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We must do more to end sexual violence in conflict


4 min read

Sexual violence is a weapon of control, humiliation, and genocide. Every day women, men and children are being brutalised in conflict zones, be it Ethiopia, Ukraine, Syria, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

I will never forget every brave person who has shared their story with me. From women raped in Assad’s prisons to the Yazidi women who shared their trauma of sexual violence by Daesh terrorists. It is our duty to listen to survivors and make their voices heard. But above all, our duty is to end this violence once and for all.

This week the United Kingdom hosted an international conference in London to prevent sexual violence in conflict, a continuation of the Initiative launched in 2012 by former foreign secretary William Hague and the actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. It is vital that this conference’s legacy is not just warm words and leads to meaningful and substantive multilateral efforts to prevent future sexual atrocities and end impunity. It is crucial to end impunity both to provide accountability to survivors and so that rapists in conflict zones know that a breakdown in law and order does not give carte blanche to perpetrate sexual violence.

We must end the scramble for evidence when conflict resolves, at which point evidence of sexual war crimes is too often gone

But by the time we reach the need for accountability we have already failed. So where to begin?

We must move to a model of gathering evidence contemporaneously. As the beginning of a conflict emerges, protective measures must be put in place and experts immediately deployed to help local prosecutor’s offices collect evidence to prosecute perpetrators at all levels ordering and committing sexual violence. We must end the scramble for evidence when conflict resolves, at which point evidence of sexual war crimes is too often gone, and ensure the Murad Code which sets out guidelines for gathering evidence is used by these experts. A distinct and independent body to record and store this evidence is needed. The UK could host this organisation and can offer open-source intelligence experts to use technology to document sexual war crimes.

Within our own system, we need the UK government’s conflict centre, which I called for the creation of, to be staffed with experts in early identification of conflict and sexual war crimes, to ensure that FCDO and MoD teams can be quickly enhanced with their expertise to prevent, limit and end sexual violence in new conflicts and fragile communities. Through defence and multilateral relationships, we should be pushing for nations to sign up to the International Criminal Court to ensure that when domestic courts fail, the ICC has jurisdiction to act and secure justice.

We must also challenge male violence in peacetime if we are to prevent the use of sexual violence in conflict. Analysis from the International Rescue Committee demonstrates the underfunding of local women-led rights organisations working on prevention and response to violence. The UK must invest in gender equality programming through supporting local women-led organisations to address systemic patriarchal norms and drivers that enable gender-based violence.

The FCDO should challenge itself to ensure more equitable distribution of funds to local and women-led organisations, who remain trapped in a vicious cycle of underfunding in spite of their essential role in providing services that prevent conflict and rape.

Finally, the stigmatisation of survivors must end. That starts with calling sexual violence in conflict out for what it is: male violence. The term, Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) only serves to place the spotlight on the survivor and diverts attention from the perpetrator. It also excludes male victims, who need our support to be seen as survivors of sexual assault. As the international community becomes more effective at using open-source analysis and technology to end the anonymity of perpetrators, we must do more to end sexual violence before it becomes the easiest weapon to deploy, the hardest to prove, and the crime with the greatest impunity.

The normalisation of sexual violence during conflict and impunity for perpetrators is a stain on humanity and one we must end.


Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

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