Tackling female sexual abuse one man at a time

Sexual violence in global conflict

June 10, 2014

epa04247604 US actress Angelina Jolie (L) and Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague (R) arrive at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Excel Centre in London, Britain 10 June 2014. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict will take place from 10-13 June 2014. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age

Angelina Jolie and UK Foreign Sec William Hague

By Virginia Haussegger

This column was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

There is only so much sexual violence against women I can watch before the knot in my gut and roar in my throat forces action. On this occasion I stood up and walked out. But UK Foreign Secretary William Hague didn’t – apparently. And just as well.

He has a stronger stomach for the cinematic depiction of violence than people like me, who couldn’t sit though the mass rape of women prisoners in Angelina Jolie’s filmĀ The Land of Blood and Honey, set during the Balkan war in the early ’90s.

But Hague freely admits it was Jolie’s film – she wrote, produced and directed it – that first focused his attention on one of the most hidden global crimes against humanity of our time – the use of sexual violence, rape and torture against women and girls in conflict.

This week, with Jolie by his side, Hague will co-chair the first ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Joining them on stage will be Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison – another newcomer to understanding the extent of sexual violence against women, not just in conflict, but in the military itself. Morrison has become something of a global poster-boy since his furious YouTube rant against the disgusting and sexually demeaning behaviour of his own soldiers shot through cyberspace. It’s had almost 1.5 million views, including the UK Foreign Minister, who personally invited Morrison to speak at the summit.

And while the inclusion of an Australian General is a remarkable and praiseworthy thing, it nevertheless further highlights the incongruity of concern about violence against women: it doesn’t seem to be a major problem – until men deem it to be.

That incongruity wasn’t lost on any of the women invited by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to a dialogue last week to thrash out recommendations for Australia to take to the global summit. There was a formidable range of expertise around the table, with many well versed in how sexual violence against women has long been used as a strategic weapon of war. Nevertheless, the group listened politely as Major General Gus McLachlan confessed to his “incomplete understanding of the nature and extent of the issue”. Major McLachlan was head of Military Planning at ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2012-13, leading a team of 30 nations. Given that, his raw honesty about failing to join the dots between war and women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is telling, if not alarming. “I know we were not sufficiently explicit in our planning and direction to coalition forces about the role of violence towards women and children in that conflict,” he admitted.

As Professor Hilary Charlesworth told the dialogue, “Sexual violence in conflict is often invisible”, even when it happens en masse – such as the Rwanda massacre in 1994, when half a million women were systematically raped, sexually tortured or murdered. Somehow that crime against women was overlooked, until the sole woman judge on the International Criminal Tribunal, Navi Pillay, picked up on a “chance remark” from a witness about the surge of women giving birth nine months after the massacre. Investigations later found they were victims of mass rape ethnic cleansing.

But more than discovery is needed. The world’s women – and William Hague – are demanding accountability and prosecution. Which is why the tag for this week’s global summit is “Time To Act”.

Powerful as Jolie’s film was in reminding us that 50,000 women were raped during the Balkan conflict, the chilling truth about how much the world cares lies in the fact that 20 years later there have been only 30 convictions.

The Australian government has made inroads into tackling the endemic issue of violence against women in conflict by acknowledging the fundamental need to include women at every level of the peace and security agenda. We have a “National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security” and Julie Bishop has proved determined to implement it.

But, just when you think the men in charge “get it” – and particularly when we hear General McLachlan insist “a gender perspective must be included in the factors shaping [the military’s] approach to planning operations”, as he assured last week’s dialogue that “this is not a token effort on our behalf” – a faint smell of hypocrisy wafts though the cracks.

The Abbott government recently announced a six-person expert panel will review Australia’s military strategy, and help Defence come up with a new 10-year plan. But there is not one woman on that panel. And yet according to the Prime Minister’s Press Release, the “expert panel” will “challenge any key assumptions”.

I wonder which of those six men will challenge the assumption that it is legitimate, or wise, to leave women out of the process – yet again?

Virginia Haussegger presents ABC News in Canberra, and is a board member of UN Women National Committee Australia.