6 Nov 2014

The UK’s fight against sexual violence must not falter

As Foreign Secretary, William Hague broke new ground with his unremitting focus on ending sexual violence against women.

There were those in Whitehall and beyond who questioned the time he dedicated to the campaign, in the face of other pressing demands on his time.

And there were a fair few who were sceptical about his commitment to the cause, and his decision to ally himself with the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie.

But despite the noises off, he returned to the campaign again and again, and in my view it will be seen as one of his most impressive achievements when he quits politics next year.

Now he’s left the Foreign Office, his successor needs to prove he shares his dedication to the cause.

There was no mention about women and violence in the new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s recent Commons statement on the British response to militants from the Islamic State (IS) group. Not a single word.

Actress and campaigner Angelina Jolie and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague pose for a photograph with two Congolese women's rights campaigners at a summit to end sexual violence in conflict at the Excel centre in London

That despite reports that Yazidi women in Iraq are being raped daily and enslaved by IS, not to mention footage purporting to show fighters bartering over Yazidi girls on “slave market day”.

And although Mr Hague, as the prime minister’s special representative on sexual violence, attends a government committee on violence against women, the foreign secretary himself doesn’t.

Other cabinet ministers should also demonstrate their support.

The Department for International Development’s (DfID’s)¬†forthcoming conference on Afghanistan – the London Development Conference – has, according to Action Aid, completely marginalised the issue of women’s rights.

Odd that when you consider nearly half the women in prison in Afghanistan are, according to the UN, detained for “zina” crimes – that is, crimes of extramarital sex of adultery.

“Zina” often prevents women from reporting rape for fear of being criminalised themselves. In some cases, rape survivors in Afghanistan have been murdered by their own families in so-called “honour killings”.

Top table

Despite the pressing need for violence against women to be discussed at the conference, Action Aid claims only one woman has been given a speaker slot, and there’s no dedicated space to debate women’s rights.

This despite the fact that, at the sexual violence summit he and Jolie hosted in London in June, Mr Hague said he was “saddened that women and women’s groups still have to ask to be included at the negotiating table, as if it were a concession to be granted”.

He added: “We should not have to be reminded, as governments, that women must have a seat in every forum of decision-making, and it should not be the uphill struggle that it is to overturn the habits of centuries and establish new precedents and norms for full female participation.”

Perhaps Mr Hague’s cabinet colleagues need reminding that those sentiments were echoed in a “UK government National Action Plan” on a UN Security Council Resolution.

Action Aid’s head of advocacy Barry Johnston told me: “Women in Afghanistan are putting their lives on the line every day to help secure peace and build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

“They have repeatedly told us that they are afraid of a resurgent Taliban following the international troop withdrawal, and that the fragile gains in education, health and ending violence against women will go into reverse.

“So many promises have been made to Afghan women and so few have been kept. Next month’s conference is a key moment for the UK and international community to send a clear message of renewed long term commitment to women.”

Hague alone?

DfID responded by saying there was “no question that the rights of Afghan women and girls are a top priority for the UK and next month’s London Conference on Afghanistan”.

“We are working hard to ensure that Afghan women actively participate in the Conference and improving the lives of women and girls will be firmly on the agenda,” a spokesman said.

When I called the Foreign Office for comment, Mr Hammond was supportive of Mr Hague but clear that responsibility for violence against women rested with the Commons leader.

He told me: “William Hague has been instrumental in raising the issue of PSVI [the preventing sexual violence initiative] across the world and encouraging other countries to do more to protect women’s rights.

“The PM has asked William to continue his leadership of this agenda in his new office, with support from the Foreign Office, and from me.”

An aide meanwhile takes a sideswipe at the opposition, accusing “the other parties” of being “more focused on T-shirt photo opportunities”, adding: “This government believes in taking real steps to progress women’s rights, not T-shirt stunts that backfire.”

And while women might not have made the IS speech, they did get a look-in during Mr Hammond’s September statement on Afghanistan.

It would be a great shame if the campaign Mr Hague and Jolie started – still front of mind in the first secretary of state’s new Commons office – doesn’t get the enthusiastic and public backing of his cabinet colleagues.

Because justice for survivors of sexual violence past and present will require buy-in across government.

When Mr Hague accompanied Jolie to the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, he met some of the estimated 200,000 women who have been raped there since 1998.

And he brought those heart-rending stories back with him. Their experiences transformed him as a politician and a man.

Now the onus is on governments around the world to take action to transform their lives, secure the justice they deserve, and prevent an atrocity that Mr Hague himself has called a “monstrosity of our age”.

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