WMC Women Under Siege

Ideas into action? A view from inside the UK's new initiative to stop rape in war

You may have heard that the UK recently launched a new initiative aimed at preventing sexualized violence in conflict. We’ve been fortunate enough to be part of the early stages of this ambitious new project, which has invited participation from NGOs and experts around the world. After attending two meetings this month in London, we want to share with you what the initiative may involve, and how we’re working to shape what could be a crucial effort to stop the horrors we document constantly at WMC’s Women Under Siege.

As any reader of this site may gather, we believe the narrative of war needs to shift to highlight the suffering of women. We’re pleased to note that the UK initiative appears to have begun with a similar concept:

“When we think of armed conflict, we think of battlefields, of soldiers in arms and tanks,” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said when the project was launched on May 29. “But wars are also about civilians, particularly women and children, caught on the margins of the battlefield, yet at the center of warfare.”

A woman in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, listens as an angry crowd speaks about rebel and government attacks. According to the photographer, they are “furious at being chased from their homes, the looting, the raping and assassinations.” (Julien Harneis).

Designed to take place in coordination with the UK assumption of the presidency of the G8 in 2013, the initiative aims to strengthen the international response to rape and other forms of sexualized violence in conflict situations. The idea is to make this more than a lot of speeches and good intentions. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is looking to construct a expert team of leaders in the fields of policing, medicine, law, and science who would be deployed at short notice to conflict zones to gather evidence and testimony, with the aim of supporting future investigations and prosecutions.

But the challenges of designing and implementing such an initiative are enormous, as became clear at the first consultation meeting we attended.

Brainstorming discussions were held on issues as wide-ranging as the importance of victim and witness protection, and the challenge of reducing legal obstacles to prosecution. The sheer volume of ideas and information shared was an uplifting testament to the number of solid organizations already carrying out vital work in this field, from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and pointed to the fact that the new initiative would do best to coordinate and work alongside those already on the ground, rather than duplicating work already being done.

Prickly problems reared up at every turn, even around the obvious concept of “doing no harm." How do you collect evidence in a region where the admission of rape could brand a woman “dishonored” and result in her rejection from family and community? How will we challenge the culture of impunity that leads so many perpetrators of wartime sexual violence to feel secure, while blame frequently falls on victims? When we collect evidence and testimony to pursue a perpetrator in an international court, what is “in it” for the survivor? What are their expectations and hopes? What does “justice” mean to them?

Yes, the questions seemed endless, even overwhelming, but they were met with an equally bottomless well of answers, suggestions, examples, and ideas from a group of men and women determined and committed to fighting the problem on every front.

The group put forth innovative ideas, from working in conjunction with UN teams to gain access to conflict affected areas to using TV novellas and radio shows to disseminate information on the laws against sexualized violence among civilians. There was interest in figuring out ways of gathering information in real-time—as WMC’s Women Under Siege has done in Syria. Such immediate reporting can provide with a clear picture of trends and hotspots before the team arrives in a specific conflict zone.

The process of putting together the UK team of experts and shaping the details of the initiative will be long and complex, and no, we don’t have all the answers yet. But though the obstacles are massive and the scale of the problem immense, they are firmly matched by our commitment to face them.



More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexualized violence, War, Impunity
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Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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