Not all messages about rape were welcome at Hague and Jolie’s sexual violence summit

High profile, but what of Britain’s involvement in Congo? Stefan Rousseau/PA

An important shift has taken place in our awareness of sexual violence. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chaired by foreign secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the UN’s special envoy for refugees, is the biggest, highest-profile global meeting ever convened on this topic.

But the event has been marred by the silencing of Congolese sexual violence survivors, who found themselves locked out of a public forum. The security for the event was handled by G4S – on behalf of the Foreign Office.

This was not your average conference. It was certainly more glamorous than any sexual violence event I have ever attended. With more than 100 countries represented at ExCel London and a fringe event advertised as open to the public, the summit had a number of noble aims: to shatter the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict, to take practical steps by training soldiers and peacekeepers, to increase support for survivors of sexual violence, and to produce a “seismic shift in attitudes”.

As the press release stated:

We want people, governments, faith leaders and civil society across the world to condemn the horrors of warzone sexual violence, to see the cycles of conflict it creates and to grasp the role they have to play in ending this crime once and for all.

Even those of us who have been working in the area of violence and abuse of women and girls for a long time are horrified by the stories of sexual violence that women in conflict situations experience and their subsequent treatment.

Congo locked out

It is the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), dubbed the “rape capital of the world” that has received the most attention in recent years. In 2011, research in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that in the 12 months prior to the survey, approximately 1,150 women aged 15-49 were raped every day. And it is not just the sheer amount of rape that is shocking – it is women’s stories of their treatment afterwards.

At a recent Rape Crisis conference I attended, you could have heard a pin drop as a woman from Common Cause UK who fled the DRC told her story. And that was an audience made up almost exclusively of Rape Crisis volunteers, staff, and trustees, all of whom listen to women and girls’ experiences of abuse on a daily basis. It is the voices of women survivors turned activists that have informed the views of women’s groups in the UK, and which have led to public acts of solidarity seen at events such as Million Women Rise. Congolese activists and women’s groups have done much to raise awareness about the situation of sexual violence in the DRC.

In the context of this, it was surprising to hear claims that multinational security company G4S, which was providing the summit’s security, had refused entry to a group of Congolese activists and Rape Crisis women attempting to attend the fringe event.

G4S is increasingly involved in the provision of services for rape survivors in the UK, where it runs several Sexual Assault Referral Centres.

Postcards from a warzone

So why were charity workers refused entry to the Global Summit? We asked G4S, but have not had a response.

The women were carrying with them a stack of postcards, which bore a message that was not welcome at the summit: that sexual violence in the DRC is supported by the war in the DRC, which in turn is about an economic situation in which the UK is deeply entangled.

The message read: “No end to rape without the end to war”, and petitioned Hague to “listen to the voices of Congolese women and of civil society who repeatedly say that the main cause of sexual violence in DR Congo is the economic war for illegal exploitation of its wealth”. It highlighted that the UK does business with Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese heads of states – all former armed rebels – and that multinational companies directly or indirectly sponsor armed groups.

The offending postcard. Nicole Westmarland

The DRC conflict principally centres around a struggle for control of the country’s rich mineral resources, which include 80% of the world’s colton ore – in huge demand in the manufacture of microchips. The UK both sells and manufactures items that are made with DRC resources. It also donates huge amounts of overseas aid to Rwanda and Uganda, who in turn support violent militia groups known for the widespread rape of women and girls.

Activists from the Bradford Congo Campaign, who were part of the group turned away from the supposedly open fringe event. One activist told me: “The fringe event was open to the public and should have been a space for people to share ideas, but it was a closed space when it came to discussion about the economic basis of the war.”

William Hague and Angelina Jolie have played an important role in bringing the issue of sexual violence to the fore on the global stage. But any banning of Congolese activists and Rape Crisis women to a part of the event that was open to the public because of the political message they carried is unacceptable. It reminds us of the dirty nature of politics, of the power of Western governments, and of the power of rich white men in controlling the world’s resources and women’s bodies.