Gender-based violence is a global pandemic

Anthony Mangnall
Friday June 19 2020, The Times

Anthony Mangnall is Conservative MP for Totnes and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative

The UN estimates that in the 12 months before the pandemic 242 million women and girls were subjected to sexual or physical violence. While this is a shocking figure, experts predict that it will be significantly increased by the Covid-19 crisis.

In the UK the lockdown has confined many women to a home they share with their abuser, resulting in dramatic increases in domestic violence. Overseas, predators in conflict zones have taken advantage of the distracted international community to commit monstrous crimes of sexual violence.

We should not be surprised. Throughout wars and disasters across the ages one thing has been certain: women are subjected to appalling acts of violence. As the Sunday Times reporter Christina Lamb documents in her recent book, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield, the conflicts and crises change but the stories of survivors remain heartbreakingly similar.

But conflicts and crises can also shine a light on the horrors and injustices in our societies and galvanise the international community. The International Committee of the Red Cross was formed after Henri Dunant watched the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimean war and revolutionised nursing and care.

Covid-19 could be another example. The outbreak has exposed a gender-based violence pandemic. The international community must find a cure for both, with Britain showing the way.

There is a precedent for the UK leading international efforts on gender-based violence. In 2012 it set up the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, in which 155 nations joined to commit to ending sexual violence as a weapon of war. Unfortunately, action on this important issue has declined in recent years.

Given that rape and domestic violence are perennial issues, many people question whether gender-based violence will ever be eradicated. While it is easy to despair over the prevalence of these crimes, we are not powerless. There are three actions that the UK can take.

First, every international forum, whether the UN Security Council, the G7 or the Commonwealth, must be used to raise the issue. When delegations of UK ministers arrive at conferences it should be expected that they will champion those who suffer in silence. Discussion begets engagement and action.

Second, to end sexual violence in conflict, we must end the impunity with which these crimes are committed. Evidence needs to be collected to bring perpetrators to justice. The team of experts at the Foreign Office play an important role in this by training our partners, but we must redouble our efforts.

An international body of investigators, lawyers and analysts should be created to collect and preserve all records of gender-based violence in conflict zones. Such a body would drive up the quantity and quality of evidence and secure prosecutions.

Third, the international community needs to get serious about funding. While the UK is rightly lauded across the world for its 0.7 per cent aid target, the latest figures show that in 2018 just £45 million of this was spent on tackling violence against women and girls.

Ringfencing 1 per cent of our aid budget would not only increase the UK’s ability to challenge violence against women and girls abroad, but also set an example for other nations to follow.

It is not the absence of conflict that denotes peace, but the presence of justice. That is what a truly Global Britain must represent. The merger announced this week between Dfid and the Foreign Office offers an opportunity to strengthen our impact by tying humanitarian work to the diplomatic network. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should start by putting the issue of gender-based violence at the core of its humanitarian work, and humanitarian work at the core of its foreign policy.

Today is the international day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict. At a time when we are reflecting on our history, we should consider how we will explain to future generations why we allowed these acts of violence to continue for so long. The silence must end. Justice must be sought.