Skip to main content

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict


Blog entry by Florence Basteon

Until arriving in London from Leeds, I had no idea how widely advertised this event had been. I got onto the tube and there are posters galore, I pick up the Metro and it’s on the front cover, I turned on Newsnight and it was the primary feature, and on BBC Breakfast the following morning it was headline news. I suppose that’s what you get when Angelina Jolie is co-hosting an event.

The programme open to the public was chock-a-block: discussions, panel events, interactive court rooms, United Nations role plays, theatre performances, songs, dances, films the like! Considering the nature of the summit, I chose to stick to the more informative (at least that’s what I anticipated) discussion events. The first one I went to was by Return to Manhood; an American organisation presenting their guide on how to be a better man. We were told that ‘hacking at the root’ of sexual violence in conflict boiled down to teaching young boys the values of manhood which, according to them, are ‘Conscience, Character and Courage’. Strict gender roles were prescribed to boys, and focus was put solely on the need for boys to have strong male role models when growing up. A woman’s ability to raise children was repeatedly disregarded. A bizarre analogy of elephants was used to exemplify the importance of ‘father and calf’ relationships. Strangely, on my way home from the summit that night there was a piece in the Evening Standard about elephants and it was emphasising that they thrive in matriarchal herds. Nearing the end of the talk we all had to clench our fists together and build bridges with our hands to show the breaking down of the barbarian masculinities they described (‘men hit, they kill, they are violent’) and the re-building of their suggested new form of masculinity – it was all a bit too much. Quite outraged at their backward approach we asked the founder of the organisation whether he thought it was progressive for gender equality to prescribe boys and girls specific gender roles, of which he replied: ‘boys and girls are biologically different and we need to remember that’. Oh dear.

Luckily that was not the only event I attended that focussed on the importance of addressing masculinites. The Womanity Foundation hosted a panel discussion exploring gender relations in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon were the focal countries. Gary Barker from Promundo was challenging commonly held assumptions about men and gender. He spoke about the need to change spaces where men and boys are raised to be violent, to work to make gender-equitable educational spaces, and to promote responsible fatherhood and shared childcare. He highlighted (at last) that the gender based violence that girls and boys experience during conflict is the same as that in ‘peace’, just exacerbated. The next speaker, Anthony Keedi, was interesting. He was talking about Lebanon. He emphasised the need to educate boys from a very early stage but, due to Lebanon’s violent history, how difficult it is to do so. When boys are brought into a country rife with civil war, honour killings, and public violence it is very difficult for them not to believe they are born to be violent. Keedi’s aim is to teach boys to be strong and non-violent simultaneously. He made sure to note that this movement is not a separate movement to the women’s movement and that the only way to measure the success of changing men is by the positive impact they have on women. My faith was somewhat restored.

Other organisations I was impressed with were International Alert and Saferworld. International Alert hosted a discussion about framing sexual violence in conflict in the broader gender, peace and security context. A representative from Pakistan spoke about the work that the organisation are doing in her country to address sexual and gender-based violence. It is estimated that 70-90% of women and girls in Pakistan suffer from gender-based violence, be that in the form of forced early marriages, acid throwing, honour killings, marital rape or domestic violence. The organisation very much takes a grassroots approach in preventing such violence through using early warning mechanisms and engaging with local customs and traditions. They recognised that in order to create a safer space for women it is integral to work with men, boys, girls, women, they need to know the context of the violence, and they need to engage with policymakers and local influencers. They took a very positive approach that seemed likely to get positive results. Hannah Wright, a woman from Saferworld, also spoke at this event. Of all the speakers I heard at the summit Wright was by far my favourite. The main points she spoke about were: the importance of not gender stereotyping – men are not inherently violent just as women are not inherently peaceful; sexual violence as an extension of patriarchal norms that exist in peacetime both prior to and after conflict; perpetrators of sexual violence are not monsters but rather they are produced through patriarchal systems so although individuals do need to be held accountable it is crucial to recognise that many have been socialised to be violent.

Hannah Write spoke again at an event on the final day that spoke about the importance of women police officers in Afghanistan. Currently only 1% of police officers in Afghanistan are women. In a country where sexual violence commonly goes unreported, where prosecutions are rare, and where impunity continues, it is fundamental for the number of women police to rise in order to solve, or at least reduce, these issues. Surveys have found that women are far more likely to report cases of gender-based violence if there was a women’s unit at the police station. Wright was not idealistic though and recognised that it is not enough to just ‘add women and stir’ but that a wider, structural reform of the police system at whole is at need. Women police in Afghanistan are discriminated against within the system and it is difficult for them to gain leadership roles. Wright and Shaheen (from Oxfam) both stressed that mechanisms need to be put in place that protect female officers because if they can’t be safeguarded, how can women in society be?

Unfortunately, of all the events I attended over the three days, these discussions were the exception and not the rule. The summit did have admirable aims and undeniably it is a step in the right direction to ending the impunity against sexual violence, but the commercial and glamorous nature of the event that Angelina Jolie bought to it was all a bit odd. Though I am in no doubt that her intentions are genuine and noble, her presence did create an unnerving paradox. You look one way and there are paparazzi flashing their cameras and herds of people taking photos on their iPhone, and you look the other and there is a survivor of sexual violence sharing her story. This was intensified when she bought Brad Pitt along on the final day. It’ll be a long time before people recognise Angelina for her work as the UN Special Envoy before they recognise her as an international celebrity.

On the one hand I am optimistic that this summit will bring about change. Widespread awareness has been raised and the summit itself represents a milestone for ending sexual violence in conflict as never before has there been an international conference of this scale solely dedicated to fighting the issue. Yet on the other hand, having watched some of the launch of the UK National Plan and footage from the important meetings with experts, policymakers, and government officials from around the world, pledges and promises came across hollow and wishy washy. Common throughout the summit and especially prevalent in these meetings was the disproportional attention put on ending impunity and the wider social context of gender inequalities going unreported. It is for this reason that I left the summit feeling deflated, and why my hopes for ending sexual violence in conflict are dwindling.