Dr. Helen Pankhurst works for CARE international and is a descendent of the British suffragette movement. In this guest post for the Foreign Office, she asks for ‘deeds not words’ on International Human Rights Day

On International Human Rights Day we need to celebrate the progress achieved, but also speak out against ongoing human rights abuses wherever they happen. One of these, and one of the least recognised, is the targeted violence against women in situations of conflict and civil war. Ironically, we all know that this has always taken place - sexual violence, usually targeted at women and girls, has, from time immemorial, been a weapon that destroys, degrades and humiliates whole communities. Despite being referred to in article 27 of the 1945 Geneva Convention, and despite the International Criminal Court expanding the definition of crimes of sexual violence, pitiful progress has been made in actually securing prosecutions for these crimes.

What is happening is systematic abuse which is legitimised and covered up by war. Naming this human rights violation for what it is, highlighting it, and seeking more prosecutions for this targeted abuse of women and girls, is the first step towards stopping it from happening.

As the UK looks to take on the presidency of the G8, William Hague’s new Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative is therefore critically important. A team of experts is being set up to help secure prosecutions of those that perpetuate targeted violence and to send a global message that there will be no impunity for those that commit or sanction these crimes under the excuse of war.

At the same time, in the pursuit of efforts to prosecute, we must remember to put the needs of survivors first, to allow them agency rather than, once again, ‘use’ them - even if it is for a better cause. No survivor can sustain their participation in any justice process, if emergency life-saving medical facilities and longer-term health and psycho-social support are not in place. It is therefore important that the team of expert’s actions include making links with longer term rehabilitation and development programs.

Only last week CARE International received reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo about women being raped, abused and tortured. It is Congo now, but it has been many other countries in the past, and unless we do something, it will be many more in the future. ‘Deeds not words’ are what my Pankhurst ancestors would have demanded and William Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative is evidence of just that. Hopefully, the G8 will strengthen the initiative, in particular by looking at ways in which they can fund the links with basic health services, so that the courageous women who dare to speak out after targeted abuses can also recover and rebuild their lives.

Photos: © CARE / Kate Holt as featured previously

The UK Government is calling for international action to address the problem of sexual violence in conflict.

The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative was launched by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy for Refugees Angelina Jolie in 2012.

The Initiative is working to replace the culture of impunity for sexual violence committed in conflict with one of deterrence - by increasing the number of perpetrators brought to justice both internationally and nationally; by strengthening international efforts and co-ordination to prevent and respond to sexual violence; and by supporting states to build their national capacity. #TimetoAct

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