This is a personal reflection by Sarah Martin about the ESVC Summit in June 2013. Thoughts expressed are only my own.
While I have mostly worked on the “response” end of gender-based violence, first as an advocate with Refugees International, then as an advisor with MSF, and now as a consultant with NGOs and the UN, I have always been drawn to work on prevention and intrigued about working with militaries and police*. I joined the United Kingdom government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative team after a call for “experts” in October 2012 and in March 2013, I was deployed as one of the first teams and joined five other “experts” to go to Libya to investigate sexual violence in the conflict. The trip itself was intense and very interesting as I was deployed with two lawyers, a policeman, and a psychologist and we met with a wide variety of government officials and civil society activists. Working with the legal and police side opened my eyes to their perspective on how they interact with survivors and documenting sexual violence as a crime.
When I deployed to Libya with PSVI, it seemed to me that DFiD and the Foreign Office weren’t really in step as we didn’t even meet with DFiD in London or Tripoli. But since then, DFiD has been taking a keen interest in VAWG (rhymes with ‘fog’ according to them) and so, I was interested to go to this summit to see how the UK had integrated their preventing sexual violence work with their responding to survivors work. It still seems that we have a long way to go – Foreign Minister Hague’s zealous pursuit of an international law solution, while important, seems to be outweighing the very real needs of survivors who, in my experience, ask for income generation and livelihood programs as well as healthcare and psychosocial support. Generally, they have very little faith that their corrupt legal systems and police forces will ever protect them or serve up justice.
On the first day, there was an undeniable buzz in the air – it felt like coming to a rock show or a “moment in history.” As I registered for the conference, I saw some familiar faces from the gender-based violence in emergencies work (including Jeanne Ward, Heidi Lehmann, Chen Reis, Erin Kenney, Mendy Marsh, Shanna Swiss, Claudia Garcia Moreno, Lizle Loots and others who have been fighting for this issue for years now) but mostly it was people and organizations I had never seen in my humanitarian work.
On the panels listed in my agenda, there were very few people who actually do the work of talking to and supporting survivors. There were high level UN agency heads and big “names” and it was heavily heavily weighted to discussion on legal action (arguably the least effective and least in demand of our ‘multi-sectoral response’ for survivors).
I did attend one very good panel on data collection but the real issues that plague us in the field (how do you maintain neutrality and other humanitarian principles while working with survivors if you have mandatory reporting to governments or the security council or how do we deal with overzealous human rights data collection folks when trying to provide some physical and mental health support to traumatized survivors) were a drop in the bucket compared to the discussions that the human rights and service providers need to have with each other. It felt like a missed opportunity to bring the legal and medical sides together over the contentious issue of data collection.
Because many of the panels I wanted to see were held at the same time, I wasn’t able to make it down to the Fringe events. I have to admit, I also felt slightly put off by the name. To me – a “fringe” event means something alternative, not mainstream, something “avant-garde” or experimental and related closely to theatre and arts – The Edinburgh Fringe Festival springs to mind. It annoyed me that the NGOs and women’s activists were not at the main summit but relegated to the Fringe. There was a “marketplace” and theatre and photo exhibits – all things that I like but because they had been labeled “fringe” and were “open to the public” – they seemed to be not the point of the Summit. (This turned out to be a bad decision on my part that I regretted later.)
I had scored a “Delegate” pass due to my work for PSVI and I wanted to be up with the “decision-makers” to see what was going on. The agenda for the delegates sessions was a closely guarded secret (or so it seemed seeing how many people I had to contact to get a version of it) and security was tight – many phalanxes of G4S security guards scanning our chests for the color coded ribbons that held my coveted “delegate” badge so I felt that I had better focus my time there.
That first night, I went to a private reception with the policemen, lawyers, and psychologists on the UK team of experts where we got to meet Angelina Jolie and William Hague in person. Drinks were plentiful, food was not, and some of our colleague’s work in Bosnia, Syria, and Mali was highlighted by name but our Libya team was sad to not be recognized – also none of these “team of experts” had been on any panels at all at this Expert summit. Angelina was gracious and beautiful – we were all shy but interested in talking to her and she was surrounded by a group of admirers the whole time.
