By Jo Simmons*
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently announced the launch of a new film competition in tandem with the Royal Television Society, one that is set to draw attention to the plight of victims and survivors of sexual violence in conflict.
The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) film competition is accepting entries from filmmakers from any country and of any age; subjects may cover the challenges of providing justice to survivors of violence, or the lifelong stigma faced by survivors’ children. The films will screen at a conference in London this November.
It comes as no surprise that the UK is organising such a festival. British politicians have long made a concerted effort to tackle this horrific global issue. Indeed, the scale of the problem— one which affects millions of women and men today in every corner of the globe— surely makes the violence impossible to ignore.
A long fight for justice
In South Sudan alone, more than 100 women and girls have been raped or endured sexual violence since a peace deal was signed last September, with many of them taken captive by armed groups as “wives.” The country erupted into war in 2013, when President Salva Kirr accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup; the resulting battles between members of Machar’s Nuer community and Kiir’s Dinka people have since been characterised by cruel violence, widespread rape and reports of ethnic cleansing.
For survivors living in communities that have doggedly rebuilt after conflict, the battle for justice drags on long after the bloodshed has ended. Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended more than two decades ago, yet the indigenous Maya survivors who claim they were raped at the hands of paramilitary group members are still fighting to have their aggressors jailed. Last month, their campaign suffered a major setback after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to send six former PAC paramilitary patrol members to trial for crimes against humanity.
The Mayans’ experience of unserved justice is one repeated across the world. In the absence of a deliberate, and comprehensive, global response to sexual violence in conflict, this remains a weapon of war that destroys paths to social cohesion, economic development and sustainable security long after the peace deals have been signed. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has himself called for the replacement of “impunity with justice; and indifference with action.”
British politicians advocating for groups like Lai Dai Han
The former British foreign secretary Jack Straw is one policymaker who has taken up Guterres’ call to action. Earlier this year, in his capacity as an international ambassador for activist group Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH), he unveiled a statue alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner and survivor Nadia Murad in honour of all victims of sexual violence. “For too long these victims of sexual violence have been forgotten and cast aside by society,” said Straw. The Lai Dai Han is a derogatory term for a generation of children born from Vietnamese women who were raped by South Korean soldiers deployed alongside US forces during the Vietnam War. While the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act saw tens of thousands of people resettled on US soil in response to reported rapes, South Korea has never acknowledged claims of sexual violence perpetrated by its troops against thousands of women, including girls as young as 12.
Conceived from rape and disowned by their fathers, the Lai Dai Han say their lives have been marred by stigma and marginalisation on their own soil. Many are illiterate after being refused an education, and most Lai Dai Han have poor access to healthcare and social services. Together with the UK-based JLDH, the Lai Dai Han and their mothers are calling for a UN investigation and recognition from the South Korean government.
Concrete steps taken
In addition to supporting activist groups like JLDH, UK authorities have also taken concrete action on the ground. The British Armed Forces are hosting self-defence workshops for women and girls in the slowly-rebuilding communities of South Sudan. Where most instances of sexual violence go unreported due to social stigma, such programmes are essential to building survivors” confidence. Moreover, the provision of legal redress mechanisms and awareness-raising sessions represents a new, survivor-centred approach to tackling deep wounds left by violence past.
On the other side of the Red Sea, the British government is banding together with NGOs, experts to tackle sexual violence across Syria as the country’s brutal civil war drags into its ninth year. Through a £10 million Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, Syrian organisations are receiving support to raise awareness of women’s rights, treat survivors and document medical evidence that will be essential in future efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of these atrocities. Thanks to a £30 million provision to the UN Population Fund, survivors are now receiving life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.
Earlier this year, the UK became the first country to place “human security” at the core of its defence policy, and the benefits are already being felt in conflict areas across the globe. In the midst of choosing a new Prime Minister and the endless hashing out of Brexit specifics, it is only encouraging that British policymakers are keeping a global view and seeking to help those against whom this terrible weapon of war has been used.
*Jo Simmons is a writer and consultant currently living in London.