Why I’m joining the fight to end the silence around women in conflict

Last November, I met Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Laureate for 2018. Dr Mukwege lives and works in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where as a gynecologist he has been treating hundreds of women and girls who are victims of sexual violence and abuse as a result of conflict. He painstakingly pieces them back together after they have suffered the kinds of brutality we can barely comprehend, only to see them back in his clinic again months later. When I asked him what the biggest hurdle was for effecting change for the women whose lives he saves, he told me it was “the silence” from those who hold the power to create a pathway for peace.

This International Women’s Day provides us with an opportunity to work towards filling that silence through celebrating the efforts made by many remarkable women, and men, who are working to address sexual violence in conflict and empower women’s voices in the peacebuilding process.

Against a backdrop of ugly headlines for women, revelations of sexual exploitation, and the abuse suffered by those in war zones, it is easy to overlook the pioneering work of change-makers. Brave women who stand for progress, even when their physical security and basic aspirations are under threat.

The UK is playing a pivotal role in putting more women and girls at the centre of conflict resolution, encouraging women’s participation in building peace and supporting survivors of sexual violence in conflict. Research shows that peace agreements are 35 per cent more likely to last at least 15 years if women are involved in negotiations. But UN Women and the Council on Foreign Relations analysis shows that, between 1990 and 2017, women made up only 2 per cent of mediators, 8 per cent of peace negotiators and 5 per cent of witnesses and signatories in all major peace processes. This has to change.

I am now taking an active role in championing the UK’s work on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, also known as PSVI. The WPS Agenda was born nearly 20 years ago out of a civil society movement to tackle the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, and to promote the positive role women play in building peace and stability. In 2012, PSVI was launched by former foreign secretary, Lord Hague, and UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie.

The initiative works to tackle stigma, support survivors – including children born of wartime rape – strengthen justice and accountability, and prevent conflict-related sexual violence. The consequences of conflict do not go away when the guns are laid down.

In recent years, there has been widespread recognition of the need for change. The UK and more than 70 other countries have created their own National Action Plans. Many charities and NGOs are helping to rebuild lives in conflict-affected countries as well as to support and empower women and girls.

Girl Determined in Burma is one example, supporting efforts to create “safe networks” for girls to grow their voice in politics and help broaden the participation of women in the peace process. In Syria, local projects are training doctors to provide expert forensic medical reports for court evidence of sexual violence and training specialist first responders for child survivors. But more needs to be done.

The WPS Agenda and PSVI aims are multilayered, seeking to grasp the root causes of gender inequality and the lack of women’s rights. Last year, the UK Government hosted the PSVI International Film Festival of which the theme was Fighting Stigma Through Film. These kinds of initiatives give hope to survivors, reassuring them that they can speak up and should not suffer in silence.

They also convene agents of change and support grassroots organisations and NGOs working with women to build better lives for themselves and their families. It is vital to continue to keep this work alive and on the radar; this is the reason that I am committed to doing what I can to help.

In November, the Government will host the PSVI International Conference, five years on from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. This survivor-centred event will be a chance to look at the progress that has been made, address the continuing challenges and commit to further action.

We already know the solution is to empower more women and girls to resolve and prevent conflict, and to take action for equality. Only when women and men work alongside each other as equals will the world see sustained improvement in conflict resolution and a reduction in sexual violence in conflict. As Dr Mukwege said, it is “the silence” that is a real danger to the lives of women and girls, as well as men and boys.

This International Women’s Day I will be celebrating the brave work of women using their voices to resolve conflict, counter gender violence and build peace.

To find out more about the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, click here to visit the official website

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