G8 leaders must convert words to action against sexual violence in war zones

Syria isn't the only important item on the agenda for the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this week. G8 countries are to be praised for addressing the sexual violence against women in conflict zones, but they must back up their words with funding and specific actions.

Alastair Grant/AP
Actress Angelina Jolie, in her role as UN envoy, talks during a news conference on sexual violence against women in conflict, during the G8 foreign ministers meeting in London last month, ahead of the summit this week in Northern Ireland. Op-ed contributor Carolyn Y. Woo writes: 'Our experience tells us that these atrocities are not bigger than the healing and progress the world can achieve.'

As the leaders of the top economic powers of the world gather at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this week, they are certainly focused on the conflict in Syria and, as always, the financial conditions and regulations that affect the lives of so many.

But there’s another important item on their agenda that hasn’t been getting as much attention – the sexual violence, predominantly against women and children, that accompanies war and conflict.

Whenever war rips the fabric of society, social norms are stripped away, and sexual attacks too often follow. Such violence has in places become institutionalized as a weapon of war, a sadly effective method of terrorizing civilian populations into submission or forcing them to abandon resource-rich areas that armed groups seek to exploit. This violence leaves behind hundreds of thousands of documented victims, some of them murdered, many maimed, and so many others traumatized and stigmatized. The numbers are likely underreported due to the stigma that falls on its victims.

The British government is to be commended for putting sexual violence in conflict zones on the G8 meeting’s agenda, and the United States has stepped up on this issue many times in the past. Now the G8 is set to take some important steps on sexual violence.

First, the group is set to declare sexual violence as a tool of war to be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. It will rule out amnesty for sexual crimes in peace treaties. The G8 countries plan to increase and improve the ability of the international community to investigate these crimes. And the group has committed to expand training of military troops on the issue. The G8 nations also made a pre-conference pledge of $36 million to combat the occurrence and effects of sexual violence.

All of this is certainly welcome, but resolutions and good intentions alone will not prevent or remediate the effects of sexual violence in war. These discussions must be more than a window dressing at a macroeconomics conference. The funding must be made available to pay for more than studies and statistical surveys.

What is needed is a commitment to four key additional steps. First, the G8 must delineate specific actions governments will take to prevent this violence. These should include improved training and discipline of all armed troops as well as increased accountability for crimes of sexual violence and a variety of measures to protect vulnerable communities. Basic steps such as paying soldiers on a timely basis, providing regular rotations, and clothing and feeding troops properly deter pillaging, which is often accompanied by sexual violence.

Second, the G8 nations must set up and ensure real-time reporting mechanisms. Only if authorities, communities, and civil society know what is happening on the ground can they react in a timely and appropriate manner. G8 nations can fund and support early warning systems, civilian protection operations, as well as critical monitoring and evaluation of responses to these situations. 

Third, the G8 must take steps to prosecute perpetrators through whatever court system is available and reliable – whether local or international. Even temporary solutions, such as using mobile courts – a practice that has met with great success in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – can help end impunity and bring some sense of justice, accountability, and even reconciliation. 

Finally, the G8 must work to rebuild the health, wellbeing, and livelihoods of victims in an accountable manner. Communities that have suffered this scourge need increased support for a variety of medical, psychological, and socioeconomic programs for victims. These interventions will help survivors and their families recover and build resilience for the future.

Beyond words, these four steps are what need to come out of this G8 summit.

We at Catholic Relief Services have seen the horrific result of sexual violence in conflict zones and as a weapon of war. But our work also allows us to witness first hand effective ways to prevent it and heal its damage.

Some of those measures include: systems to warn rural villages of the approach of armed gangs; medical missions that repair the physical and psychological wounds left by these acts; and shelters for victims who now find themselves shunned even as they raise children who are the result of rape. They also include livelihood training that allows women to rebuild lives and regain dignity as well as training for soldiers to sensitize them to understand the legal and personal consequences of such violence.

Our experience tells us that these atrocities are not bigger than the healing and progress the world can achieve.

We welcome the commitments of the G8 nations toward this progress. But these resolutions and the $36 million pledged must be only the beginning of a global struggle to eliminate sexual violence in conflicts. Each person the world protects from such violence is a vote for the dignity of the person and our own humanity.

Carolyn Y. Woo is president of Catholic Relief Services, the overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States.

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