Tackling sexual violence: shaping the UK Government’s initiative

Conflict, Gender, Governance, Humanitarian, Rights

Last Sunday marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Why is this day important? Well, it serves as a reminder that violence against women happens across the world every single day. Not only is it a violation of human rights, it also continues to trap women in poverty. It must be stopped.

In fact one in three women experience violence in their lifetime. Violence against women happens both in conflict and in peace time. It can be committed by anyone – from soldiers to partners in the home.  It stems from gender inequality and the attitudes societies hold towards gender roles.

It’s shocking to hear reports now of sexual violence in Syria. The full extent of these crimes is not yet known given the risks and stigma involved in reporting, but both the BBC and Human Rights Watch recently highlighted some of these atrocious abuses, which are also being committed against men.

Back in May the UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK would set up a specialist team to tackle sexual violence in conflict that would include police, doctors, forensic experts, and gender based violence experts, which has since been recruited.

The idea is to increase prosecutions by supporting UN missions and local civil society to investigate allegations of sexual violence, gather evidence and build country capabilities. 

The Foreign Secretary called the initiative the “Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative” and announced that he would profile the issue at the G8 next year. Yet, unfortunately, prevention in its broader sense seems to have slipped off the table. Now, don’t get me wrong here, prosecution for these atrocities is absolutely vital to tackle impunity. But it isn’t the whole story. Multiple approaches are needed.

So what are these multiple approaches exactly? A couple of weeks ago I joined a conference of experts at Wilton Park – an international think tank tucked away in the English countryside –  to discuss the UK initiative. It was quite a line up – from current and former UN Special Representatives on Sexual Violence in Conflict to Angelina Jolie who continues to advocate on these issues. We discussed the importance of prosecution and comprehensive justice for survivors alongside the other key approaches needed.

For me the top ones include:

  1. Supporting survivors of sexual violence through scaling up access to safe, confidential health services which respond to the psychological trauma and provide emergency reproductive health services.
  2. Building gender-sensitive police and security services that actually tackle gender-based violence through better training and awareness of the issue and legislation, as well as through more women recruits. Greater oversight by civil society, especially women’s rights organisations will be critical.
  3. Understanding that gender-based violence and sexual violence is a means of social control, there is a need to work with grass roots organisations to tackle the attitudes that sustain it. Challenging attitudes and beliefs around women’s subordinate position in society is critical alongside the implementation of effective legislation against gender-based violence.
  4. Improving the text of the current draft of the Arms Trade Treaty to include a stronger criterion on this issue so that it specifies arms should not be transferred if they are likely to be used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence, including sexual violence.
  5. Ensuring a place at the table for women in peace negotiations in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325  so that this issue is recognised within peace processes and women’s rights are sustained over the long term.

It is possible to tackle sexual violence.We certainly need to ensure justice for survivor. But the UK and other governments also need to place emphasis on providing essential services, better protection, and preventing this violence in the first place.

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Author: Caroline Green
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.