Women are the worst affected by conflict but, as with so many other issues, they are rarely given the spotlight. As a fundraiser for Peace Direct, part of my job is collecting stories from women peacebuilders – or women they have helped. I find them among the most inspiring, as these women have had to overcome an extra hurdle to their male counterparts: making themselves heard. So as you can imagine, I was delighted to hear that Foreign Secretary William Hague will be hosting an international conference in London this June to address sexual violence in conflict – a problem which desperately needs addressing. But I can’t help wondering whether the women who have undergone these atrocities – and who are threatened with them daily – will be effectively represented?
At the recent launch of his initiative, Mr Hague said he was surprised that “only around 30 people have been convicted so far for the up to 50,000 rapes committed during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s”. I wasn’t. In my experience, despite women making up 51% of the world’s population, they are systematically overlooked, particularly in developing countries. It would be easy to say that states struggling to feed their population do not have the resources to demand equality: but even Western development projects give them less attention.
This was demonstrated a few years ago in the launch of UN Women – a new agency of the United Nations dedicated to equality and the advancement of women. The agency received a £10 million pledge from the UK government. Sounds great, until you realise that the UK government gave £135 million to UNICEF in 2011. Children’s welfare is incredibly important, but I can’t help but wonder whether the funders considered that if a woman isn’t given adequate healthcare, she may die in childbirth – and then what happens to her child? If she is not given education, she may be unable to feed her child due to lack of income. Surely these issues deserve a similar amount of attention for the benefit of both mother and child?
Investing in women shouldn’t merely be an argument for equality, it’s also an argument of effectiveness. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledges, “there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” However, many funders and governments seem slow to pick up on the idea.
Almost all the places considered the worst in the world for women are conflict areas (including Somalia, DR Congo and Pakistan). So Mr Hague’s efforts are a good place to start and, if done correctly, could have a huge impact. But when this high-profile meeting takes place, I hope that there are faces behind the horrifying statistics of what women face in war. I hope the British government listens to these women and pledges not only funds but an attitude change – to give them the spotlight, not just a name check.