End Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones : The Necessity of Women

Two years ago The American Political Science Review published the findings of a study on violence against women that looked at work in 70 countries over four decades whose conclusions were not unexpected for women working within the field of violence against women and whose lack of press coverage was equally unsurprising. The study’s conclusion is that the best predictor for change is “the mobilization of feminists” rather than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians. Really no feminist needed a longitudinal, global study to demonstrate this. In the UK, feminists, especially radical feminists, have been essential to the founding for rape crisis centres, refuges, equal pay, the right to vote, women being allowed to get their own bank accounts, mortgages and retain custodial rights of their children.

Today is my second day at Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in conflict and I have yet to hear the word feminism. In fact, I’ve heard very little from women or grassroots organisations. I was at the summit all day on Tuesday for the fringe events focusing on youth. Yet, there were very little youth present. I was worried in advance of attending of the possibility of the exploitation of survivors of sexual violence, but actually their voices were conspicuous by their absence. On the one panel I attended, the sole young woman, Princess, who grew up in post-conflict zone was spoken over and for by a male member of a NGO (and by two white women on the panel).

There were numerous young people represented via art work, film and photography* but many were represented in person by staff of NGOs – who, at least on Tuesday, were uniformly white. I had the privilege of hearing the spoken word artists Mell Nyoko and JJ Bola whose poetry is so very powerful yet the media and other attendees were far more interested in chasing Angelina Jolie and Lynn Featherstone about the building than listening to the reality of lives of women, children and men living in conflict zones.

If feminism mobilisation has been proven to be the best indicator of the permanent change in the status of women, where are the women? Where are the grassroots women’s groups? Why aren’t Million Women Rise, a UK organisation who have been raising awareness of the mass rape of Congolese women here? Where are all the local groups who work in the UK with survivor of sexual violence in conflict zones?

Why is there only one fringe event on the issue of consumerism and capitalism when we know it is responsible for perpetuating the war in the Congo so that the West can have a new iPhone every 12 months? Why isn’t this conference addressing the issue of conflict itself. Or, the mass rapes perpetrated by so-called peacekeeping troops sent in by the UN as happened in the former Yugoslavia? Why is the word patriarchy being limited to those living in the Middle East and South East Asia as if patriarchy doesn’t exist in the UK?

The word culture is being bandied about to mean ‘other’. Sexual violence happens ‘ over there’ because of their culture. The elephant In the room being ignored is that 1 in 4 women between 16-59 are raped in the UK during their lifetime. This conference is ignoring the reality and complexities of sexual violence in conflicts. It is ignoring the UK government deporting women back to areas where mass rape is common or where they will be forced to undergo FGM -which is a form of sexual violence. Why aren’t talking about the migrant women raped at Yarls Wood? Or, the women raped in the UK as a punishment for a ‘crime’ committed by their family? Where are the women’s organisations, like Southhall Black Sisters, who are pointing out the UK governments failure to support women migrants. Why aren’t we talking about our governments destruction of women’s services within the UK -services which support women and children raped here every single day.

Why aren’t we talking about the hypocrisy of William Hague, who I’m listening to right now, standing on a stage asking the international community to help those in conflict zones build a victim-centred justice system to support rape victims when his own government has cut funding here to the justice system? How can we not challenge Hague’s anger at women in the Congo being forced to see their rapist in the street every day when we know this is a reality of the vast majority of rape victims in the UK? Sexual violence in the UK is increasing and victim blaming in the media is worsening. Numerous members of our ‘specialist’ police forces have been investigated for their abject failure in policing rape by no-criming reports and labelling victims liars. Rape crisis centres are closing because there are no funds and wait lists for accessing support are over a year long in some areas. Justice for rape victims does not exist in the UK. Yet, Hague stands on a stage demanding the international community do what his own political party has refused to do.

Sexual violence in conflict zones isn’t new. British, American, Australian, Canadian, German and every other country who fought in World War II had troops who committed mass rapes, yet we only talk about the rapes committed by Russian and Japanese troops. Punishing ‘rebellious’ populations and exerting authority by those in power has always been made on the bodies of women. It does a great disservice to women to pretend that sexual Violence in conflict zones is a recent phenomenon. Or, that conflict ends for women with the formal end of war. The war in the DRC supposedly ended more than 10 years ago yet women are still raped every day by combatants -as are women in Sierra Leone and Chechnya.

We cannot end sexual violence in war zones until we start talking properly about male violence and entitlement. We won’t end it until we start talking about the real causes of sexual violence: patriarchy and capitalism. We need to talk about the arms trade, human trafficking, and the genocidal exploitation of people in order to make iPhones cheaper. We need to recognise that FGM is sexual violence. We need to recognise that street harassment is sexual violence. We need to talk about the toxic masculinity which exists in every culture. We need to talk about the sexual violence experienced by and perpetrated by child soldiers. We need to talk about racism and homophobia. We need to talk about misogyny.

Ending sexual violence in conflict zones requires us to take responsibility for perpetuating it by permitting the arms trade to go unchecked. We need to take responsibility for unfettered capitalism.

Most importantly, we need to listen to the women and children who have survived sexual violence in conflict zones. We need to listen to grassroots women’s organisations.We need to hear what they need. We need to support the work which has been going on for years or generations instead of walking in to ‘fix’ problems that we refuse to acknowledge our responsibility for.

Ending sexual violence requires women’s voices – not men and NGOs speaking for or over them: but women’s voices at the centre of the discussions.

This is the press release for the study:

The study in the latest issue of American Political Science Review (APSR), published by Cambridge University Press for the American Political Science Association (APSA), found that in feminist movements that were autonomous from political parties and the state, women were able to articulate and organize around their top priorities as women, without having to answer to broader organizational concerns or mens’ needs. Mobilizing across countries, feminist movements urged governments to approve global and regional norms and agreements on violence.

Strong, autonomous feminist movements were the first to articulate the issue of violence against women and the key catalysts for government action, with other organizations sidelining issues perceived as being only important to women. Strong movements commanded public support and attention, and convinced the media the issues were important for public discussion. In countries that were slower to adopt policies on violence, feminist movements leveraged global and regional agreements to push for local policy change.

S. Laurel Weldon, co-author of the study, said: “Violence against women is a global problem. Research from North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia has found astonishingly high rates of sexual assault, stalking, trafficking, violence in intimate relationships, and other violations of women’s bodies and psyches. In Europe it is a bigger danger to women than cancer, with 45 per cent of European women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. Rates are similar in North America, Australia and New Zealand and studies in Asia, Latin America and Africa show that violence towards women there is ubiquitous.”

The scope of data for the study is unprecedented. The study includes every region of the world, varying degrees of democracy, rich and poor countries, and a variety of world religions – it encompasses 85 per cent of the world’s population. Analyzing the data took five years, which is why the most recent year covered is 2005.

Mala Htun, co-author of the study, adds: “Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues. Government action, in turn, sends a signal about national priorities and the meaning of citizenship. The roots of change of progressive social policies lie in civil society.”

*Images will be uploaded at a later date.

Leave a Reply