As UN debates for its new secretary general, sex assault by peacekeepers in CAR must be eradicated once and for all.
New York – In its work on sexual violence against women in conflict, the United Nations has found that it has “been one of history’s greatest silences. Absent from ceasefire agreements, dismissed from disarmament programmes and rarely mentioned in peace negotiations”.
It is a tactic of war that transcends countries and cultures: From Japan’s use of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II to present day abuse of Yazidi women by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed group.
Trying to put an end to the rape of women as a weapon of war is a massive challenge, but Baroness Joyce Anelay, minister of state at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, explained to Al Jazeera why she is optimistic about changing attitudes.
Al Jazeera: Let’s start with the big picture – how do you stop rape and other forms of sexual violence from being used as weapons of war?
Baroness Joyce Anelay: First of all, it does mean some changes to social mores, to social beliefs, particularly, that women are not there to be used as weapons of war, they are equal partners in society … But the way they’ve been used in war, really as a weapon, where the point of view is, really, if you destroy the women’s dignity, you destroy the whole community, you bring shame upon the community.
So what we can do is to rebuild the dignity of those who have survived that kind of appalling violence. And that’s why it was so important that the Yazidi community [in Iraqi Kurdistan] show that they received back into the heart of their community women who had been so appallingly abused … That’s how you show, to people like Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIL, also known as ISIS], that you won’t get us forever.
Maybe now, but it won’t work forever.
Al Jazeera: You’ve mentioned in the past that there should be a way to stop women and children from being seen as “spoils of war”. But in the case of a group like Boko Haram – who still have the schoolgirls they kidnapped over two years ago – how do you negotiate with a group that weaponizes the actual child and is using them as suicide bombers?
Anelay: I visited Nigeria earlier this year and I met representatives of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign and I pay great tribute to their work.
Some of them believe the only way to get back to their family is by being released and to be able to remove the bombs [from themselves] … What we do is make sure that there are governments prepared to attack the terrorists and take back the land; not to be distracted by their own internal political problems … and then to ensure that when Boko Haram is defeated, that the local community feel that the government is a democratic one which will take their concerns into account so that there won’t be local support for Boko Haram.
Al Jazeera: It does seem that interest in the girls still in captivity has faded. Do you worry that this becomes part of a narrative – that we just accept that women, girls and children can be used this way, that this is normal because it’s been happening for so long?
Anelay: I don’t believe that and the people I work with don’t believe that. We have a great international community who have championed the work of preventing sexual violence in conflict. And our job is to make sure that nobody believes it’s something that happens – it happens, but it shouldn’t, and we must stop it …. You can change attitudes.
Al Jazeera: In the US and the UK, you see it in the news – that people seem to have an idea that using women and children this way is just something that “those people” do “over there”. A type of cultural ignorance. Do you find you have to combat that as well?
Anelay: I only meet shock in the UK when people hear what’s being perpetrated on women and girls overseas. But what I always do is to remind my own colleagues and people in civil society, that it’s not that long ago in the United Kingdom that domestic violence wasn’t taken as seriously as it should be.
I remember the early 1980s, when the legislation wasn’t strong enough. It took us 20 years to be able to create strong legislation … We’ve had a long journey to show that domestic violence is wrong, and that means none of us can feel smug.
Al Jazeera: What about in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN peacekeepers themselves have been accused of sexually abusing children and women, trading sexual acts for food?
Anelay: I agree totally with [outgoing UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon when he says we should have zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour. And I’ve been working with my colleagues in the ministry of defence in the UK to find a way to help the United Nations and our colleagues around the world to ensure that this kind of abuse never happens again.
Because what it does is to undermine the trust in the United Nations – a trust that has been built up for 70 years, and none of us can allow that to happen … We have to work here, at the United Nations, to make sure that our systems here are joined up enough that when people report these allegations that they are taken seriously, and that they’re not kept waiting, because then, they feel as though nobody cares, that the international community doesn’t care. And we do care.