Blog entry by Augusta Riddy
Attending the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was an all-consuming experience. My fellow Leeds students and I attended all three days of the fringe events, and by the end of the third day I felt drained. The sheer size of the summit meant that there were some great people and ideas present, and inevitably some extremely suspect ideas, organisations, and themes. As a whole, I felt the summit was fundamentally contradictory in a number of ways. First and foremost, the coalition, especially the conservative party, stamp of ownership made me angry – the government’s domestic attacks on the safety and position of women meant that their heavy involvement was morally laughable. For the coalition, the summit and the close relationship between Hague and Jolie was PR gold. However, Jolie is essentially a lobbyist, and it seems she took the opportunity provided by the British government to initiate some momentum on the subject – a less political motive no doubt. It was also disappointing to see that G4S were hired for security, especially in light of accusations of maltreatment of female detainees at Cedars, and complicity in the torture of Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons, and the death of inmate Arafat Jaradat.
Upon first entering the conference complex, there were some worrying signs. A ‘selfie’ stand where one could take a selfie with the official conference hashtag ‘Time To Act’ seemed particularly inappropriate. There was a ‘market place’ where you could purchase objects made by survivors, however it was often not clear where the objects came from, and the stands were intermingled with charities trying to recruit volunteers. Our group had an embarrassing encounter in the market place when we were asked by two women to draw a picture of support for women from their country, presumably survivors of sexual violence. By the time we ascertained what country that was, or what indeed had happened, we were practically already drawing hearts and flowers on to a piece of paper. In one of the many queues for the more high profile talks, we started chatting to a senior member of an NGO who had been involved in the early planning stages of the conference. Apparently, the government brief had said they wanted the summit to be a ‘fun event’ – quite rightly he was concerned about what a ‘fun event’ about sexual violence would look like. Actually, it looked like the summit. Throughout the event, our group continually debated whether it was better to engage large swathes of people with a user-friendly and generalised approach, or if this was creating a harmfully simplified understanding of the problem that seriously lacked any theoretical basis. It certainly meant that there were many conflict management and sexual violence professionals and academics who looked bored stiff while members of the public, government, and organisations scratched their heads in wonderment at why sexual violence in conflict existed. Hint, hint … patriarchy.
For three days we attended sessions in search of exciting analysis and quality discussions, and importantly, feminist perspectives that were lacking in a lot of them. Undoubtedly the best perspectives acknowledged the systems that transcend conflict, and also location – the existing structures of sexism, patriarchy and male power throughout the world. Additionally, we found the more detail given, the better. The most frustrating trend was an excruciating vagueness; many speakers seemed to only talk in analogies, with long trails of buzzwords, or in strange fables. In my opinion, this is not only a waste of time, but disrespectful to the victims these people are claiming to be trying to help.
The two most interesting panels I attended analysed specific initiatives. The first one was run by the NGO International Alert, and had representatives from schemes they support in Pakistan and Somalia. Both the schemes had a genuinely grassroots approach to curbing sexual violence. In Mogadishu, simply the availability of ambulances for female victims meant that treatment of victims of sexual violence was normalised, but also that they were hidden from view as opposed to having to attend clinics or hospitals on foot. The representatives on the panel from International Alert, and Safer World (two NGOs who work together on certain projects) asserted at the start of the discussion what I had been longing to hear since I had arrived at the summit, that perpetrators are individually responsible, but they are also collectively socialised to be violent. As one panelist said, perpetrators are not monsters despite their monstrous acts of violence. Sexual violence in conflict is an extension of gendered peacetime norms. A dominant theme of the conference was to ‘hunt down’ these rapists and murderers; of course it is so much easier to ostracize and isolate perpetrators as evil exceptions, denying the social structures that encourage and facilitate their actions – social structures that exist in this country too.
