One practical way to help End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Written by Anna Macdonald, Director, Control Arms

Photo credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Photo credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said he wanted the global summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit to be a “summit like no other”. There are certainly a few ways it’s been different.

As someone who attends a great deal of conferences it’s been refreshing to see a break in the normal sea of male grey suits, with a majority female attendance. It also makes for a more lively audience and a much more positive and supportive atmosphere. And that’s been necessary as we have heard woman after woman bravely tell survivor stories of terrible, unimaginable abuse with dignity.

The message that the shame and stigma lies with the perpetrator not the survivor has been loud and clear again and again.

So too has been the call for practical action, not just more words and declarations. May be that’s another by-product of a predominantly female attendee list.

One practical way governments can take action is by reducing the access of perpetrators to weapons. While sexual violence is a global problem in both conflict and non-conflict situations, in conflict in particular it is oftenperpetrated down the barrel of a gun. We have heard that rape is less about sex and more about control. And it is often the guns the perpetrators are wielding that allow them to seize control of their victims.

It is far too easy for perpetrators to get their hands on guns in conflict zones from South Sudan, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Syria.  AK-47s, for example, can be bought for as little as $25 in many African countries, despite the fact that 95 per cent of these weapons originate from outside the continent. The multi-billion-dollar arms trade has been poorly-regulated for decades. Unchecked arms and ammunition transfers have undoubtedly fuelled sexual violence – but that is about to change.

New international law is set to come into force later this year, in the shape of the Arms Trade Treaty, that will control the multi-billion-dollar arms trade and reduce the number of weapons being held in irresponsible hands.

The Arms Trade Treaty, adopted just last year in April 2013 by overwhelming vote at the UN, and so far signed by 118 governments and ratified by 40, is a groundbreaking treaty. It’s the first global treaty to bring the arms tradeunder control, requiring governments to take responsibility for all arms entering or leaving their territory, and to not authorize transfers where there are high risks of arms being misused in human rights and humanitarian violations.

It is also groundbreaking because it is the first treaty ever to specifically address the concept of gender-based violence head-on. Article seven of the treaty requires governments to take into account the risk of arms being used for “serious gender-based violence and violence against women and children”. This means governments will be legally obliged to examine the risks of gender based violence by the recipient of any arms transfer. Implemented robustly,this could see a stemming of the weapons that flood so easily into some of the world’s worst conflict zones and make rape in war far too easy to perpetrate.

It has been inspiring to see so many governments actively participating in this week’s Summit. Until now, gender-based violence has been seen as an inevitable consequence of war and one that no one could really do anything about. That has changed this week. Government representatives from many countries have all pledged to be active when they return back to their capitals and to put in place practical steps to help cut the number of lives devastated by sexual violence. It won’t be easy to do – this is an issue that has been sidelined for generations.

One very concrete way of addressing the problem is by making sure their country has signed and ratified the Arms Trade Treaty. The ATT is by no means a panacea for armed violence, or for ending sexual violence – but it can be a very important contribution.