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Sexual violence in conflict: Nobel awards must be backed by action

by Brita Fernandez Schmidt | Women for Women International
Monday, 10 December 2018 10:52 GMT

Nobel peace prize laureates Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege attend a news conference at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway December 9, 2018. NTB Scanpix/Heiko Junge via REUTERS

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Governments have failed on pledges to tackle sexual violence in conflict. This year's Nobel prizes must change that.

By Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Executive Director, Women for Women International

On Monday, the Nobel Prize Committee presents the Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege for their work against sexual violence in conflict. This is an important landmark; both have worked tirelessly, and at great personal cost, to shine a light on the systematic rape of women and girls as a military tactic, used to destroy the fabric of communities. 

Survivors like Murad and allies and advocates like Dr Mukwege have highlighted the extremes of a culture that normalises violence against women. We need to face up to the fact that the targeting of women in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other conflict zones are not monstrous aberrations or inevitable ‘excesses of war’ - but part of a continuum, rooted in the abuse of a profoundly unequal power dynamic. 

Over the past year, the phenomenon of violence against women has been spotlighted by the #MeToo hashtag. Thousands of women all over the world have come forward to share their experiences of sexual violence, and the subsequent challenges and barriers they faced in disclosing it. 

When asked whether the #MeToo movement influenced this year’s prize, Nobel Committee Chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said: “#MeToo and war crimes are not quite the same. But they have in common that they see the suffering of women, the abuse of women and that it is important that women leave the concept of shame behind and speak up.” 

Yes, war crimes and sexual assault in the workplace are very different. But in order to truly end wartime rape, we need to acknowledge it as part of a wider system of oppression – of which many of the daily abuses and harassment highlighted by #MeToo are also a part. 

In 2014, then Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie co-hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London. The event brought together survivors of sexual violence, NGOs, subject experts and government delegations from over 150 countries. The slogan of the Summit was ‘Time to Act’. Sadly, we have seen little action from governments on the pledges made at the Summit. Funding commitments have been piecemeal, without strategic focus. 

One of the main objectives set out at the Summit was to end the impunity of perpetrators; in reality groups like Daesh and Boko Haram operate without fear of prosecution. Addressing the UN last year, Jolie said that many countries already have in place, “laws, the institutions, and the expertise in gathering evidence. What is missing is the political will.” 

Next year marks five years since the Summit and a new Summit is planned, but will it be more hot air? The truth is we are no closer to ending the use of rape as a weapon of war.  We must do more than commit words to paper. There are four areas which the international community must focus on: 

Protection - We need to see international laws upheld and implemented to protect women in conflict zones, and better justice systems to support survivors coming forward. 

Participation - We need to support women’s participation in decision-making, so that the voices of survivors are heard and their needs are addressed.

Partnership - We demand a monumental increase in resources for women’s rights organisations and networks to improve response to the needs of sexual violence survivors. 

Prevention - Preventing violence against women requires changing attitudes and breaking down the social norms that perpetuate and tolerate abuse. Where women are seen as less than men, violence against women will be widespread and impunity levels will be high.

Awards and hashtags are helping to put these issues at the forefront of the global news agenda. But awards and hashtags – just like global summits - need to be backed up by action. On learning he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr Mukwege said: “This award will have real meaning only if it helps mobilise people to change the situation of victims in areas of armed conflict.” 

To create this change, we need to fight a battle for gender equality on all fronts.