LONDON, United Kingdom – The focus is on rape in war and how to take global action against it.
Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, dressed in an all-white suit, waved to the crowd and the cameras on Tuesday, June 10, as she entered with co-chair William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, in a black suit with a yellow tie.
It’s the first day of a 4-day conference, and Jolie and Hague kicked off the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London.
The headlines the past few days show the violence continues:
In Liberia, where a study released this week shows that mothers who were raped during its 14-year civil war are now watching their daughters raped because of “hyper-masculinity” in society.
In Nigeria, where between 20-40 young mothers were kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram militants on Saturday, June 7, near the town where the group kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls nearly 2 months ago. On Friday, June 6, UN special representative Zainab Bangura said she was worried the girls would be raped.
In India, where horrific stories of rape are made worse by statements from government officials like the one last Friday from a minister of the ruling BJP, who said “rape is sometimes right, sometimes wrong.”
In the Philippines, where most of the women kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf, were raped – from a nun kidnapped in the 80s to the Filipino women today who are euphemistically “married” to their kidnappers.
“It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict,” said the 39-year-old Jolie, the Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “There is nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex, everything to do with power. It is done to torture and humiliate innocent people and often very young children.”
A mob formed around Jolie’s every move in the hall open to the public. The Fringe Summit focused on the youth and incorporates movies, plays, panel discussions and musical performances hosted by civil society organizations.
Foreign Secretary Hague guided Jolie through the crowd, helping focus her celebrity spotlight on a summit with “70 ministers, several heads of states, many faith leaders and over 1,000 experts and activists from more than 117 countries.” Among those attending is US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“From the abolition of slavery to the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty,” Hague told summit participants, “we have shown that the international community can tackle vast global problems in a way that was once considered to be impossible.”
Even babies, young girls
In the midst of television cameras and flashbulbs, Jolie and Hague stood outside the theater of Save the Children with 19-year-old Faida Kasi Lembo, a youth delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC.
As a young girl, Faida was kidnapped by armed forces and held for 3 years as a sex slave. She was freed by BVES, an organization that works to free children held as sex slaves and helps in the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
The scale of violence is horrific.
At least 200,000 women were raped in the DRC since 1998, according to the UN.
A recent UNICEF report said about 1,100 rapes are reported each month in DRC, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day.
“Horrifyingly, on a visit to the DRC last year, the special representative on sexual violence in conflict found that children as young as six months old have been victims of rape by armed groups,” the report stated.
“It’s horrible,” Save the Children’s Tracy Manners told Rappler. “In many post-conflict situations, children are the victims. About 83% of sexual violence cases were under 17 years old.”
Manners had just returned from a trip to Liberia, where she met a 13-year-old girl who had been raped and now has a 9-month-old baby.
“Conflict doesn’t end with the ceasefire,” she said emphatically. “14 years of conflict leaves a mark on society, and we can’t ignore that.”
Liberia: 40,000 women raped
Eleven years after the end of its civil war, Liberia still has one of the highest incidents of sex crimes around the world. From 1989 to 2003, the UN estimates more than 40,000 women were raped in Liberia.
The horror continues, with women who were raped now seeing the same pattern, except the victims are now their daughters.
“War can lead to an environment in which sexual violence is normalized,” explained Nicola Jones, a research fellow at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which released a report this week. “After the war, men are often aggressive, ‘hyper-masculine’ and struggle to adapt to peacetime.”
Sexual violence leaves a mark even after the conflict ends.
The numbers alone are staggering.
In Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the genocide that happened in 3 months in 1994.
UN agencies estimate more than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002).
Jolie’s is not just a celebrity endorsement. She is familiar with most of these numbers first-hand.
In 2001, Jolie travelled to Sierra Leone as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. That was when she began to immerse herself in humanitarian issues leading to at least 40 field trips to affected nations, including a recent visit to Bosnia that moved her to tears.
Woman in Bosnia
On the way to the conference in east London, Jolie said she and Hague talked about a woman they met in Bosnia who was too ashamed to tell her son she had been raped.
“And she felt that having had no justice for her particular crime, in her particular sitation, and having seen the actual man who raped her on the streets, free, she really felt abandoned by the world,” said Jolie.
“This day is for her.”
Bosnia brought Hague and Jolie together.
In 2011, Hague asked Jolie to work with him soon after he saw the movie she wrote and directed, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which was described as “born out of scrupulous research and deeply held conviction.” Set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war from 1992-1995, Jolie immersed herself in the conflict which killed more than 100,000 people, and where the UN says up to 60,000 women were raped.
“Sexual violence in conflict is one of the greatest and most persistent injustices in the world today,” Jolie and Hague wrote in a letter inviting me to the conference they promised would be the largest gathering to address this problem.
“It is also one of the most neglected. This violence inflicts unimaginable suffering and destroys families and communities. It affects not only large numbers of women and girls, but also men and boys. Yet the overwhelming majority of survivors never see any justice for what they have endured, and the cycle of conflict is perpetuated.”
In May 2012, Jolie and Hague co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI).
“Together, we firmly believe there is more that can – and must be done – to address the prevailing culture of impunity for these crimes, to support survivors, and to end the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war,” they wrote.
In April, 2013, under the UK’s presidency, Hague and Jolie launched a declaration at the G8 Summit pledging to end impunity and provide justice and safety for victims. Nearly 150 countries have signed, and this week’s summit aims to turn those pledges into action.
“We need to shatter that culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes,” said Jolie. “We need political will, replicated across the world, and we need to treat this subject as a priority. We need to see real commitment and go after the worst perpetrators, to fund proper protection for vulnerable people, and to step in to help the worst-affected countries. We need all armies, peacekeeping troops and police forces to have prevention of sexual violence in conflict as part of their training.”
At the end of the summit, delegates are expected to launch a new international protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict as well as to focus on processes and laws to enable more prosecutions.
Hague ended with a call to arms: “There is power in numbers, and if we unite behind this cause, we can create an unstoppable momentum and consign this vile abuse to history.” – Rappler.com
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