Lizzette Robleto reflects on the recent summit held in London focusing on how to End Sexual Violence in Conflict...

Here in the UK we have relative peace, access to support for survivors, health and social services and a robust and reliable judicial system. But women and girls still find it difficult to speak about rape or sexual abuse due to strong stigma, shame, and a culture of blaming the victim.

So imagine this scenario: what you were sexually assaulted in a country where there are no basic services, war and conflict has torn the social fabric, community networks are destroyed, the judicial system is compromised, and you're in a weak or fragile state that can’t respond to your needs.

Your ordeal wouldn't end there. Social norms and conservative religious interpretations give women the unenviable position of being ‘keepers of the family honour’.  In that context, it’s hardly surprising that women’s voices are often silenced by the stigma that traditionally surrounded these issues.

Tragically, you wouldn't be alone. Women survivors of rape and sexual violence are commonly blamed and then ostracised by their governments and their communities that blame the victim instead of punishing the perpetrator.

And the impacts can last for years, both for the victim and their family. It’s this impact on the new generation that has not been properly assessed, especially if the violence experienced remains in the shadows rather than being addressed head-on, apportioning responsibility where it should be.

Repairing the social fabric in circumstances where impunity prevails is not conducive to nation-building and peace-building, but, and most importantly, it is morally and socially wrong to “accept” that women should carry such burden without hope of justice and redress.

Learning to talk taboo and Progressio’s contribution

In preparation for the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit and in order to highlight the impact of sexual violence upon the new generation, Progressio and the Youth Caucus of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisation (NAWO) organised a panel event called “Learning to talk taboo: Bridging the generational gap to tackle the impact of sexual violence in conflict”.

We wanted to show the reality for survivors so we asked our programme in El Salvador to put together a focus group to discuss the impact of rape and sexual violence in a post-conflict context (the peace agreement was signed in 1992). 

We had an amazing response and put together a video of interviews with female survivors of the Salvadorian conflict explaining the challenges they face as women and former combatants and the perception of their communities in relation to sexual violence in conflict.  You can see their moving testimony below.

At the event itself we had an emotional intervention from Kolbassia Haoussou (Survivors Speak OUT), who bravely spoke about his experience as a torture survivor and the importance of creating spaces for young people to engage with survivors as a way of breaking the silence. He said “hearing all our voices united gives us, survivors, a glimpse of hope because we are contributing to break the silence that surrounds these abuses”. 

Sofya Shuckina and Lottie Gilby (NAWO Youth Caucus) explained how they saw young people engaging with international spaces such as the Commission on the Status of Women as an entry point for these issues to be aired. 

And, Bethan McEvoy, a returned volunteer from Progressio’s International Citizenship Service programme (ICS), shared her experience in El Salvador on how dramatherapy can be used as a cathartic process for survivors of rape and sexual violence and their families - survivors were able to speak about their experiences contributing to their healing.

Breaking the silence

At the launch of the Global Summit, Angelina Jolie, the UN Special Envoy said “We need to shatter that culture of impunity and make justice the norm, not the exception, for these crimes”. 

Tackling sexual violence in conflict is a matter of justice and a moral imperative. So it is vital to take action whilst encouraging and supporting survivors to speak out. In a recorded statement, Hillary Clinton said “Victims deserve support, not stigma. When women become battlefields with broken bodies and scarred, there is something seriously wrong”.  

And the Foreign Secretary William Hague also acknowledged that “women still do not occupy their rightful place in the economics, in diplomacy and government of many nations”. 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of UN Women, stated “there is a correlation between a disempowered woman and the perpetrators of abuse”. The message is obvious: without women’s empowerment and governance structures pushing women to fulfil their full potential, abuses and impunity will continue to be the norm. 

Taking action against rape and sexual abuse while facilitating programmes that bridge the gap between generations will allow survivors to continue being an integral part of the society they are trying to re-build.

Bridging the generational gap between survivors and young people is crucial to ensure that lessons are learnt and a dialogue established to prevent these atrocities from recurring. It will also help both generations to be appreciative of each other’s contribution and the challenges ahead from their own perspectives.

As Carmen Medina, Progressio’s country representative for El Salvador, stated “we have to develop solidarity amongst ourselves, as women, so that we are supportive rather than competitive with each other. We should not continue playing a game that has not benefited us at all”. 

The UK government has already pledged £6 million for supporting survivors of sexual conflict. However, they admitted that governments alone cannot put an end to sexual violence; that it should be a joint effort with civil society.

Outcomes from the End of Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit

The International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict was officially launched setting out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence, whilst protecting witnesses, in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators.

In addition, the debate during the Summit addressed four key areas for change:

1. Improve accountability at the national and international level, including through better documentation, investigations and prosecutions at the national and international level, and better legislation implementing international obligations and standards;

2. Provide greater support and protection to survivors of sexual violence, including children;

3. Ensure sexual and gender-based violence responses and the promotion of gender equality are fully integrated in all peace and security efforts, including security and justice sector reform and military and police training; and

4. Improve international strategic co-operation.

Lizzette will analyse the outcomes and other aspects of the Summit in a blog to follow.


Rape statistics (2013)
Rape and Sexual Assault: Information for Women
Help after rape and sexual assault (NHS, July 2013)
“A crime upon a crime: Rape, victim-blaming, and stigma” (Women under siege project, August 2012)
Rape culture and the damage it does (February 2014)
UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie’s opening remarks at sexual violence in conflict summit (June 2014)
Foreign Secretary closes Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (June 2014)
Chair’s Summary Global summit to end sexual violence in conflict (June 2014)