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Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative

Joint blog by Eva from GAPS, Chiara from AIUK, and Women for Refugee Women

The UK government’s programme to end sexual violence in conflict, which was launched with great fanfare by former Foreign Secretary William Hague alongside Angelina Jolie in 2014, is holding an international conference next week.

This is part of the UK’s attempt to brand itself as a ‘global leader’ on action to tackle sexual violence in conflict. However, while it prepares to meet world leaders to galvanise global action on the issue, the government is undermining its own efforts by running a UK asylum system which consistently fails victims of sexual and gender-based violence and attempting to legislate impunity for perpetrators in Northern Ireland.

Survivors of rape are at risk of being criminalised for seeking safety

In 2020, Women for Refugee Women found that the vast majority of women seeking asylum had been victims of violence, including rape and sexual abuse, in their country of origin and on their journey to the UK. Despite the commitment to survivors of sexual violence in conflict, as soon as these women seek safety in the UK the government’s action does not match their rhetoric.

The backlogged UK asylum process, shadowed by the risk of detention, destitution and removal, exacerbates existing trauma and increases survivors' vulnerability to violence. The lack of understanding of gender-based violence, the disbelief in women’s stories and a lack of financial support and housing sends survivors to the edge rather than ensuring protection.

The Nationality and Borders Act and ongoing plans to process asylum-seekers in Rwanda are further proof that the government has a selective approach to victims. Earlier this year, a pregnant survivor of rape who arrived in the UK on a dinghy was threatened with removal to Rwanda. This terrifying case is not isolated; torture victims received similar notices of ahead of the first scheduled flight in June 2022. Even now the UK has not explicitly stated that women will be exempt from the offshoring experiment.

While the Rwanda scheme has attracted public attention, less well-known but equally punitive measures have introduced a two-tier system for asylum seekers: those who arrive by boat will have no automatic right to asylum, despite being able to demonstrate they would be at risk of persecution; restricted rights to family reunion, and restricted access to public funds.  According to the ‘The Sereda project’, ‘the women who are on those boats [crossing the Channel], the vast majority will have experienced SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence].” What’s more, the recent changes to asylum decision-making will likely make it more difficult for these women to have their protection needs recognised.

Impunity for rape in Northern Ireland

There is a pattern here. The contested Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is an attempt to deal with the past by protecting perpetrators, rather than ensuring truth, justice and accountability for victims. If the law passes, perpetrators of serious crimes, including sexual violence, will be granted immunity from prosecution. It is another example of conflict victims being failed by a government that claims it is committed to challenging sexual violence at home and abroad.

Playing double standards

Shirking its responsibilities towards some of the most vulnerable women and girls who are seeking safety and justice shows a double standard. The conference will be a success only if these contradictions are remedied.

Until the government scraps the Nationality and Borders Act, which was passed with overwhelming opposition from women right’s organisations, and meets its obligations under the Refugee Convention seriously, creates safe routes to asylum for women and girls and ends the detention of asylum seekers, its credibility as a leader on action to end conflict-related sexual violence will be an exercise in futility.

As international and domestic organisations we call on the UK Government to make the PSVI International Conference a decisive moment, building on commitments made, reflecting on critical feedback and recommendations from civil society, knowledge and expertise, and framing the discussions within the evidence that has been generated in the last 8 years, including through the FCDO-funded “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls” programme.

Crucially, if the government is genuine about addressing sexual violence, it must scrap harmful asylum policies at home and ensure that its future efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict is guided by the experiences, needs and unique role of women and girls, wherever they might be.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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