Preet Gill: Labour's feminist foreign policy would take on gender-based violence in all its forms

Posted On: 
15th January 2019

If we are serious about ending sexual and gender-based violence we must empower women and girls politically and economically, writes Preet Gill

Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist, and Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist treating victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, received the Nobel peace prize in December
Credit: 
PA

This year is five years since the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict where, following the 2012 creation of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), we committed to drawing a line under the act and pledged to continue to bring the international community together to put an end to sexual violence

However, the statistic from a Unicef report in 2017 that 15 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have experienced forced sexual intercourse, with nine million of them victimised in the past year, shows there is much more to be done. We need to change the way we think and talk about sexual violence and the motivations of its perpetrators and enablers, and acknowledge the impact of structural gender inequality which justifies, normalises and accepts these things as part of life.

While projects to support survivors and train officials to identify and combat the issues are vital in addressing the symptoms of sexual violence, without explicitly targeting the causes, we will only ever be able to firefight.

The government is not doing enough; while it has committed over £44m since 2012 to projects that advocate, protect and support survivors worldwide, the PSVI team of experts has been cut from 74 to 38.  A British government must be more ambitious in its efforts to end sexual violence, by working with grassroots women’s rights groups to stop it from happening in the first place – rather than seeking to merely dampen or negate its impact.

How can we do this and what needs to change? Violence against women in conflict is one area that receives significant attention, and rightly so. But this must be done alongside addressing all forms of sexual and gender-based violence if we are to end the epidemic of gender-based violence.

We know that violence against women increases in conflict settings. Most notably this takes the form of systematic rape by military actors. Often characterised by its extraordinary brutality, military rapes have long been considered a strategic ‘weapon of war’. This requires action and must form part of any strategy to end sexual violence, but we must also ensure we join the dots between the humiliation and intimidation behind this and the ‘everyday’ sexual violence that also proliferates in war.

Policies that prioritise or focus solely on military rape risk failing to address the continuum of violence between these extraordinary crimes and the everyday, private forms of abuse that happen everywhere and increase in inequitable and unstable societal environments.

The government’s policies also fail to seriously look at conflict prevention as a means of addressing the issue. Looking at the Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan for 2018-22, where PSVI broadly falls, there is no full commitment to the prevention of conflict. Instead, the action plan only includes one specific conflict prevention strategic outcome, which focuses exclusively on countering violent extremism. Typifying this government’s approach towards securitising aid, women and girls only seem considered worthy of conflict prevention strategies if and when it might help to prevent violent extremism.

Last year when Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist, won a Nobel peace prize along with Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist treating victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it seemed like the world was listening and might go on to increase efforts to end the use of sexual violence in war. We must ensure this opportunity is not wasted.

It is too early to tell what impact the award of the Nobel peace prize will have or whether it represents a shift in the way we think about sexual violence but we really need to open our eyes to the numerous conflicts going on around the world. We need to change our attitude from one that remains far too reactive to one that seeks to actively fund policies and programmes to reduce gender inequalities.

Labour has proposed a feminist foreign policy to lead work done by different departments towards these ends and, by committing to gender impact assessments in all policymaking, we will ensure a Labour government’s programmes are having a positive impact. We will also triple the funding for grassroots women’s organisations enabling local activists’ voices to be heard and for them to lead the decision making, enabling them to create the networks and share knowledge and support while also helping to end the stigma that hampers the lives of survivors.

In November, the UK will host an international meeting on PSVI, to mark five years since the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. Ahead of it, the government needs to think about what PSVI is meant to be doing and stop the piecemeal approach. Ending sexual violence in conflict requires a holistic approach, covering legal frameworks to open access to justice for survivors, gender training and support for authorities, and initiatives to prevent conflict in the first place. But more than that, it demands the broader political and economic empowerment of women and girls.

It is impossible to separate the broader issue of gender equality and women’s rights from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. I implore the government to listen not only to the Labour party but also to its own research programme, What Works to Prevent Violence, and accept the need for a strong, properly funded and sustainable women’s rights sector. Women’s voices must be heard.   

Preet Gill is Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston and shadow international development minister