How Can We Call Ourselves Civilized While Women Are Victims of Barbarity?

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Philip Hammond, U.K. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
The Guardian
August 29, 2015

The abhorrent sexual violence waged by groups such as Isis and Boko Haram must be countered by governments and at local levels.

In Syria and Iraq, Isis terrorists have turned kidnapping and the sale of women and girls into recruitment and fundraising tools. Thousands of women have been enslaved and raped. In Somalia and Nigeria, terrorists have abducted scores of young women to force them into sham “marriages” characterized by degradation and abuse.

These practices are a stain on the conscience of the world. Sexual abuse is not a legitimate tactic of conflict or war. Women and girls are not slaves to be awarded to terrorist fighters. And mislabeling this abuse as “marriage” does not alter the reality that rape is rape and rape is wrong.

Given its pervasiveness throughout history, some question our ability to combat sexual violence. We strongly disagree. That is why last summer, in London, the British government convened a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. More than 120 nations came together to deliver a stark message: “Survivors must be shielded, rescued, and helped to reintegrate into societies. It is essential their voices are heard, that we learn the lessons and we act. Perpetrators must be identified, held accountable, and stopped.” By acting together, governments and their partners can make steady progress against sexual violence in conflict.

We remain resolute in opposing and defeating terrorist groups. Hypocrisy abounds in Isis propaganda, luring young men and women with false promises, a stark reminder that the voices to counter it must be stronger. Women are an important part of the solution. Around the world, they are enlisting themselves in efforts to promote peace and tolerance that are louder and more powerful than deception and violence.

We must continue to integrate women as equal partners in international efforts to counter violent extremism, prevent conflict, and build peace. Women are uniquely affected by war and their perspectives are indispensable in resolving disputes, ensuring accountability for crimes, minimizing the suffering of civilians and designing long-term recovery programs. Today, women are represented in formal, UN-led peace negotiating processes more than ever before; women’s civil society groups are deeply involved in legal advocacy, advocating for survivors of sexual violence, and caring for refugees. But we continue to fall short in enforcing a policy of zero tolerance towards sexual abuse and in addressing the shortage of women in military and security forces across the globe.

We must end the double damage survivors of sexual violence have faced – the horror of the abuse and the shaming that too often follows. There is no complete remedy for the psychological scars sexual abuse can inflict, but policymakers can help by investing in assistance and counselling. We should rally and expand efforts that support survivors of Isis brutality, including women and girls who have returned from captivity. Perpetrators should pay a price for their crimes, not survivors.

Accordingly, we were encouraged when the spiritual leader of the Yazidis and Kurdish officials in Iraq welcomed back women and girls who had survived Isis abuse. We were pleased to hear religious leaders in Nigeria call for compassion towards pregnant former captives of Boko Haram and for acceptance of the children they will bear. Such compassion is not only fundamental to human decency, it can spare these new generations from the intolerance that feeds violent extremism.

Faith leaders have a unique role to play, but the need for support for the reintegration of survivors goes beyond religion. The role of local communities, supported by the leadership of governments, is paramount. Iraq has taken an important step as the first Middle Eastern country to adopt a national action plan, an important measure to address the impact of Isis on women. More governments should follow suit.

Finally, we must recognize that the persistence of sexual violence is a measure of the distance we still have to travel in respecting the rights of women. Our goal must be to build societies in which sexual violence is treated – legally and by every institution of authority – as the serious and wholly intolerable crime that it is.

We have seen global campaigns and calls to action draw attention to this issue and mobilize governments and organizations to act. But transformation requires the active participation of men and women everywhere. We must settle for nothing less than a united world saying no to sexual violence and yes to justice, fairness, and peace.