Rights and wrongs

Ray CollinsNewly promoted Shadow DfID Minister, Ray Collins on ensuring government support for victims of rape in armed conflict

In the Lords last night, we debated the need to ensure that government support to victims of sexual violence including rape is non-discriminatory and, where medically necessary, involves the choice of abortion services. 

Wartime sexual violence is one of history’s greatest silences. It is devastating for individuals, families and communities who must cope with unwanted pregnancies and children, stigmatization and rejection, diseases and reproductive health issues, psychological trauma, and disintegration of the social fabric. 

Since the 1990’s, there has been an increased awareness of sexual violence in wartime due to the significant impact of armed conflicts on civilian populations. According to UN Women, 90% of casualties in contemporary conflicts are civilians, with the majority being women and children. Sadly, the effects often continue beyond war. Post-conflict studies from Rwanda, where up to half a million women were raped during the conflict, show a spiral of continuing violence against women. The same cycle is being repeated in Syria right now, with reports from organisations such as Human Rights Watch of Syrian government forces and militias sexually abusing girls as young as 12.

Violence against women as a tool of war remains one of the least prosecuted crimes, and we have to do better to ensure action against the perpetrators. Not only must we be tough on this crime we have to be tough on its causes. To do so means tackling the underlying problems of lack of empowerment, education and inclusion. If we hope to change the harsh reality in which so many women live, particularly in conflict zones, we need to properly support organisations like UN Women.

Twelve years ago, the unanimous adoption of resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was a landmark decision; in which the situation of women was specifically addressed in armed conflict and called for their participation at all levels of decision-making on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The UN recognised that women’s exclusion from such processes not only contravened their rights but also weakened the prospects for sustainable peace.

Since the adoption of resolution1325, four supporting resolutions have been adopted by the Security Council, focusing on three key goals: strengthening women’s participation in decision-making; ending sexual violence and impunity; and providing an accountability system. Together, these resolutions provide a powerful framework and mandate for implementing and measuring change in the lives of women in conflict-affected countries. As a member of the UN Women executive, the UK has a responsibility to help ensure it the international community’s commitment. 

Last night, I sought reassurance from the Minister, Baroness Northover that the International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, will make this a priority. UN Women has great potential but that will not survive without our support. As my colleague, the MP Rushanara Ali recently pointed out they don’t have the long-term backing that everyone agrees is necessary for the organisation to take off. The aim is to join up the work being done across the UN on gender equality and women’s empowerment, pooling resources and efforts to increase impact and reach.

Lord Lester, who initiated the Lords debate, pointed out that girls and women who are raped and become pregnant have rights under the Geneva Conventions to have full medical care, including the choice of an abortion. Unfortunately the United States attaches a ban on abortion as a condition of all of its humanitarian aid funding, including to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and foreign countries. The Minister assured the Lords of the UK responsibility to protect women and girls around the world. I hope the government’s guarantee holds, and we continue to live up to our commitment to those at their most vulnerable in places and times of conflict.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow Minister for International Development in the House of Lords

Published 10th January 2013

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