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We must support victims and do all we can end the stigma around sexual violence in conflict

Angelina Jolie

5 min read

We know the work that needs to be done, and we have the means necessary, to end sexual violence in conflict. What we need now is the political and social will, writes Angelina Jolie

A Rohingya mother gang-raped after being forced to watch soldiers kill her baby girl and husband. An elderly South Sudanese woman raped by soldiers. A Syrian man kept naked in a cell for 30 days by government forces, hung up by his hands in the dark at night and raped using a stick. A 10-year old Syrian boy, waiting in line at a bakery, kidnapped by Islamic State, imprisoned and sexually abused. 

What connects these terrible human stories, documented by the UN, is that they involve the deliberate use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war: “To terrorise communities and fracture families by the violation of taboos,” in the words of the UN Secretary-General, “signifying that nothing is sacred and no one is safe.” It affects hundreds and thousands of women and girls, as well as men and boys, worldwide.

The horror of these war crimes, crimes against humanity, even acts of genocide are compounded by the stigma endured by survivors who are often made to feel ashamed, rejected by their families and who suffer physical injuries and emotional trauma that can last a lifetime.

Because of stigma, conflict-related sexual violence is one of the least reported crimes in the world. It is intolerable that we effectively punish survivors more than perpetrators, simply by our collective failure to provide justice or change cultures that blame the survivor or minimise their suffering.

For six years the UK has led the way internationally in calling for this to be regarded as a critical issue of international peace and security. A Global Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has been endorsed by 156 countries. A number of significant prosecutions have started and led to guilty judgments for suspects, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guatemala. Militaries including those within Nato are taking this issue more seriously and working to reform their doctrine, training and operations.

In November, the UK hosted a film festival to promote understanding of the injustice of stigma and to back filmmakers from Myanmar to Yemen who use art to change laws and attitudes. It will be followed by a conference at the end of this year, bringing together governments from around the world.

In my view, five steps are urgently needed.

First, there is a desperate need to establish a permanent, independent international investigatory body that can take swift action to determine whether sexual violence is taking place within a conflict, deploy investigators to gather and preserve evidence, and enable rapid and effective local, regional or international prosecutions. A model is the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which can deploy investigators to the scene of a chemical attack within days.

The crime of rape in conflict affects far greater numbers of people than chemical attacks today. If you doubt the need, consider that not one member of IS or Boko Haram or the armed forces in Myanmar has yet been prosecuted for crimes of sexual violence.

Second, countries should be urged to change laws that punish survivors not perpetrators. According to the UN, in 37 countries rapists are exempt from prosecution if they are married to, or subsequently marry, victims; more than 60 nations don’t include male victims within sexual violence legislation; and laws in 70 countries criminalise men who report sexual victimisation due to homophobic laws or policies.

Third, there is a chronic shortage of funding to support survivors, whether with emergency assistance to keep them safe in refugee or IDP camps, funding for trauma counselling, access to justice, or livelihood support. A UK mission to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh last year found a lack of adequate lighting to keep Rohingya women and girls safe at night.

Rather than the current scramble for funding, major humanitarian donors like the UK could make a huge difference by dedicating a fixed or minimum percentage of their development budgets to ending sexual and gender-based violence. Even committing just one per cent of annual aid budgets would transform support for survivors across the world.

As part of this approach, I hope nations such as the UK could consider establishing a new global fund for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. Currently, the only available reparations for survivors available comes from the International Criminal Court Trust Fund for Victims, which can only assist victims after a successful criminal conviction.

Fourth, the UK has taken a lead in including the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, and the protection of women in conflict and post-conflict situations, in their training, doctrine and military operations. I hope many more countries will follow suit. This is particularly urgent in cases where military personnel or peacekeepers have been involved in these crimes. But all countries can do much more.

Finally, mass rape in conflict is a reflection of the subordinate status of women and girls in many countries. The UN has found that the majority of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are politically and economically marginalised. Even in peaceful societies, entrenched attitudes minimise violence against women and make it hard for survivors of domestic or sexual violence to receive a fair hearing, support, and legal redress.

We rightly encourage survivors to speak out about their experiences, but for that to happen they must have the confidence that they will be supported in their quest for justice and not be abandoned to stigma or reprisal. Full economic, political and social equality for women worldwide is the ultimate antidote to violence against women.

Often we face problems so vast we don’t know where to start. Sexual violence in conflict is not one of them. We know the work that needs to be done and we have the means necessary. We need political and social will. The immense stigma around sexual violence benefits perpetrators who count on survivors being too ashamed or vulnerable to seek justice. It is time we turned the tables upon them. 

Angelina Jolie is the co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. This edited article was originally published in the Evening Standard on 23 November 2018.


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