The second panel I found really interesting was a discussion on the role female police officers could play in the reduction of gender-based violence, with a particular focus on Afghanistan. The panel was chaired by a representative from Oxfam, and included the same Safer World representative (who we became slightly obsessed with – she was the reason we attended the talk) and a policewoman who was posted in Afghanistan to train police officers, including some policewomen. Afghanistan is thought to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, and the panel seemed to me to be both very timely, and very informed. It dealt with the issue on two levels, firstly the extreme need for policewomen for female victims of sexual assault and GBV, especially as women are at serious risk of being sexually abused when they try to report a crime to a police station. According to a poll carried out by Safer World, 6% of women would go alone to report a crime, but if there was a woman’s unit then the number changed to 44%. And secondly, the problems the few policewomen face in entering this line of work; extreme sexism means that their families and co-workers discourage them, and when they do attend work they are often lumbered with demeaning tasks. The policewoman suggested that an important step would be an Afghani policewoman’s network so that they could support each other in their work. The panels that dealt with distinct approaches and actual places were always better, if only because the specificity of the material required that the speakers had a certain level of expertise.
However, the brief sparks of enlightened analysis could not account for the disappointment, or outright anger, I felt at the majority of the panels I attended. A classic example was one of the more high-profile discussions we attended, which featured Justine Greening MP, the Secretary of State for International Development, on the panel. The event was called ‘A world without violence by 2030 – how do we get there?’. Such an idiotic title should have prepared us for the level of dialogue that would follow, especially from Greening who opened the discussion. She expressed her wish to see an end to gender-based violence in impassioned but totally empty statements, managed to quote Hillary Clinton, and stated the Prime Minister’s commitment to fighting sexual violence more than once. I have written in my notes ‘AND DO WHAT???????’ – so clearly I couldn’t have detected much content at the time. Of course, the irony of having a establishment stalwart leading the discussion is clear – I’m not sure how high on the Conservative party agenda the eradication of all violence is, but I’d imagine it’s a few points below intervening in Syria, or countering demonstrations against their economically violent policy of cuts to basic services. In some ways it could have been worse; at one launch of a UN initiative to get more women into decision-making roles in conflict management (an approach I suppose could be placed under the heading ‘add women and stir’) there was a ceremonial laying of a tablecloth, followed by a representative from each country involved laying down some kind of table mat to demonstrate their commitment.
But I think the first event we attended was by far the worst. It was called ‘A return to manhood’ and present were three members of staff from an organisation that teaches boys in ‘underserved’ nations how to be men with prescribed ‘principles of manhood’; ‘for four hours a month, boys become a brotherhood of men’. Rarely were women mentioned, and the approach was based entirely on an endorsement of gender roles. When I questioned the head of the organisation about this, he responded emphatically that this was a great point, but that he believed men and women ‘were fundamentally different’. The worst moment for me was when the second speaker from the organisation, who was actually a woman, claimed that if boys were raised properly, and not only by women of course, they would become ‘the voice for women’ and would be leading conferences just like the one we were attending. When the head of the organisation was talking about his own manhood, and how he became a man through helping others to become men, I had to leave because I got the giggles, but actually it wasn’t at all funny. Worryingly this organisation, like many others, were using ‘underserved nations’ as a blank slate to try out their ideas, and as they had the funding to do so their problematic proposals could be made a reality.
The most unnerving moments for me were during the sessions that emphasised the acute clash between the subject matter and the polished summit setting. The only British person on a panel on violence against minorities in Somalia tried to steer the discussion in a very general direction by having one Somali panellist (who was actually a member of parliament in Somalia – I imagine telling us a story was slightly below her) read out a fictional tale about a Somali girl and the audience was asked to hold up different coloured cards in correspondence with what was happening in the story (for instance the green card signified discrimination taking place). Unfortunately, this approach did not quite cut it for the audience, many of whom were Somali and had come especially to discuss the problem of ‘inter-clan violence’, both in Somalia but also here in the UK. The chair soon became frustrated as the discussion descended further and further into chaos, and one of the panelists broke down in tears and could not recover – the audience awkwardly applauded him. It wasn’t a discussion point – it was real life.
It was also extremely upsetting to sit in a discussion which featured a survivor who had been enlisted as a child soldier and raped, who gave a testimony of such strength and measure, only to have her drowned out at points by some kind of chiming of a bell which was happening next door. How absurd to timetable an event that included music when we were trying to listen to someone who had actually experienced what the whole summit was about.
Our group often commented to each other that the summit reminded us of a music festival. Lots of milling around (stalking Angelina and Brad), trying to catch good bands (NGOs), drinking lots (of coffee), and the horrible moment when you realise you’d missed a really good gig (a panel in Discussion Room 4 with a feminist on it). The event taught me a lot, if not about how to end sexual violence in conflict, then about those who want, or claim to want, to do so.