In a London boardroom today – on April 10 – a new era in the longstanding fight to stop gender violence in conflict will be ushered in. Eight Foreign Ministers from the wealthiest countries around the world, the G8, will discuss conflict-related sexual violence and – if all goes according to plan – will emerge with a clear set of commitments to help end the global scourge.
For the countless individuals and organisations around the world that have tirelessly and courageously devoted themselves to going after the perpetrators of sexual violence and helping survivors, including all of us at the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, this is a sweet day.
It is also a bittersweet. Since the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s -when the world learned that thousands of women were brutally raped – the international community finally decided that rape in conflict is a serious threat to peace and security. The result was a few important UN Security Resolutions, and a rough international framework for addressing sexual violence. While all positive, progress is slow. And as debates go on in the hallowed halls of power, more conflicts have been – and are being – waged over women’s bodies, including in Myanmar, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Libya and Syria.
Yet, those toiling behind-the-scenes – from doctors running clinics to stitch the mutilated genitals of women raped in war to human rights defenders challenging national governments to prosecute those who commit mass rape – have had their work cut out for them convincing the world’s most powerful leaders that sexual violence in conflict is indeed a crisis. One they have the power to help bring to an end. Now, it seems, finally some of these leaders are listening.
Leading this charge is the United Kingdom’s own Foreign Secretary William Hague. He has made ending sexual violence in conflict a foreign policy priority for both his own country, with the newly established Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), and as the UK takes up presidency of the G8 this year. With patience and determination, he has succeeded in placing it high on the global agenda of the world’s most powerful nations.
Grassroots women and organisations working to stop rape have knocked for decades on the iron door of the international “all boys club”, and today Secretary Hague is helping us all break open that door.
We hope that the door stays open – for all of our sake.
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Rape in conflict is not an issue that only touches women and their families in faraway countries. Rape in conflict is part of a continuum of gender violence that manifests itself in every corner of this globe. The face of gender violence is your sister, your mother, your daughter – and sometimes even your father, your brother, or your son. It tears apart the fabric of society and is one of the reasons women and their families leave their homes as refugees or immigrants to build new lives on shattered foundations.
Gender violence also continues to be the face of the future, as climate change becomes a more present reality and helps fuel conflicts resulting from desertification and lack of water, and countless natural disasters.
As our Foreign Ministers place ending gender violence on their agenda, we wish to remind them that this is going to be a long-standing item and is not going to be solved in the near future. While the UK has admirably taken this issue and made it a priority for the G8, it must remain a commitment for our leaders with concrete actions to prevent rape, protect survivors and provide justice. This is not a crisis we will solve in one year.
When looking at regions where rape and other forms of gender violence have been ongoing for years, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, we need to provide comprehensive, long-term strategies to end the violence. This means not only providing greater support and reparations to survivors, but bringing impunity to an end by focusing on the prosecution of those committing these heinous crimes. Equally important, we need to ensure that as conflicts come to an end, women are at the peace table to keep negotiations focused on gender equality and justice reform.
Women’s voices must be heard.
The G8 Foreign Ministers today have set an admirable precedent for other leaders around the world, who can be sure that women will keep knocking on the door. And for those meeting in London, we, more than 700 organisations of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, will hold you to what you pledge.
Leymah Gbowee is a peace activist, trained social worker, and women’s rights advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Follow her on Twitter @LeymahRGbowee
Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban antipersonnel landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) who shared the prize with her that year. Her life of activism has been chronicled in a newly released memoir, My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Follow her on Twitter @JodyWilliams97
Williams and Gbowee are co-chairs of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.