On the eve of the largest global meeting ever convened to discuss and take action on sexual violence in conflict, starting on 11 June in London, the international community should take a moment to recognise that some progress has been made in tackling this abuse. But the delegates assembled in London should also look at the broader picture—both the wider range of harm inflicted on women caught in conflict and on the role women can play in addressing these problems and securing peace and justice, writes Liesl Gerntholtz.
Human Rights Watch first documented rape in war more than two decades ago. Since then, the international community has recognized the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict situations and taken important steps to address it. Rape in conflict is now prosecuted as a war crime and a crime against humanity. The United Nations Security Council passed a landmark resolution in 2008 expressing its willingness to “adopt appropriate steps” to address widespread or systematic sexual violence.
Nongovernmental groups, supported by many governments, have developed innovative and effective programmes to address the consequences of rape for women, men, children and their communities. There has been a particularly strong focus on ending impunity for these crimes, with resources invested in identifying those responsible and bringing them to book.
The UK Foreign Minister’s Ending Sexual Violence Initiative, set up in 2012, is a commendable part of these efforts. The global conference will play an important part in further raising the profile of how and when sexual violence takes place in conflict and mobilizing much-needed resources to provide support to victims.
At the same time, I am concerned that sometimes the singular focus on sexual violence obscures other crucial concerns for women living through conflict and portrays them as one-dimensional victims of abuse. This is a real problem for two reasons.
First, it obscures many of the other horrific violations that women experience during war and conflict. As part of my job at Human Rights Watch, I have reported on many abuses aside from sexual violence that affect women in war, including forced displacement and the targeting and punishment of women for their involvement or connection with peaceful activism.
Wartime insecurity fosters a drive toward earlier forced and child marriages, as well as an increase in domestic violence. It reduces access to food, shelter and health care, interrupts education, and contributes to sexual exploitation and trafficking, to name but a few. The increasingly narrow focus on sexual violence means that resources are not being mobilized and deployed to address the full range of violations against women and girls during wartime.
Second, the focus on women solely as victims of sexual violence doesn’t acknowledge the many important roles that women play during conflicts. I have interviewed women who brokered local peace deals with armed rebels to allow food and medical supplies to get through to their villages, who started schools in camps for displaced people, and who provided all manner of support to desperate communities.
These women not only played important roles during the conflict but were repositories of crucial information relevant to accountability and redress, such as the identities of attackers and victims. Too often they were ignored when the men gathered to negotiate a peace agreement. If this summit is to go beyond just recognising that sexual violence in conflict is taking place and is a problem, it will need to make sure that women have a place at the table when the conflict ends.
Among the commitments that countries will make this week, there needs to be strong language on women’s participation and inclusion in all aspects of peace-building and conflict prevention. More than that, strong words should be followed by strong action. Only then, will we be able to celebrate real progress.
Liesl Gerntholtz is the women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. You can follow her on twitter at @LieslHRW