18 June 2014

Africa: Tackling Sexual Violence in War Needs Gender Justice in Peace Too

Photo: Uganda Women's Network
The Ugandan Women's Network organised a protest against harassment and attacks that have followed the signing of the Anti-Pornography Bill (file photo).

Last week the UK hosted the biggest global meeting ever on a frighteningly big, but under-recognised, issue of our times: sexual violence in conflict. High-level politicians, A-list celebrities (Foreign Secretary William Hague co-chaired with Angelina Jolie) and over 900 survivors and opinion-leaders, policy-makers and practitioners, and international, national and local organisations from over 100 countries came together. They aimed to raise awareness around the use of rape as a weapon of war, and other related forms of sexual violence; to strengthen laws and practices to bring perpetrators to justice and to support practical means to protect women in conflict settings and support victims. A sea-change in attitudes at all levels, the summit argued, is needed to recognise and tackle the widespread horrors taking place in conflicts in Rwanda, Liberia, Northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and beyond.

A joined-up approach across government

Applause is due to the UK not just for hosting the summit, but also for the kind of joined-up effort across Government so often missing around development issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Defence, DFID and the Home Office collaborated here, and all three Secretaries of State - William Hague, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening - signed a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. This aims to articulate priorities and co-ordinate implementation of work on women, peace and security internationally.

The plan also links well with UK domestic priorities and the Ending Violence Against Women and Girls strategy - another rare but welcome instance of joined-up policy in today's global development world. Next month the Prime Minister will host a major Girls Summit to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM) and early and forced marriage, both domestically and internationally. These are big challenges in particular cultural settings in the UK, as highlighted by Bristol-based youth activists Muna Hassan and Ifrah Hassan in an event IDS hosted at the Brighton Fringe Festival. Speaking vividly of their work and experiences with young women subject to these forms of violence, they also revealed a groundswell of grassroots campaigns, support and counselling services succeeding locally in many of the areas stressed by the global summit.

Addressing sexual violence beyond the warzone

Clearly, sexual violence doesn't just happen in internationally-recognised war zones. As a newly published briefing in the IDS Rapid Response Briefing Series highlights, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and urban areas to which civilians flee from conflict are prime sites, but so are areas with fragile political settlements where ongoing insecurity prevails. In post-civil war South Sudan instances of gendered violence are an ongoing reality. With little protection from the state, citizens develop protection strategies based on local institutions. While most are developed by men, women exercise subtle forms of agency to influence them.

The briefing challenges the notions that sexual violence is experienced only by women, and that it is primarily perpetrated by the state and armed militias. In the eastern DRC, for instance, almost 40 per cent of women but also 24 per cent of men have reported sexual violence by armed factions. An even higher proportion of Congolese women - 71 per cent - have been subjected to domestic violence. Sexual violence also occurs at the hands of militant factions. The abduction of a group of school girls (possibly for forced marriage and sexual slavery) by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in Nigeria offers a recent, poignant example.

Tackling gender inequalities and injustice

While conflict and insecurity can intensify sexual violence, underlying it are entrenched social and cultural norms and institutions that perpetuate gender inequality and injustice. Addressing these is ultimately the key to tackling sexual violence both within war zones and beyond. Importantly, the Zero Draft of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals published by the Open Working Group in early June contains a stand-alone goal on gender, and advocates mainstreaming of gender targets. It is vital that these provisions survive through to the final framework due for agreement in September.

Meanwhile, last week's summit produced a final statement of action around its narrower, warzone remit. This is impressive in its intentions, and the summit certainly raised awareness. It would be great to see all this translate into concrete actions, but whether this happens, and how fast, remains to be seen.

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