Can Angelina Jolie's star power refocus the debate on sexual violence?

Like the international campaign to eliminate landmines, the emerging fight to stop rape as a weapon of war has now become globalized. But can even Angelina Jolie's star power help stop a practice that has endured so long, for all the wrong reasons, Nahlah Ayed writes.

Like the campaign to eliminate landmines, the fight against rape in conflicts is now globalized

Egyptian men look at female protesters carrying signs against sexual harassment after a woman was assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square during Sunday's celebrations marking the inauguration of the new president. Seven men have been arrested. (Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)

Hania Moheeb was still at hospital, badly injured and in shock, when she decided she would speak publicly about her ordeal.

Not an easy decision when you live in conservative Egypt, and when you've just survived what appeared to be yet another organized sexual assault in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013, the second anniversary of the country's revolution.

But her experience—and knowing that sexual assault had become a weapon of choice in the street-level conflict over the country's political direction—provided Moheeb with only one possible course of action, to speak out.

It was "definitely a tool of conflict," she told me in an interview, "a tool to deter women and prevent them from participating in political life.

"Very nicely, the police officer tried to persuade me not to write [a report], to wait until I feel better."

But she knew she had to write that report, and many others, to tell her story to national media to reveal, among other things, the humiliating treatment she was subjected to after the attack.

"I didn’t even get a glass of water or a tranquilizer," she said. "All the nurses cared for was to keep 'that woman' from shouting and screaming…I was thinking that I was going to a safe place, but I was more traumatized in the hospital."

Of all the weapons used in war, sexual violence –including rape—is among the most primitive, the most unchanged, and it has always remained true to its original aims: to humiliate, demoralize, devastate and destroy.

It is a weapon of war so pervasive around the globe that it rarely makes headlines—leaving mostly women and girls (but also men and boys) to fight a hidden war-within-a-war as vicious as any element of today's armed conflicts.

Actress and UN human rights campaigner Angelina Jolie speaks during a summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London on Thursday. Next to her is Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters)

But now a growing number of survivors who are speaking out have started to change that. And in London this week their voices were amplified manyfold by the power of celebrity.

Actress and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie has just finished co-chairing, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, a three-day conference in London called Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Over 100 countries sent representatives to the global summit. That accomplishment alone, in the words of one British commentator, made it "a really big deal."

Celebrity firepower

It is, indeed, the first time that these countries have come together on an international stage with activists and survivors to commit to at least trying to end the use of rape in war and conflict.

"This is an intolerable situation," Jolie said at the summit's opening earlier this week. "That is why, at the heart of this campaign, we are calling for an end to impunity."

Given that the vast majority of rape survivors never see justice, the conference was full of ideas on how to change that. The group Physicians for Human Rights, for one, believes the key to delivering justice is in documenting the crimes.

"We are trying to improve the way they gather forensic evidence to support local prosecutions and international prosecutions even in very low resourced areas," says Karen Naimer, a Canadian lawyer with the group.

With conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria and others casting a pall over the effort, it is compelling but frankly difficult to envision an end to the practice.

Like landmines, which are also supposedly banned, sexual violence of this type lingers on precisely for the reasons it should be eliminated — because it is effective as a weapon of war.

Still, a conference is a start. A declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict, to be signed today by up to 150 countries, is also encouraging.

Of course the easiest way to end sexual violence in conflict is to end war. That is about as insurmountable as changing attitudes that allow the rape and murder of women outside of conflict, too.

In India, where a growing number of reports of rape have sparked outrage, two young women were gang-raped and then hanged on a tree recently in Uttar Pradesh.

In Egypt, sexual assault happens outside Tahrir Square too—in prisons, in regular neighbourhoods. Sexual harassment is endemic, and shamefully tolerated by society—though increasingly, less so.

Women are in a very miserable situation because we have been suffering over decades from a very, very bad discourse," says Moheeb, referring to the image of women that is projected in some religious institutions, the media and cinema.

"All of those messages fed everyday to young people who have less opportunity in marriage, in work, is likely to have this result."

There are some encouraging signs. Sexual harassment and assault is constantly being discussed in Egypt now. Last week, authorities toughened penalties for sexual harassment.

Yet this comes as new evidence and testimony emerged of a fresh wave of assaults in Tahrir Square—this time, during celebrations of the inauguration of the new president, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi last weekend.

One horrific video that surfaced showing glimpses of one survivor, bruised and naked, thronged by men, has sparked outrage in Egypt.

In India, the mother of one of the two teenage girls who were raped and hanged from a tree in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh at the end of May, weeps silently outside her home. (Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters)

Soon afterwards, al-Sisi was photographed visiting the woman—whose face was blurred out—in hospital, and presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. It is an act that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago there, when any discussion of sexual assault was all but absent from the public sphere.

The president is reported to have directed authorities to deal harshly with sexual harassment and assault, and seven men were arrested this week, in connection with the attacks in Tahrir.

They are very small steps. Too small. And activists are rightfully skeptical.

It has been only a few weeks since those young Indian women were found hanging from a tree after being violated, two months since hundreds of Nigerian girls were abducted, and likely only minutes since yet another a woman survived a brutal sexual assault—it seems a long war yet.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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