The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security (APPG-WPS), in collaboration with the Nigeria INGO Forum and the Somalia NGO Consortium, organised the panel discussion Sexual violence in conflict: Reclaiming women’s agency through law, policy and practice to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict (19 June). Baroness Hodgson of Abinger CBE, Co-Chair of the APPG-WPS, chaired the discussion with representatives from civil society based in Somalia and Nigeria, the UK government, and a global legal expert. Using north-east Nigeria and Somalia as examples of protracted conflicts, the panellists explored and discussed best practices of programming and legislation that offer meaningful support to empower women to be their own agents of change. Baroness Hodgson called attention to the entrenched patriarchy and targeted violence against women and girls in both conflict settings. Welcoming the continuous efforts of the UK government to address sexual violence in conflict and in their role as penholder at the UN on the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the panellists focused their key asks to the UK government. The discussion was lively and informative with Rosy Cave from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office taking stock of the needs and gaps as highlighted by field colleagues and reiterating the UK government’s willingness to engage all actors and continue prioritising gender equality in protracted conflicts.
Halima Adan from Save Somali Women and Children outlined the current weak legal and policy framework in Somalia, the deeply patriarchal culture and how customary law stigmatises gender-based violence survivors resulting in low levels of reporting and ability to seek services. Due to poor infrastructure and site planning, 2.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in congested camps with limited access to basic services. Woman are economically disempowered and, in general, there are not enough specialised facilities to deal with survivors. Somalia is perceived as a humanitarian crisis which hinders the delivery of long-term sustainable funding. Much of the gender-based violence programming does not span for more than a year, sometimes resulting in specialised facilities being shut down.
Adan focused on best practices of legislation and programming. The Somali Sexual Offences Bill – passed in Cabinet in May 2018 and awaiting Parliamentary enactment – is a critical step towards furthering the protection and promotion of women and girls. It is context specific, was drafted by Somali lawyers with international technical support, and was led by the Somali government and civil society. Adan asked that the UK government supports the enactment of the Somali Sexual Offences Bill and Somalia’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adan noted the best practice of the comprehensive one-stop model where women survivors of sexual violence can receive multi-faceted support. This reduces the re-traumatisation of the survivor and creates conditions for continued support. The UK government’s Department for International Development is not currently funding this model despite its clear advantages. Five one-stop centres and three safe houses are funded by the United States government. Multi-year funding and specific programming on gender equality and social norms are also key to the prevention of sexual violence in conflict.
Joe Read from CARE USA introduced the importance of understanding Nigeria in its regional context: the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. The nine-year violent conflict between non-state armed actors commonly known as ‘Boko Haram’ and the Nigerian Armed Forces has exacerbated existing poverty and patriarchy. Women experience profound political, economic and social exclusion in the Sahel, and sexual violence in conflict is a key feature of the crisis. Women and girls are abused by all parties to the conflict. ‘Boko Haram’ use women and girls as person-borne improvised explosive devices (PBIEDs). Read emphasised the failure of the humanitarian community and the need to take collective responsibility. Local women’s rights organisations are delivering gender-responsive programming in their communities, but they need international support. However, the international response continues to view protection as an add-on rather than a key feature of humanitarian assistance. For example, Nigerian humanitarian response has scaled up since 2014 but the protection sector remains massively underfunded at 8%, with 1.7% for gender-based violence protection and almost 3% for child protection. Read also highlighted the need for high-level political action and the adoption of the Protection of Civilians Policy in Nigeria to ensure accountability.
International legal perspective
Antonia Mulvey, the founder and Executive Director of Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), outlined existing global legal frameworks to further the protection of women and girls and their promotion of their rights, including: the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Istanbul Protocol and the Maputo Protocol. Mulvey noted the slowness and ineffectiveness of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the lack of political will of the International Criminal Court. From Mulvey’s experience in collecting hundreds of testimonies across Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and Myanmar, survivors want justice. Although the state has the primary obligation for the protection of human rights, in most cases sexual violence cannot be reported or investigated because there is no legal framework in place. Highlighting the importance of legislation, Mulvey gave the example of over 100 prosecutions since the enactment of the Sexual Offences Bill in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mulvey argued against the opinion that legislation cannot be passed in conflict contexts. However, badly drafted legislation can lead to worse outcomes for survivors, including their arrest. Implementation of contextually relevant, precise, concise and specific legislation is key, and requires buy-in from government and civil society. The Somali Sexual Offences Bill, for example, has specific clauses on abuse of power and a clear definition of rape and coercive circumstances.
Rosy Cave, Head of the Gender Equality Unit and of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reiterated the UK government’s commitment to consciously delivering for women and girls’ rights. Cave outlined the establishment of the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) and highlighted the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict and the progress it has made. Cave noted that both Nigeria and Somalia are focus countries for the UK’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. The recent G7 led to the UK partnering with Nigeria under a mentorship programme on Women, Peace and Security. Cave agreed that conflict in Nigeria needs to be treated as a regional crisis with regional programming. The UK government has just opened an office in Chad to support this work.
In Somalia, the UK government supports the Somali Sexual Offences Bill, works with Somali female parliamentarians to change behaviours and attitudes, and has supported the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development in the development of their National Action Plan and in their work with security forces, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Key asks and concluding remarks
Key asks from the panel and the following discussion included strengthened collaboration between all actors, increased coordinated and targeted advocacy on gender and women’s rights, increased mechanisms for independent oversight, and the transfer of stigma from survivor to perpetrator.
All panellists were asked to give concluding remarks and key ways forward before Baroness Hodgson of Abinger CBE closed the discussion. Adan concluded with the need to prioritise livelihoods within service provision. Read highlighted the need for genuine empowerment. Cave called for civil society to bring evidence-based suggestions forward to influence the international agenda. Mulvey outlined the critical role of legal and policy frameworks and called for the endorsement and implementation of the Somali Sexual Offences Bill and the Protection of Civilians Policy in Nigeria.
With thanks to Roisin Mangan, Policy Advisor at the Nigeria INGO Forum, whose event report forms the basis of the above report.