On Day 2, I noted in my facebook status update that I was
“starting to get disillusioned – If you are a person concerned about men and boys not being included in GBV work, it worked – I almost feel like we’re now more concerned about male survivors of violence than women nowadays – at least that’s what the rhetoric sounds like. But will these commitments mean much? We’ll see – can the UN and NGOs keep reminding them to make a strong commitment to funding survivors services and training police and judiciary? Not sure. Will it make a difference to CAP and Humanitarian funding? Or will everyone just publish more glossy books and force us to collect more data and keep hassling survivors to tell their story in a setting of no justice and retribution?”
A rather glum take on it.
Perhaps it was influenced by the fact that I started the day off incredibly late for a meeting due to the security to get into the event and then sneaking into the VIP section of the summit sitting in the many empty seats reserved for UN and foreign dignitaries behind Angelina Jolie’s place. The paparazzi was ushered in to take photos of her and she was one of the few women sitting in the VIP section (besides me and my other “illegal colleagues”). I was blown away by Leymah Gbowee’s speech and she got more cheers than Angelina did. The speeches went downhill after the male ministers started coming up to stage to talk about this issue that they had just discovered. Maybe I’m being unfair to them but the only ministerial speech that resonated with me was when Jordan’s minister went off script and talked about religion. I’ve always admired Jordan’s commitment to peace and GBV since i worked with Queen Noor on the board with Refugees International and Prince Zeid on his comprehensive strategy to eliminate future sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations Peacekeeping operations, known as the Zeid Report,
I had an uptick in my positive energy when I spotted Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, a man I admire who once told me to “keep fighting – working on prevention of sexual violence by UN peacekeepers is really important!”*
The number of men tripled at the conference on the second day because this was the day for all the ministers. Why are all the GBV activists women and all the people in power men? Again on Facebook, I noted
“Maybe if we had a few more women in power, we wouldn’t need so many women activists.”
My low point came when I sat listening to the ministers from Afghanistan and South Sudan talk about the work their government was doing to protect GBV survivors – work that has been completely invisible to me when I visited their countries to work on gender-based violence response.
That day on twitter, I noted
“Its not helping on Twitter that some gun nuts have started tweeting under “#timetoact that what women need to protect themselves from rape in conflict is more guns and ammo.”
I was still reeling from the awful murders in Santa Barbara and the misogyny of the killer and the #notallmen and #yesallwomen debates. Soon the whole world will be shooting each other! Things were feeling rather desperate.
So I decided to take a trip down to the Fringe. I immediately felt a bit better – down in NGO activism world again watching Womankind Worldwide, Amnesty International and Oxfam and IRC telling us what the “women, peace, and security” agenda SHOULD mean. More lively – more doers, less talkers. That’s where I saw all my GBV colleagues that night as we gathered around a plate of leftover chocolate candies and discussed the summit. There were African women, Asian women, Latin American women and European and North American women of all ages and shapes and sizes down in the Fringe. There were men wearing buttons proclaiming themselves allies. There were earnest university students participating in a “hackathon” and young people job-hunting with idealistic excitement clinging to them. Protestors from Bangladesh posed for photos with tape across their mouth outside the Fringe opening – asylum seekers who were also rape survivors being forced out of the UK even though rape was rampant in the conflicts in their country were also present lobbying and talking about the problem in their country. Angelina Jolie also seemed to be happier down in the Fringe and dragged Brad Pitt around to visit all the exhibits and buy a copy of the Vagina Monologues.
So I sat in the final event of my summit listening to an activist from Nepal and an activist from Liberia talk. An amazing expert from IRC was talking about training and support. I felt overwhelmed with emotion. These were the women that inspire me and keep me going. They were tough talking, funny, and telling their truth. I mentioned my concerns about Legal-Medical issues. A Ph.D. student found me as I left the Fringe and we exchanged information as she wants to know more about the reality of offering medical certificates to rape survivors in places like Somalia, DRC, and Myanmar and how it impacts the service providers and what it does for women. I perked up. Maybe something solid was going to come out of this summit after all. And I left during the London sunset and headed off to my next gig – teaching 31 Saudi men and 2 women about gender and disaster response – feeling a bit better than I had the previous day.
*In 2005, while at Refugees International, I wrote a report about sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers based on my travels through West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti called “Must Boys be Boys: Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers“. I haven’t worked on that issue in almost 10 years but I still get emails from time to time about people interested in the issue. Right before the summit, I was contacted to see if I wanted to speak on the issue. I declined as I’m not current on these issues but I did decide to go to the sessions on peacekeeping at the Summit. I was sad to see that not much has changed in 10 years and no concrete solutions seem to be in place. Very very sad.