UK takes leading role in global fight against sexual violence
The UK is increasing showing itself to be a principal actor in the fight against sexual violence, particularly with regard to the devastating scourge of conflict-related atrocities. This week, former British foreign secretary Jack Straw joined Nobel Peace laureate Nadia Murad and activist group Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) to unveil a new statue commemorating victims of sexual abuse all around the world.
Straw has been most prominently involved in raising awareness about the Lai Dai Han, who are the persecuted children of Vietnamese women raped by South Korean soldiers throughout the Vietnam War. However, it’s not just in southeast Asia where these barbarous practices end or Britain’s commitment to addressing them begins. By standing shoulder to shoulder with victims of sexual violence and putting their voice firmly centre-stage, the UK is sending a clear message to perpetrators of these heinous acts that they will be brought to justice, no matter how long ago the crime occurred.
Lai Dai Han: sidelined by both South Korea and Vietnam
It is in large part due to the dogged determination of activists such as Straw and Murad that the plight of groups like the Lai Dai Han haven’t been forgotten altogether by the international community, given that the Vietnam War ended over 40 years ago. During its two-decade duration, more than 300,000 Korean troops were deployed in the country, second only to the United States in terms of boots on the ground.
Unfortunately, not all of those soldiers behaved in accordance with the Geneva Convention; thousands of Vietnamese women were violated by the foreign troops and subsequently gave birth to the Lai Dai Han, which is a derogatory term in Vietnamese meaning “mixed blood”. According to JLDH, there are over 800 survivors of this violence alive today and countless children of theirs who still suffer abuse and prejudice as a result, struggling to access basic services in Vietnam. Lamentably, such war crimes are an all too common occurrence among soldiers of countries all around the world, but Korea’s subsequent response has added further insult to injury.
While the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act resettled 21,000 children of American soldiers and over 55,000 of their family members on American soil, South Korea has not done the same. Indeed, to this day the Korean government refuses to acknowledge that the iniquities even took place and stubbornly resists investigating the behaviour of its armed forces. Straw has urged Seoul to confront its troubled history and pointed to the example of Britain’s own ignominious role in Bloody Sunday as evidence of how such introspection and acknowledgement of mistakes made can help survivors to heal and the offending country to grow.
An ongoing crisis
These efforts to address past crimes are all the more poignant in a context where such violence still occurs with appalling regularity. Just last week, paramilitary groups in Sudan sexually assaulted dozens of peaceful protesters in the country’s capital of Khartoum. At least 70 cases of rape have been treated by local doctors; the actual figure of victims is believed to be much higher, since many individuals are wary of seeking help due to unsafe conditions in the city, an absence of humanitarian aid and fear over reprisals if they speak out.
Elsewhere in Africa, sexual violence is so rife in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that it’s been termed the “rape capital of the world”. Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières report that they have handled over 2,600 cases of sexual violence in just one single town between May 2017 and September 2018. 80% of those crimes were perpetrated by armed men. While the vast majority of victims were adult women, a heart-breaking 162 victims were under the age of 15 and 22 were younger than five years old. The barbarity has reached staggering levels and shows no signs of abating; an average of 200 new victims are surfacing every month. In addition to the horror of the acts themselves, the consequences for the lives of the individuals involved can be every bit as harrowing.
Conflict-related sexual violence has struck closer to home, as well; rumours of rife sexual abuse are haunting the frozen war in Ukraine’s east. To date, the fighting in the Donbass has claimed the lives of over 10,000 people and displaced a further two million. There are still no firm statistics surrounding rape victims, despite mounting anecdotal evidence that such violence is a grave concern. The country’s legislation surrounding the issue leaves much to be desired; prosecutors require victims to produce both biological and forensic evidence to support their claims, as well as present themselves for screening tests within 72 hours of the offence – itself often a logistical impossibility.
Even when these hoops are jumped through, true justice is a rarity; by the end of 2016, a mere three cases had been brought to trial, while the lenient sentencing of a man convicted of brutally assaulting a 16-year-old girl on the grounds that he had been serving the military speaks volumes about the inadequacies in Ukraine’s legal system.
International pressure crucial
With new stories about sexual violence surfacing all across the world every day, the scale of the current crisis cannot be underestimated. Despite the advances made in gender equality in certain countries over recent years, it is clear that there is much work still to be done to tackle the problem at its root and stamp out sexual violence, once and for all.
The best technique for doing so must be to demonstrate to the offenders that they will not be allowed to escape justice for their crimes, regardless of whether they have committed them today, yesterday or 40 years in the past. By showing solidarity with speakers like Murad, committing additional funding to the cause and continuing to leverage pressure on the governments in question, the UK’s attitude to the issue is as encouraging as it is imperative. This kind of principled stance must not cease until the violence itself is put to an end.