10 Oct 2012

William Hague: Why rape in conflict matters


Foreign Secretary William Hague tells Channel 4 News how he wants to emulate his hero, anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce, by embarking on a mission to stamp out sexual violence.

In the days when William Hague had time and leisure to write, he penned a biography of the anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce.

Now that the foreign secretary’s career as a biographer is on hold, he nevertheless wants to take a leaf out of his hero’s book. In an interview with me, to be broadcast tonight, he compares his determination to tackle sexual violence in conflict to the movement to abolish the slave trade. He tells me he’s making this something of a crusade. It’s easy to see why.

Although the figures are for obvious reasons unreliable, it’s suggested a staggering 50,000 women were raped in Bosnia, yet only 30 men responsible have ever been convicted. 64,000 women and girls were raped in Sierra Leone and 400,000 in Rwanda.

The major-general who was at the helm of the UN peace-keeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo says it’s more dangerous to be a woman in a war zone than a soldier.

As I’ve blogged for the Telegraph today this sexual abuse, unlike the allegations against Jimmy Savile, isn’t something which occurred decades ago – it’s happening now. Thousands of women are being and have been raped in Syria, the foreign secretary told me.

Angelina Jolie

He’s raising awareness by teaming up with the Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, who’s a UN special envoy and whose film In the Land of Blood and Honey told the heartbreaking story of women raped in the Bosnian conflict. He’s pledged £1m to help UN efforts to secure justice for victims.

There’s a fair bit of scepticism about how much difference Mr Hague and his colleagues can make. The UN has spent years talking about the problem and doing very little about it.

And nearly two centuries after the abolition of slavery, there are, some estimate, more people enslaved – for example at the hands of sex traffickers – than at any time in history.

It’s interesting that one of the most senior men in the cabinet is taking this on. And it’s important that he does. Because if the rape of grandmothers, mothers, children – and yes men too – is something the men round the cabinet table leave to their (by and large) more junior, female colleagues the risk is the issue becomes marginalised.

That’s even more likely because of the mysterious absence of women in the upper echelons of this government. And after the row over abortion, which has left some senior Conservatives privately worried that the party is once again alienating women, there’s every possibility this issue could end up being a vote-winner.