For the past week, delegates and representatives from 113 governments and various civil society organizations have met in London to discuss the importance of ending sexual violence against women, particularly in conflict. Recent events – including the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the rebel Boko Haram, recent rapes caught on camera in Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the increase of sex trafficking for Syrian refugees – highlight the need to take on this challenge but also why it is so difficult to combat.
Co-chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and special envoy for the UN High Commission of Refugees Angelina Jolie, the conference has highlighted the experiences of women and girls in conflicts as well as their lasting impact. These experiences have gained new prominence in the 1990s with the violent conflicts in the Balkans and Central Africa but sadly, the cycle of violence continues with new conflicts around the world. This is why much of the conference has focused on the issue of accountability, and how such acts can be deterred in the future rather than tolerated.
Delegates have paid tribute to the work various international tribunals have done in prosecuting sexual violence and called for better cooperation in bringing perpetrators to justice. However some groups are focusing on more practical concerns in bridging the gap between theory and reality. In a side event at the conference, the US-based group Physicians for Human Rights presented one possible option in boosting accountability with a mobile app that would aid health professionals in documenting the crimes when they occur for use by court officials later. Based on traditional medical forms but utilizing mobile and cloud technology, the organization started testing the app this year in the Eastern DRC and hopes to expand its use in the future. If successful, such apps may be able to combat the culture of impunity that surrounds such crimes, but much more is needed to fully meet the needs of victims.
Over the past two decades, new programs dedicated towards first responders mean that health professionals are now generally better prepared to provide treatment to victims but this only helps in the immediate aftermath; long term mental health care to help victims cope with the trauma is still elusive in most conflict zones. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, also pointed out the importance of economic empowerment for women as a means to combat sexual violence, both in conflict and in ordinary life. When done properly, compensation for victims can help women leave abusive relationships and battle the stigma that often follows sexual assault victims. It also addresses the more practical needs of victims rather than the higher political concerns that typically define prosecutions. All of these elements are needed to build a new culture that treats sexual violence as seriously as other forms of abuse in armed conflict.
Sexual violence in conflict is not new; for as long as there has been war, there has also been those willing to sexually exploit women and children. However the purpose of the conference and the recent UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence is to reinforce the notion that such violence and exploitation is not an inevitable part of war. Many question how much the conference will actually accomplish, but its high profile and global participation suggests that the world may finally be ready to start addressing sexual violence in conflict as the war crime it is. It may only be a first step, but it is one that is long overdue.