Lawmakers and activists from over 100 different countries gathered in London on Tuesday for the start of a high-profile conference aimed at combating sexual violence in war zones and eliminating what experts have called a “culture of impunity.”
The four-day summit, which is expected to draw hundreds of dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, was organized by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who is also a special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In a speech opening the conference Tuesday morning, Hague compared wartime sexual violence — against women, men and children alike — to slavery in the 18th century, telling the crowd, “Now we know the facts, we cannot turn aside.”
He added, “We want this summit to shatter the culture of impunity for sexual violence, to increase support for survivors and to start changing the situation on the ground in the most affected countries.”
Sexual violence in areas of armed conflict has been a long-documented tool of war, from the estimated 20,000 Bosnian women believed to have been raped before they were killed during the 1992–95 Bosnian war to more than 200,000 people who have been sexually assaulted by rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996, according to the United Nations.
More recently, the armed rebel group Boko Haram has used sexual violence against young women in northeastern Nigeria, reportedly kidnapping 20 more women on Tuesday from the town of Chibok, the same town where the militants had earlier abducted more than 300 schoolgirls in April.
At the London conference, Hague and Jolie are presenting a document they drafted in 2013 outlining protocols (PDF) for countries to fight wartime sexual violence and provide justice for victims; it has been signed by more than 120 countries so far. The two have been pushing for reform and visibility for wartime sexual violence for the last two years.
Among their recommendations are for countries to strengthen laws prosecuting sexual violence and to increase funding and support for victims and human rights workers in war zones and post-conflict areas.
The protocols also call for better training for soldiers and peacekeepers in war zones to help prevent and respond to sexual violence, and highlight the need to push past the stigma that is often placed on victims of rape and sexual violence by their families and communities.
“We must send a message around the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence, that the shame is on the aggressor,” Jolie said in a Tuesday speech.
Experts have said that removing the stigma surrounding sexual violence is critical to fighting the problem, a formidable challenge in countries where sexual purity is closely intertwined with honor.
“It takes a lot of social transformation, but at the very least it needs to start with the legal structure,” said Janie Leatherman, a politics and international studies professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and author of the book “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.” “There have to be laws in place nationally and locally, and they have to be impenetrable, but it requires a whole system of support, and just having the right kind of legislation is an important step.”
The stigma toward those who are raped or sexually tortured can be so culturally damning for the victims that they often face more violence, a marriage to the rapist to restore the family’s honor or even death.
“I think the difficulty with reducing stigma and also with preventing sexual violence in conflict and out of conflict settings is that there does need to be some deep cultural change,” said Michele Leiby, a political science professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, whose research has focused on wartime sexual violence in Latin America. “Ideas about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be heterosexual, whatever the case may be — some of those core concepts need to be challenged. And starting to talk about it is a beginning.”
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