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Nicola Blackwood MP

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Sexual Violence: The Hidden Conflict Crisis Stalking Children

Posted: 11/04/2013 00:00

Some of the most devastating effects of a war are the ones we don't see reported on the nightly news. It's not always the terror of bullets and bombs that weigh the heaviest on communities affected by war, but rather the long-term, numbing survival crises of hunger, disease and social breakdown that inevitably follow.

Hidden away in the darkest recesses of conflict-ridden villages and schoolrooms a more subtle destruction of people's lives plays out - endemic sexual violence and abuse.

Sexual violence is often deliberately deployed as a weapon of war, which catalyses and perpetuates conflict. In this context it is a security issue as well as a humanitarian issue, making divisions deeper and peace more elusive. Most of this horror goes unseen, although occasionally, some large-scale atrocity might make it into the Western media and we will all be outraged for a few hours.

But in war-ravaged communities, there is also an even less visible wave of sexual violence that can become the norm, committed not by only soldiers, but by civilians exploiting the social breakdown that conflict brings. When this happens, the complete destruction of a community is usually close, leaving its people far from the rule of law, support services or international protection. Most of those living with sexual violence and conflict as a daily reality suffer in obscurity without access to medical attention, criminal justice services or a voice in any peace process that follows.

Their plight is a public failing and a private tragedy.

Now a new report from Save the Children has revealed another dimension to this silent crisis, showing that children are bearing the brunt of sexual violence in war. It says that in current and former warzones from Sierra Leone to Liberia, Congo to Colombia, more than half of the victims of sexual violence are children.

Even for a problem that always hits the vulnerable hardest, such figures are staggering, and that is why it is vital that the UK is using its presidency of the G8 to leverage international commitment to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

I am proud that our government, led by William Hague, is rejecting the myth that rape in war is inevitable and is leading the way in the international community to end sexual violence in conflict. The UK's initiative not only seeks new funding, but also encourages states to commit to practical measures aimed at ending the impunity of perpetrators of sexual violence, supporting survivors and at protecting the human rights defenders who are working to improve the rights of victims in their own countries.

This approach matters because it is making sure that money will be spent building the capacity of countries themselves to tackle sexual violence; it will be spent on empowering survivors to recover and on helping local people hold their own governments to account. This is the only way to turn a silent crisis into a noisy protest and place the responsibility for the enforcement of ending sexual violence exactly where it should be - with the states themselves.

But a moment of truth for these efforts arrives this Thursday, when G8 foreign ministers will meet in London discuss what action to take on the issue. The FCO's initiative needs to recognise how badly children are being affected.

Until now, sexual violence in war has been viewed by many, myself included, as an issue primarily affecting adults. Most of the help available for survivors is aimed at adult women; where children benefit from projects, there is little recognition that their needs are very different.

The Save the Children report shines a light on the scale of problem and the devastation it causes. One 2012 study cited from post-war Liberia shows that 80% of victims of gender based violence were children - almost all of them had been raped.

The charity spoke to girls from Mali who saw their friends raped and killed by armed men, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo subjected to vicious sexual attacks in recent fighting around Goma, and mothers in Colombia whose young children had been raped as the rule of law broke down around them. Separately these cases could seem like statistical anomalies, outliers specific to particular conflicts. Together, however, they indicate a disturbing pattern of large-scale child abuse that we have yet to acknowledge, let alone tackle.

There is no easy way to stop this crisis. To date funding for projects to protect women and children in conflict zones and other crises has been hard to secure. Protection for the vulnerable in humanitarian emergencies is consistently the worst funded sector of humanitarian response. But money alone will not be enough.

Unless the capacity to hold those responsible for sexual violence is strengthened, and states are able to protect their children properly, the innocent will continue to suffer. By acknowledging the true nature of this problem, and agreeing concrete steps to address it, the G8 take can a huge step towards tackling an issue that has been left in the shadows for too long.

 
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