The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was launched in London on June 10th, bringing together the largest gathering ever dedicated to ending the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts around the world.  The four day event, hosted by worldwide known actress Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, is expected to create “irreversible momentum” in tackling sexual violence in conflict zones. Whether it actually will, it remains to be seen. However, it is undoubtable that the myriad of organizations, discussions, theatre performances, and short movies available to the public during the summit have provided a sweeping amount of information to those interested in how sexual violence is performed and perpetuated in conflict zones around the world. I attended the event for three days, and I cannot longer close my eyes to the fact that sexual violence is a common occurrence that often receives no punishment. The need to confront an issue that has been considered an inevitable part of conflict for far too long needs to be recognized by the public and politicians alike, and I hope this article will contribute to raise awareness on this subject.

The summit’s events were skilfully designed to attract the attention of the public by combining lectures with music events, short movies, theatre performances, and a small market in which jewellery, clothing and similar objects made by people living in conflict zones could be acquired. The theatre performances I attended voiced the experiences of the women and men that suffer sexual violence throughout the world by performing pieces written by those who have been first witness to the violence.

“Breaking the Silence”, a play told through monologues, draws upon Human Rights Watch’s reporting to tell these stories, such as the experience of a 15-year-old girl that tries to remember her mum braiding her hair while she is raped day after day. Other monologues talked about the shame and frustration of the many men who have been raped but will never dare to speak about it because of the taboo surrounding male sexual violence in most parts of the world. Girl Be Heard, a theatre company that focuses on global issues affecting women, performed many powerful pieces focusing on different aspects of sexual violence in conflict such as sexual trafficking or the rape epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “War Divides, Music Connects”, was the slogan chosen by Musicians without Borders to represent the way in which music can be used to engage and unite everybody in the fight against sexual violence.

The silent cinema, in which different short movies were shown in three separate screens, was also a vivid way of representing the various experiences of the men and women affected by sexual violence in conflict. “Gender against Men”, a short documentary focusing on rape and violence, talks about the use of rape as a tool to humiliate the enemy and a way to tell men that they’re not strong enough to protect their women. Many of the discussions that took place during the summit focused on how to prevent sexual violence and support those injured by it when it has already taken place. In an inspiring talk chaired by Care International, several organizations such as the Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre explained how positive developments have taken place in Rwanda by promoting positive forms of masculinity and femininity after the genocide. Social and gender transformative programs include local men and women in an effort to engage everybody in challenging gender stereotypes that lead to sexual violence.

Despite its merits, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict is not without criticism. Although the government-hosted summit stated that support for survivors of sexual violence is a crucial part of the agenda to prosecute sexual violence across the world, the UK Home Office’s record on the subject is at the very least controversial. Nearly 2,000 women seeking asylum in the UK were locked up in detention centres in 2012, and research has found that one in five of the woman being held in detention facilities has tried to commit suicide. Women seeking refuge in the UK are often further traumatized by the British immigration system, and this is an issue that deserves as much attention as the ones brought up in the summit. The question of whether this event will raise awareness beyond the like-minded is also critical for a summit that expects to create “irreversible momentum” in the struggle against sexual violence in conflict zones. Although the presence of Angelina Jolie has undeniably brought worldwide fame to the summit it is still not clear whether the issues raised by the event will receive as much attention as the famous actress. Unfortunately, sexual violence is still primarily seen as a “women’s issue” and it often fails to attract the attention of the public at large.

Despite these shortcomings, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was an unprecedented effort to bring together over 1,000 experts and representatives from over 120 countries around the issue of sexual violence in conflict zones. It seems bewildering that in the twenty-first century a global summit is needed to state that sexual violence is not an inevitable part of conflict, but unfortunately that is the case. Hopefully this will be the first of many global summits that seeks to address this issue. Are we ready to listen?




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