidation and ethnic cleansing. It is this that has caused Major-General Cammaert, the former UN peacekeeping commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to say: ‘It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.’  In that very year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in the DRC: since 1998, it is believed 200,000 Congolese women have been raped. As I heard for myself when I met with rape victims Goma in 2011, there is still widespread sexual violence in the DRC. We hear the same reports from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan - to name but a few.

The problem is not only what you might call ‘weaponised’ rape.  Amidst the social breakdown that accompanies (and often precedes) conflict, domestic and sexual violence perpetrated by non-military actors increases - and continues long after the actual bombs and bullets have fallen silent. Brutalised by conflict and mostly hidden from public view, these perpetrators prosper with impunity. At times, they are actually protected by the law of the land, as we saw in the case of the Somali woman who spoke of being gang-raped by state security forces - and was sentenced to a year in prison, along with the journalist who published the interview. Following international (including British) pressure, her sentence has since been commuted, but the journalist remains imprisoned.

Victims often have no recourse to any form of justice or medical care and, with a few notable exceptions, are routinely denied any role in peace processes. The stigma of sexual abuse is so great in some communities that even when family members are made to watch their ten year-old daughters being raped in their Darfuri primary school, they don’t tell anyone or discuss it between themselves afterwards - let alone try to get help or protest against the injustice. None the less, some very brave activists - such as Ikhlass Mohammed, who I have met - risk their lives to call for justice for victims and to hold their governments to account. 

Even in Britain, we wrestle with the difficulties inherent in investigating and prosecuting sexual offences.  But in most conflict-affected states, in which victims are unable to access effective medical, criminal justice, witness protection or forsensic services, there is little if any deterrent against sexual violence.  This matters not just because of the untold suffering to the victim (man, woman or child), but because these abuses destabilise whole communities, creating dangerous cycles of resentment and retaliation, which themselves cause and perpetuate conflict. Until we see sexual violence in conflict as a security threat, as well as a humanitarian concern, we will not achieve our conflict prevention and stabilisation goals.

At the moment, protecting the vulnerable is consistently the worst-funded sector of humanitarian response, and reducing the chances of sexual violence is often the last consideration of the emergency response teams. Even when it is considered, there is a shortage of expertise in the field to implement effective programmes - because, for too long, the issue has not been a priority.  This isn't surprising: donors are more comfortable giving food or tents than thinking about rape in war.  However, this needs to change if we want to prevent the suffering and instability that sexual violence is causing.

It is therefore greatly welcome that Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, has promised to convene a summit in the autumn bringing together the UN, humanitarian agencies and donor ministries together to make further commitments to prevent and respond to violence against women. I am proud that our Government, led by William Hague, made preventing sexual violence in conflict a priority for this year’s G8 foreign ministers’ meeting - a first in G8 history. In doing so, he not only rejected the myth that rape in war in inevitable, but also set out a clear set of practical measures to meet his challenge. Crucially, he is not just calling for new funding, but also for specific commitments to steps designed to increase prosecutions and end the current impunity of perpetrators; to support victims to recover and seek justice, and to protect the activists who are working to improve the rights of victims in their own countries. 

International leaders and NGOs, such as CARE International UK, have welcomed the initiative, pointing out that sexual violence has been treated as an inevitable consequence of conflict for too long, and practical strategies to address it have often been absent, inadequate or ineffective. Well, William Hague has set out just such a strategy. It is a strategy that will ensure that money is spent building capacity of countries themselves to tackle sexual violence – through empowering survivors to seek justice and supporting local activists to hold their governments to account. This is the only way to turn a near-silent crisis into a noisy protest, and place the long term responsibility for the enforcement of ending sexual violence exactly where it should be – with the states themselves.


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