Baroness Helic and Chloe Dalton are former special advisers to William Hague as Foreign Secretary. This article first appeared in Bright Blue’s latest Centre Write magazine Global Giant?
Over the last few months, we have witnessed an avalanche of revelations of sexual harassment experienced by women internationally. #MeToo has flooded Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, bringing countless individual stories to the world.
In different ways, these women have found their voice. Yet the same still cannot be said of the millions of female and male survivors of wartime sexual and gender-based violence, the vast majority of whom never receive justice, recognition or reparation. Girls like Hala, a teenage Rohingya girl who told Human Rights Watch how she was stripped naked by soldiers, gang-raped and left for dead, during the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. Hala has no hashtag. She is one of thousands of Rohingya women and girls – already some of the most marginalisedand mistreated women in the world – now facing the lifelong consequences of rape, while living in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh where they are vulnerable to forced marriage, human trafficking, and sexual assault.
In conflicts around the world, sexual and gender-based violence is used as a means of terrorising, controlling or expelling a civilian population. It is not the only crime faced by civilians during conflict, but it is one of the most devastating. In South Sudan, UN Human Rights Council investigators have documented horrific cases of violence by armed groups, including a mother who witnessed her son being forced to rape his grandmother, and an 85 year-old woman who was gang raped and forced to watch her husband and son killed.
On top of physical injury, trauma, and unwanted pregnancy, victims are often stigmatised and rejected by their communities. Nor are all survivors female. A 2017 study by UNHCR found that boys as young as 10, and men as old as 80, have been sexually tortured in Assad’s prisons. The stigma faced by male survivors is especially acute: the same report found that 70 countries criminalise men who report sexual victimisation, due to homophobic policies.
The prevalence of sexual violence as a military strategy, its salience as a factor in creating refugee flows, and its devastating impact on the rights of women and girls, mean that we will not address the security challenges of the twenty-first successfully if we turn a blind eye to this aspect of conflict and insecurity.
The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) was set up in 2012 by the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Angelina Jolie, with the goal of increasing the number of perpetrators who are brought to justice, and building up the legal and practical capability of other countries to prevent this violence themselves.
The initiative included setting up the first team of diplomats working full-time in the Foreign Office on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and a team of doctors, lawyers, police officers, psychologists and forensic scientists who could be deployed overseas to help gather evidence and train local authorities. Thanks to UK leadership, over two thirds of all UN member states endorsed a Global Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2013 pledging, for example, not to include amnesties for sexual violence in peace agreements.
And in 2014 the UK held a summit in London that crystallised a number of other important advances including changes to military training, action plans adopted by some of the worst-affected countries, and the launch of the first international protocol in the documentation and investigation of sexual violence.
The Government has pledged to hold an international meeting in 2019 to review progress made since the summit. It has yet to articulate its goals for the meeting, and should consider three steps.
First, ministers should acknowledge that the case for action is even more urgent today than it was in 2012. ISIS’s use of rape and sexual slavery as a genocidal strategy towards the Yazidi people, and the brutal sexual violence carried out in Syria and Burma, all point to the continuing centrality of this issue to UK for eign policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should develop and announce a plan for the 2019 conference that is commensurate with the scale of the problem and Britain’s aspirations to a leading role in tackling global security challenges.
Second, the UK should be at the forefront in insisting on, and helping to enable, justice for survivors. It is disappointing that the Government has so far under-emphasised sexual violence in its response to the Burma crisis. The PSVI team of experts should be deployed, in force, to Bangladesh to gather testimony and evidence for use in future prosecutions. Failure to do this sends a tacit signal to the Burmese authorities that they will pay no serious penalty for the mass violation of the rights of Rohingya women and girls. The UK should also name and shame military commanders on whose watch these crimes have been committed, and make them a target of international sanctions.
Third, even though we know that genderbased violence is endemic in situations of conflict, disaster and human displacement, it is routinely under-funded and insufficiently prioritised in humanitarian responses. For instance, there is often a critical shortage of funds for the provision of post-rape care and other healthcare services. Speaking in December, the UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict reported a funding shortfall of $10 million to deliver urgent gender-based violence assistance to Rohingya women. This is a relatively small sum in the context of the $434 million UN appeal for the Rohingya crisis. It is a shortfall that could easily have been prevented if funding for these types of needs were hardwired into the international response on a sufficient scale.
We believe that the UK could set a lead by announcing that it will dedicate a fixed or minimum percentage of the aid budget to fighting sexual and gender based violence, including empowering women and addressing the inequalities that leave them vulnerable. The Development Secretary should announce that the UK will devote a minimum one per cent of the International Development budget to this purpose, and call on like-minded allies to do the same.
Without this kind of coordinated, comprehensive approach, prevention and protection will always lag behind needs, and these war crimes will continue unchecked. The new-found willingness to confront entrenched sexual violence and harassment in our own society should be matched by an equal determination to defend the rights of the most vulnerable women in the world. Girls like Hala deserve nothing less.