Empowering Women, Ending Violence

June 11, 2014
A Syrian Woman Lights Candles During a Vigil Against Alleged Abuse of Syrian Women

The horrific abduction of more than 200 innocent Nigerian schoolgirls has, rightly, shocked the conscience of the world. It also serves as a harsh reminder of the violence women and girls endure not just in parts of Nigeria but in so many countries around the globe affected by war, violence and insecurity.

Such brutality has been a persistent feature of conflicts throughout history, from Rwanda in 1994 -- where as many as half a million women may have been raped in just 100 days -- to Syria today, where disturbing reports of sexual assault being used as a tactic of war continue to surface.

Violence drives thousands from their homes and destroys lives, leaving a legacy of resentment and instability that can haunt future generations. Few perpetrators are ever brought to justice. Even in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been a leader in addressing this issue, an estimated 50,000 rapes has given rise to just 30 prosecutions.

Increasingly, the world is waking up to the urgent need to defend the rights and dignity of women and girls. The United States and United Kingdom are proud to do our part. In places like Syria and the Balkans, we are supporting local efforts to document crimes and build evidence for future prosecutions. We are working to ensure that survivors have the support and care they need during a crisis, so that later on they will be better placed to take on the tough challenge of rebuilding their communities. On a broader level, we are pushing to place gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the heart of 21st century international development.

Even more than poverty or dictatorship, violence against women is a reliable indicator of social instability. Ending violence against women is therefore not just a moral obligation but a necessary condition for security and stability worldwide. That lesson is not lost on the 148 signatories to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict -- a number that includes advanced countries like the United States and the UK, as well as many nations that have suffered severely from this kind of violence.

This week, more than 1,200 international delegates have gathered in London to discuss how to make good on the Declaration's promises. Participants at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict include government ministers, senior military and police figures, and experts on everything from humanitarian aid to legal and judicial systems. Alongside governmental talks, the Summit will invest in the next generation of activism and leadership by incorporating youth and civil society groups from around the globe into a range of public events, from panel discussions to film screenings and dance performances, that will raise awareness of this critical issue. Above all, we hope the Summit will produce a set of practical agreements that will help shatter the culture of impunity, support and protect the survivors, improve international co-operation, and put women's voices at the heart of all future efforts to promote peace and security.

We must keep foremost in our minds that women are much more than victims of conflict. Women have led efforts to deliver emergency aid, organize protests, mediate ceasefires between warring parties, and negotiate the release of political prisoners. Women play a critical role in peace-building, often far from the battlefield. Research suggests that female participation in peace and security processes helps build longer-lasting peace. The message is simple: If you want peace, you must include women.

To those who say that sexual violence is inevitable in war, we simply point out that previous generations said the same about slavery, a crime that governments from around the world now come together to fight. This generation can do the same for the crime of sexual violence in conflict. The ultimate task for our generation is to make women and men equal partners in building peace, security and prosperity. This is a question not just of individual rights but also of international security. After all, history shows that a society can only reach its potential when women are allowed to reach theirs.

About the Authors: Catherine Russell serves as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and Sir Peter Westmacott serves as the British Ambassador to the United States. You can follow Ambassador Russell on Twitter @S_GWI, and you can follow Ambassador Westmacott on Twitter @PeterWestmacott.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on The Huffington Post.

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