This week, in the run up to International Women’s Day on Monday 8th March, a series of special events were put on in the European Parliament focusing on a broad range of women’s rights issues. Notably yesterday, we had a debate entitled ‘Women in armed conflict – the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo’. In recent months I have written a number of blogs addressing conflict violence against women. This is an issue which is discussed regularly in the European Parliament, given that countries across the globe tme and again look to the EU as a source of hope in the fight against such violence.
As many of you will be aware, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in the grip of a grave humanitarian crisis since the country was devastated by a five-year long civil war between 1998 and 2003. During the conflict, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite the brokering of a peace deal in 2003 which brought the war to an end, another type of war has continued unhindered in the DRC: the war against the female population. In a country where the political situation remains extremely fragile, acts of violence against women, including rape, injury and sexual slavery, have been ignored and allowed to take place on a massive scale. This has devastating consequences for both the women who are affected, and also for society at large.
Efforts have been made at the international level to address violence against women in conflict states. Indeed the focal point of yesterday’s discussion was the progress on the ground since the introduction of Resolution 1325 ten years ago, in which the UN Security Council acknowledged women’s needs in armed conflict and women’s role in peace and security. A representative from the European Commission was present at the debate. He explained that a number of strategies have been adopted since 2000, including prevention, support for victims, and strategies to fight against impunity. In November 2009, the United Nations launched a comprehensive strategy to tackle violence against women in the DRC, which was supported by the European Union. Then, in January this year, Margot Wallström, who was previously European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, organised a conference in Brussels on ‘Women, Peace and Security: Empowering women in peace and conflict’.
Despite these efforts at the international level, to date only 12 EU Member States have adopted national action plans for implementing Resolution 1325.
One woman who has lived through the country’s violence spoke at the event yesterday. She highlighted that impunity is one of the most important issues for female victims in the DRC. Since the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, the fight against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity has come a long way. However, as she correctly pointed out, most of the crimes against women committed during the civil war in the DRC took place before 2002. There have been some convictions against the Congolese army thanks to external pressure by Hillary Clinton and other high-profile figures, including the sentencing last year of ten Congolese rapists by a Congolese military court. Yet the judicial system in the DRC remains weak, and the capacity to accommodate all convicted perpetrators simply does not exist.
The speaker stressed that women who have been raped are victims not just of their crime, but are also victims of exclusion within the community. Effective action is needed by local communities to ensure that injured women are treated with compassion, and are not simply rejected by their families and by their peers.
There can be no doubt that the European Union has a huge role to play in tackling violence against women in conflict-ridden and post-conflict states. I strongly believe that the EU has a duty to encourage as many of its members as possible to adopt national actions plans for implementing Resolution 1325. It should also ensure that in its missions to conflict states, a greater level of expertise is available to help victims of rape and other acts of violence. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war in civil conflicts across the globe, and the EU is one of the key actors with the capacity to significantly reduce the damaging effects of this upon victims and communities.