Sexual Violence and Conflict

By Doris Buss and Beth Woroniuk

The Canadian Government recently announced that it will contribute $5 million of the total $36 million promised by G8 countries to address sexual violence in armed conflict. This appears to be good news from a government that has largely had bad news for women’s rights at home and abroad. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird wants the world to recognize that Canada, and his office in particular, has taken a leadership role on addressing sexual violence and conflict. We want to applaud a leadership role for Canada and to celebrate this latest announcement – its been a long, dry spell for women’s rights advocates and we are thirsty for any good news – but before we do, we need to see evidence of that leadership. And so far, the Government has been shy about revealing what, if anything, it is doing.

In October 2010 Canada launched its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. This Plan set out numerous commitments and actions. The Plan also promised annual progress reports. To date, there has been no reporting on actions taken, money spent or results achieved. Without this reporting, it is difficult to assess whether Canada’s claims to leadership are indeed justified.

Is Canada meeting is own commitments in this area? We don’t know without regular and public reporting. Once a full accounting is provided by the Government, then we can move on to discuss whether or not the promised and completed actions are sufficient to be called international leadership.

Canada’s announcement that it is contributing $5million to the G8 initiative was short on details. How exactly will Canadian funds be used to address sexual violence in conflict situations? Is this $5 million NEW money, or simply reallocation from other development initiatives? How will this $5 million be supported by other Canadian initiatives? Will the government assess how other steps its taking in conflict-affected countries reduces or implicitly fuels sexual violence?

Canada’s failure to provide regular reports or outline its specific steps to address conflict sexual violence are not simple oversights or questions that can be answered at a later date. Leadership on this issue requires a methodical, informed and planned series of actions that will accompany the promised $5 million. (And, leadership, quite frankly, requires more than $5 million).

The international community has learned some expensive lessons about sexual violence and conflict. One lesson is that without meaningful consultation and input of women in the affected regions, internationally funded projects can be, potentially harmful to the very communities they’re seeking to help. A second, and more painful lesson, particularly for politicians, is that there is no easy solution. Conflict sexual violence needs to be addressed through multiple strategies, from strengthening legal accountability to rebuilding communities destroyed by violence. One of the cheapest and most urgent steps that can be taken almost immediately is supporting local women’s groups in the affected regions, many of whom work under constant threat of retaliation from disgruntled armies and militias.

If Minister Baird and this Government want to claim leadership on conflict-related sexual violence, then they need to show us what they are doing. We need to see the reports on previous commitments. We need to see actions informed by real consultation with those affected, words backed by significant investments and a government that stands up for women’s rights in other forums.

And when this government actually takes leadership, we will be first in line to applaud.

Doris Buss is Associate Professor in Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. Beth Woroniuk is a member of the Steering Committee of the Women, Peace and Security Network – Canada.

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