London Summit on Sexual Violence in War

The Hollywood actress and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie was in London three days ago to open a four-day summit on ending sexual violence during war. The summit is the largest ever of its kind, and is being co-hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague who was present alongside Ms Jolie.

This kind of event, known as ‘celebrity diplomacy,’ makes use of the popularity and attractiveness of well known and talented stars from the film world to canvas some serious issues, especially those which have no boundaries: they concern all countries, why, even all of us both individually and collectively. The celebrities usually give out a core message, which in this case was that there is no disgrace in being a victim.

Commenting that rape was one of the ‘great mass crimes’ of modern times, William Hague ‘called on the more than 140 nations at the summit to write action against sexual violence into their army training.’ Whether this will actually happen, and if it does how long it will take for significant results to show, are at present matters of conjecture. But there is no gainsaying the crucial importance and relevance of this issue, and the real need for a wide, international concerted effort to address it, something which was long due.

The UN’s initiative is therefore to be lauded as a step in the right direction and, if anything, one wonders why did it take so long in coming. Because sexual violence and rape have systematically been used as weapons of conquest and control during the countless number of wars that men have fought from the beginnings of the human race.

The spread of ‘civilisation’ does not seem to have halted this form of subjection of women, and one would be hard put to choose from the numerous examples that come to mind in conflicts across the globe, in all continents and in many countries belonging to the developed as well as the developing and undeveloped world. And there is no distinction made by the perpetrators as to whether the victims belong to one’s own kind as regards race, religion, ethnicity and other identities/similarities.

Brutes are identical everywhere, equally callous and violent, cruel even. And the women victims are of all ages. Tragically, many are forced to prostitute as well, besides other violence inflicted, so as to feed their children, because in zones of conflict food becomes a rare commodity.

It is now two years since Mr Hague and Ms Jolie launched their campaign, and at the summit a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has been endorsed. It aims to:

·        launch a new international protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict, and encourage countries to strengthen domestic laws to enable prosecutions

·       urge countries to train all soldiers and peacekeepers to prevent sexual violence

·        increase funding to support survivors of sexual violence

·        change attitudes towards rape in conflict

The organisers want the event to be ‘the moment the world wakes up and declares that sexual violence is not an inevitable part of war’, according to a BBC correspondent, and are banking on the power of numbers (of countries endorsing) and on all uniting behind this cause. Ms Jolie spoke about the ‘need to shatter that culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes.’

It is noteworthy, and sad, that in many instances victims have had no justice and may be in the same situation as one woman who Ms Jolie met, who saw the actual man who raped her on the streets free. She ‘really felt abandoned by the world,’ and that day of the summit Ms Jolie said, ‘is for her.’

Not only do the criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes, the victims must be also rehabilitated so that they can resume their lives in society and in their communities without the stigma and shame that are an additional burden as they try to rebuild themselves and their families. This has been a subject of taboo, but must no longer be so if the women are to be helped. One can only hope that the summit will make quick headway towards achieving its aims.

Sexual Violence in peace time too…

…is, alas, only too well known also, and again is unfortunately quite widespread. A painful reality in civilian sexual violence is that in a large majority of cases, the perpetrators are either related or otherwise known to the victims who, once more, belong to all age groups – down to as young as two years!!

I will take the case of India, where there was a horrendous case of gang rape of a 23-year old paramedical student in December 2012 in New Delhi. She was stripped and dumped on a roadside with severe internal injuries which finally led to her death. Following this dastardly attack, there was a huge hue and cry and the young criminals have been caught and tried.

However, despite an updating of the law pertaining to rape as a result, the crime continues unabated in many states across India, shamelessly. In the past month alone four gangrapes followed by murder have been recorded in Uttar Pradesh, which has now replaced New Delhi, dubbed the ‘rape capital’ of India, as the ‘rape state’ of India. Some politicians have made controversial comments, such as rape does happen, etc., and have been deservedly slammed for their insensitivity.

Prime Minister Modi has asked politicians to stop ‘psychoanalysing’ the reasons behind sex crimes, querying whether it suits ‘us to make comments on such incidents,’ and adding ‘can we not be quiet? We are playing with the dignity of women.’ He said: ‘All these incidents should make us introspect. The country won’t wait and people won’t forget.’

India has many wars to fight, but combating rape and sexual violence is of the utmost priority.

* Published in print edition on 13 June 2014

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