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. O
ver 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

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.’