Angelina Jolie stalks on stage to a barrage of camera flashlights. She stands at the lectern in front of a global gathering of hundreds of activists and politicians, smiles faintly, and says in a quiet voice that hushes the vast hall in London’s Docklands: “For the seven year old girl raped in Sudan, we are here. For the young man raped and forgotten after war, we are here. For us now, this single issue is a centre point. Let us begin here.”
The single issue she means is sexual violence in conflict (SVIC) – a broad category of crimes committed during wars that includes the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, kidnapping of women to become sex slaves or ‘war wives’, sexual abuse of children, male rape, and sex trafficking. Statistics are hard to find, but speakers at this international conference talk of tens of thousands of victims of these crimes, at least, many affected for life.
“Sexual violence in conflict is widespread but largely unreported,” says the next speaker, UN Special Representative on SVIC, Zainab Hawa Bangura. “For victims it is a lifelong trauma.”
It is Ministers’ Day at the conference ‘End Sexual Violence In Conflict’, a multi-million-pound initiative led by the UK government and attended by delegates from 151 countries. Held in the cavernous halls of the Excel building in London, it is hosted by Angelina Jolie, as Special Envoy for the UN’s refugee agency, and Foreign Secretary William Hague. The corridors echo with policy-makers and diplomats, some in bright national costume, some in military uniform. Camera crews scurry about. Today is the day when official delegations meet to discuss a plan of action. Tomorrow they will make pledges on behalf of their governments.
Sexual violence in conflict is an issue that we at Peace Direct particularly encounter in our programme in DR Congo. Estimates from the American Public Health Association in 2011 suggested that at one time 1,152 women were raped every day, in the savage bush war which lingers there. We have two projects in DR Congo. One works with ex-combatants – including women caught up in armed groups – to help them settle back into civilian life and heal the traumas of violence. The other provides all-female village courts, to give women a safe and supportive forum in which to pursue their grievances. Our head of Africa programmes, Tom Gillhespy, says: “Sexual violence can be deeply destabilising for the victims and their communities, attacking the fabric of society and leaving trauma in its wake. Without addressing it, peace will be harder to achieve and poverty and insecurity will continue.”
Back at the conference I run into a long-term friend of Peace Direct, Lord Jack McConnell, ex-First Minister of Scotland. He is impressed by the commitment of participants here. “This is British diplomacy at its best,” he says. “The leadership, the energy and the focus of this event will change lives.”
In an upstairs room, UK secretary for International Development Justine Greening is launching the formal “Call For Action” at a ministerial round-table session. She speaks of the need to work through UN agencies and NGOs: “We want to see this delivered on the ground, and we know we have to work through you. Luckily we have some wonderful organisations here.” She is surrounded by foreign ministers from many nations, offering thoughtful views on the challenges ahead.
But outside, in the conference fringe area, a more vibrant interaction is taking place. A huge hall filled with stalls and tents is loud with music, films and conversation as members of the public come and meet those organisations working on the ground. The agencies you would expect are here – Oxfam, War Child, International Rescue Committee. But also there are smaller ones whose names tell a story of their own: Womankind, Congo Connect, Men Engage, and perhaps most poignantly, Names Not Numbers.
Back at the main stage there is a rousing applause for the female Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee from Liberia. She describes a field trip to Bunia and Bukavu in DR Congo – precisely where our ex-combatants programme works – and asks the audience to rise to their feet for a moment’s silence, “in memory of all the women and men who have died as a result of sexual violence in conflict.” In the packed and silent hall, the grief and determination are palpable. Now let’s see what they commit to tomorrow.