It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. I thank Anthony Mangnall for all his work as chair of the APPG on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and I thank him and Theo Clarke for co-sponsoring this very important debate with me. I am pleased that, despite our party differences, we are firmly united on this issue, particularly on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, which is what I will focus on in my speech.
The year 2020 was set to be a watershed moment for women’s rights. It has been 25 years since the Beijing declaration and platform for action, and we were hoping to spend this year reaffirming commitments to gender equality that would accelerate progress towards dismantling the barriers that women and girls continue to face. However, in all corners of the world, violence against women remains rife and has increased in many contexts.
Whenever and wherever a crisis hits, violence against women and girls increases. Today is a dark day for two reasons. First, in Ethiopia and Tigray there have been three weeks of fighting: 40,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan and thousands are displaced in Tigray. I hope the Minister will tell us what action he is taking on prevention of sexual violence in that conflict. It is a very live issue.
The second issue is the cutting of the 0.7% aid commitment. The Conservative party manifesto gave that commitment and it was promised for many years, with support from people across the country. I was part of the huge demonstrations of support at previous G7 summits. This is the year before we host a G7 summit, and the prospect of having to walk into that room having cut our own aid budget is very depressing. It is harmful to the cause of taking action against gender-based violence.
Women and girls living in war zones and crisis areas are especially at risk of gender-based violence. In his report on conflict-related sexual violence, released back in June, the UN Secretary-General lists a series of truly harrowing verified case studies of sexual violence in current war zones. I will read some of them:
“In the Central African Republic, a mother of six was subjected to sexual violence by ex-Séléka elements who seized control of her village. During a reprisal attack by anti-balaka forces, she was abducted and repeatedly raped…In northern Mali, two sisters of adolescent age were abducted and gang raped by members of the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad. Upon their release, the girls received medical treatment, but no complaint was filed with the police, despite the identity of the perpetrators being known to the family, owing to the fear of reprisals.”
That is all too common a story. In Colombia, the National Victims’ Unit recorded 365 victims of conflict-related sexual violence during the armed conflict, saying:
“Women and girls made up 89 per cent of the victims”.
I have sat in a room of a similar size to this one with a group of women from Somalia, who told harrowing stories about their experiences during the continuing war in Somalia. I have seen them crying and they are with me in this important debate. The impact of using rape as a weapon of war lasts a lifetime, and it lasts through generations.
As the Secretary-General saliently points out in his report, we need to bear in mind that for every documented case of sexual violence,
“there are countless other stories that will never be heard.”
We do not know the enormous extent of this issue.
The recent establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office marks a crossroads for UK foreign policy. It will come as no surprise to Members that I fear that it is a mistake. It does, however, offer an opportunity to reset the up-to-now lacklustre support for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative, which was announced with huge fanfare in 2012, and in 2014 we saw the magic of stardust and celebrity, with Angelina Jolie and a former Conservative Foreign Minister. It was proclaimed by the Conservative Government to be top of the leader board of international priorities, but I fear it is now languishing in the lower divisions. I hope the Minister can tell me how that will be changed.
This year’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact report on PSVI gave it the equivalent of an Ofsted rating of red or amber. I sincerely hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government are working differently to bring that back to green. Otherwise, what is the point of the two Departments merging and saying they are going to work better? The merger creates a high risk to the leadership of what was the Department for International Development in uplifting the rights of women and girls around the world.
The International Rescue Committee has written an important report on the need for survivor-centred approaches to tackling PSVI, highlighting the unintended consequences of mandatory reporting, which aimed to bring justice but too often resulted in stigma for survivors. We need to learn from that report. Its important recommendations include the need to listen to survivors, provide safe spaces and give them power and resources to organise themselves and make their own decisions. Those recommendations need to be added to the way in which we work on prevention of sexual violence in conflict.
I support the hon. Member for Totnes and the APPG in calling on the UK to push for a new, expert international body to collect and preserve evidence of conflict-related sexual violence. Evidence is essential to ending this. We need to bring more perpetrators to justice. The armed forces need to change how they act; otherwise, there will be no change at all. But this will be done only through the rigorous collecting of forensic, physical and digital evidence.
Secondly, the Government should ring-fence 1% of the UK’s official development assistance—up from 0.3%—to tackle gender-based violence, including sexual-based violence in conflict. Thirdly, responsibility for that should be restored to the Foreign Secretary. The ICAI report found that shifting responsibility to the level of a junior Minister
“resulted in ministerial attention and funding being redirected elsewhere” and in our dropping down the league table.
Fourthly, the Government should use their new Magnitsky-style global human rights sanctions regime to target those who commit or encourage conflict-related sexual violence. That would send out strong signals that it is not acceptable. Fifthly, PSVI needs a longer-term approach, with a long-term strategy and funding cycle, not just a one-year funding cycle. This is an endemic problem of human rights and justice. It will take many years to solve it, and it needs many years of action.
I will add my own recommendations. The first is to end the stigma, which for many women is worse than the action itself. When they return, they are rejected by their husbands and communities, and many children are also rejected. We need global leadership to tackle the stigma so that it does not continue. I raised that in questions to the Church Commissioners this morning, and I will continue to raise it wherever and whenever I can. I hope the Minister will do so as well.
Secondly, when will the delayed global summit take place? Let us bring back Angelina Jolie and see who else we can get. We need to get back that global attention. In 2014, we were promised it would take place five years later, which, if my maths serves me correctly, was 2019. It did not happen then—although I can understand why—and it has not happened this year either. It really needs to happen next year. I like the fact that the hon. Member for Totnes has called 2021 the year of conferences—why not add one more? Thirdly, I want our work to focus on measures to document evidence and bring perpetrators to justice, and for us to think creatively about how to do that in this digital age.
In conclusion, as parliamentarians we must never lose sight of the profound and unspeakable suffering experienced by women and men as a result of sexual violence. It is not just women who are affected—men are definitely affected, too—but our focus today has been women. Our British values, of which I am very proud and which unite Members on both sides of the House, compel us to take up the issue, do what we can around the world, fight their corner and ensure that justice is done.