The G8’s PR strategy on rape in conflict

By — June 18, 2013

On the same day in April that I listened to the harrowing stories of Syrian women over endless glasses of tea in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, leaders of the world’s eight richest countries promised to take action against rape as a weapon of war.

During the bumpy drive out of Zaatari, I read with interest that G8 leaders had just passed a “Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,” committing more forcefully than ever before to “address these ongoing crimes.” It was welcome news after hours spent talking with women who had fled their homes and braved bombs, snipers, militias, bandits, and exile to escape the threat of rape.

My interest was even further piqued by the specifics of the G8 declaration. The summit attendees endorsed international protocols for investigating and documenting rape in conflict. They called for support and protection of women human rights activists and women’s organizations doing vital work on the ground. And, best of all, they called on the international community, and the G8 itself, to provide critical funding for access to psychosocial and medical services for those targeted with sexualized violence.

These were some of the very demands that wartime rape survivors and human rights advocates had been making for years. In that sense, the declaration could be seen as promising. But the high-profile statement failed to offer a deadline, measurable metric, or concrete plan for a single recommendation it put forward.

This week’s G8 summit in Fermanagh, Ireland, is a chance for leaders to redeem themselves. But will the group—comprised of the world’s biggest arms dealers, most powerful donor states, and four out of five of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council—offer more than lip service on conflict-related rape?

If not, its April declaration will have little impact on the real, lived experiences of women on the ground in war zones like Syria. Families there cite rape as a primary reason they fled their homes and their country—not a move anyone undertakes lightly.

In Zaatari, women relayed to me in horrifying detail and with evident trauma rapes that they say happened to “someone else.” And really, what incentive do women have to come forward and report these crimes? If they do, they face severe stigma and the threat of “honor killing” by their families, as well as the fear of retaliatory violence against relatives still living in Syria. And braving all that still won’t get them access to medical services or counseling, much less justice.

A 15-year-old Syrian refugee prepares for her wedding at Zaatari camp in May. (Lauren Wolfe)

So they endure the refugee camps, where grueling conditions breed new forms of violence against women. One mother I met told me, through exhaustion, about her search for a husband for her teenage daughter. “I would rather see her married than hungry,” she said. “I just pray that this man will be kind to her.”

These refugee-camp weddings are taking place in the hopes of survival. Aid workers at Zaatari told me that families’ desperation brings men from the Gulf Coast who lurk outside the camp offering dowries for child brides. After a few weeks, many return the girls to their families, or sell them over the border as sex slaves.

The same statement released by the G8 in April that began with a commitment to ending sexualized violence in conflict also included a section on the war in Syria. Yet it failed to make the obvious connections between wartime rape in the abstract and the actual pervasive and systematic attacks on women and girls in Syria today.

In fact, while the G8 opines about ending rape in conflict, it has actually perpetuated the war in Syria by arming both sides. The “small arms” that the Obama administration will now be adding to the arsenal only further entrench the Syrian conflict that, like so many others, has become intertwined with sexualized violence.

Making sweeping declarations of condemnation while taking actions that further entrench the problem isn’t mere oversight. It’s a public relations strategy. A lack of enforcement mechanisms at every level permits governments and international bodies to collect public accolades for acknowledging the horror of rape in conflict while simultaneously allowing them to sidestep any real responsibility for addressing the problem.

Women in Syria, in refugee camps like Zaatari, and in conflict zones around the world don’t need another sweeping declaration or lengthy treatise that talks about their needs but yields zero measurable results. Instead, the G8, governments, and international policymakers can simply—beginning right this moment—follow the guidelines and laws that they have already established as members of the United Nations.

For handy reference, many of these can be found in Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, and 1889. The funding that UN members have already promised to put toward addressing sexualized violence in conflict can and should be immediately released to women’s civil society groups already doing the work on the ground—work that the G8 continues to insist needs more vague “examining.”

And, starting right now, G8 leaders should retire a framework that encourages scrutiny of violence against women as a special class, and instead treat such violence as a gross violation of basic human rights. These rights are already protected under a litany of international declarations, measures, and laws—and they should be effectively implemented and enforced, beginning immediately. Beginning today.