The plank in Britain’s own eye

This piece is an extended version of an article that appeared in the 0th week edition of the paper. 


This year, the UK holds the one-year presidency of the G8 summit. David Cameron said that he wanted to use this position to push for open governments, open economies and free trade. Yet Foreign Secretary William Hague has taken the opportunity to focus on a different issue: sexual violence. In his declaration on behalf of the G8, he said this:

“We have the ability to show leadership on vast global issues of our time. One of those issues must be the horrific use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. This is one of the greatest and most persistent injustices in the world. It is also one of the most neglected.”

I couldn’t agree more; systematic violence against women is used in conflict as a tool of humiliation and pain, intended to force cooperation by stealing people’s dignity and destroying their physical capacity to fight. It is a despicable reality and one which has long been able to continue under the radar of international attention. However, it is dangerous for the G8 member states to suggest that sexual violence in conflict zones is somehow more worrying than individual cases in their own countries.

This issue could not be more relevant for the UK; whilst William Hague pledges £10 million from Britain to help stop sexual violence across the globe, Home Office statistics released in January this year showed that only one major sex crime in every 38 committed in the UK leads to conviction. Leaders need to stop pretending that rape is a circumstantial issue and understand that the exploitation of women’s bodies is a universal weapon; it is a battle that women share no matter where they live.

The crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which reached boiling point at the end of last year, seared the issue of sexual violence onto the international agenda. As the UN’s mission to the eastern Kivu province of the country battled to keep rebel groups from seizing the resource-rich city of Goma, they found another enemy: the systematic rape of vulnerable women. The problem is that rape is not just inflicted by the ‘bad guys’ (in this case, the rebels); it is also perpetrated by Congo’s own army. At the G8 summit, the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said:

“The firm commitment that was made so personally to me by President Kabila [of Congo] to more effectively prosecute crimes of sexual violence is absolutely crucial, and together we must hold the President to his word. At the same time, we must support him and his Government – technically and financially – to deal decisively with this problem.”

Thus women and children are not only victim to the ‘enemy’ but to the armed forces deployed to protect them. Rape is an issue exacerbated by, but not limited to, conflict. It has been said that wherever there are soldiers, there is sexual violence; there have also been accusations of rape in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the Red Army was sent to ‘liberate’ Hungary after the Second World War, Hungarian women took the punishment for their country’s involvement with the Nazis; accounts of the brutalities they suffered at the hands of their ‘liberators’ only emerged in the early 1990s. In short, women are seen as prizes of the victors in war, or as beloved objects of their menfolk which can be ‘ruined’ appropriately; they are not treated as human beings.

So how much of this is an issue of ‘conflict’ or instead of how women are perceived? In other words, if we somehow miraculously ended conflict, would women no longer be raped? The answer is undeniably, disturbingly, “no”. I can’t tell you why women are ever raped, nor am I suggesting that all men or all soldiers are rapists, but it remains true that this is an ugly phenomenon which is too often dismissed. In this country, between 60,000 and 95,000 women are estimated to be raped each year; it is difficult to measure precisely because rape is the one crime where the victims are made to feel as much to blame as the perpetrators. All too often, we hear the words “drunk”, “short skirt” or “irresponsible” thrown around when sexual violence is reported. Always, rape is made to seem circumstantial instead of inescapable.

What William Hague has announced is a step in the right direction; making systematic rape in conflict a ‘war crime’ and thus punishable by the International Criminal Court, ensuring better investigation and documentation of rape in conflict zones, reviewing training given to troops in these areas to better deal with the problem, and supporting better judicial systems to be implemented in order to deal with rape cases. Most importantly, he sent out the message that sexual violence will no longer be a ‘taboo’ subject, which is crucial to achieving more prosecutions.

Yet I can’t help but wish that the same tone and enthusiasm could be directed at the British justice system as well, which similarly and consistently fails to deal with this most horrendous and widespread of crimes. How can Britain ‘lead the way’ with such a terrible track record of its own? More energy needs to be spent on explaining why women are victims of sexual violence in the first place; this will similarly explain why they are so reluctant to report the crime and why courts are so reluctant to prosecute the men responsible. Circumstantial factors are secondary to this underlying problem.