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Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 17 June 2021

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries, HC 605, and the Government response, HC 1332. Eighth Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, The humanitarian situation in Tigray, HC 1289.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and the G7.

May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing me with the opportunity to raise the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative—otherwise known as PSVI—and the G7 on the Floor of the House today? I promise I will stop pestering the Committee for at least a couple of days.

I stand before the House as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. I am delighted to see some members of the APPG here, as well as the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who has been a stalwart supporter of this initiative. Her being here today is a reflection of the importance of the International Development Committee being maintained, sustained, and continuing to scrutinise our aid and development programmes around the world.

I have been fortunate to have worked with the founding members of the PSVI—Baroness Helic, Lord Hague and Chloe Dalton—and to have seen the evolution and success of that initiative over the last nine years, so I feel that I am quite well placed to be able to debate why it is important and why it cannot be allowed to fail.

Conflicts, both old and new, are often viewed by the loss of life on the battlefield, the death and casualty lists, the land conquered, the treasures plundered, and the armies and arms deployed. But in reality, conflict is also about those on the sidelines: the innocent bystanders, the women, the children—those who bear the brunt of the conflict but receive little attention, recognition, support or, indeed, justice. It is my hope that during the course of this debate, I can remind the House and the Government about the purposes and objectives of PSVI, and reignite our global leadership on this issue.

Now more than ever, we have not only the moral duty to act, but an international landscape that is calling for action. After all, in a digitalised world, we are now greeted daily with recordings, news articles and accounts of systematic conflict-related sexual violence. Far from the issue diminishing, it is becoming more acute. Yet the objectives of PSVI have always been clear: to end the culture of impunity for perpetrators; to provide support for survivors; and to document crimes of sexual violence in conflict. Those aims stood prominently at the initiative’s inception and they hold true today.

In 2012, the collaboration between a Bosnian refugee, a Yorkshireman and a Hollywood film star resulted in not only the UK Government-led initiative, but a seismic collective collaboration from the international community to address this issue. Speaking in the Foreign Office, the then Foreign Secretary Lord Hague spoke of the need for a

“UK team of experts devoted to combating and preventing sexual violence in armed conflict.”

This short notice overseas deployment team was directed towards gathering evidence and testimony in the hope of supporting investigations and prosecutions. It used the expertise of doctors, lawyers, police, psychologists and forensic specialists. That team of experts was drawn down so as to help to protect victims, as well as support international organisations, lead training operations and develop laws and capabilities—all with a view to shattering the culture of impunity, ending rape as a weapon of war, bringing perpetrators to justice and raising awareness.

In the early years up to 2015, the UK deployed its team of experts no fewer than 65 times, to countries including Kosovo, Bosnia, Turkey, Mali and Kenya. These operations proved useful in gaining insight and experience and revealed the systematic use of rape and sexual violence in conflict areas around the world. The missions demonstrated not just that we were right to create such an initiative, but that there was a genuine need and requirement for action, so in 2014 the UK hosted the first ever global summit to end sexual violence in conflict, attracting 1,700 delegates from around the world and bringing together survivors, experts and Governments, all with the aim of addressing rape as a weapon of war. I believe there are plans for a further conference in due course; I hope the Minister might explain and reveal them.

Under UK leadership, we brought together 156 countries at the UN to denounce the use of rape as a weapon of war through the UN declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. The early success of that initiative was readily apparent: teams of experts were being deployed; the UK political leadership was ever present; the international community was full square behind the resolutions of the day; and countries were supporting PSVI through their own domestic and international training programmes. The action was tangible, the results were measurable and the optimism was infectious.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, a change of Ministers and Governments saw PSVI pushed down the agenda. The high funding levels of 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were steadily reduced. The PSVI team was amalgamated into different sections of the now Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as opposed to remaining as a stand-alone body. The levels of deployment were scaled back: from 2016 to 2020 they were reduced by almost 50%, despite the number of conflicts and the documentation of sexual violence increasing over that period. Today, the international community is no more at peace than it was nine years ago, so it is essential to fulfil our obligations to PSVI.

The Administration in the United States changed recently; what is my hon. Friend’s assessment of that change of Administration? Does he see any greater willingness from the Biden Administration to help his cause?

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. We now have a US President who has form in addressing gender-based violence and preventing sexual violence in conflict. With America resurgent and talking about multilateralism, that should be the hook on which we can hang our coat to ensure that initiatives such as PSVI are able to flourish over the coming years.

In Ethiopia, widespread sexual violence against the people of Tigray is ongoing. On Monday, I asked the Minister whether we would be deploying our PSVI team of experts to that area; I hope he might be able to answer when he responds to the debate. In Bangladesh, the Rohingyas are gathered in refugee camps and are detailing the appalling acts of sexual violence conducted against them in Myanmar. In Nigeria, the terrorist organisation Boko Haram kidnaps girls and forces them into marriage, as well as subjecting them to acts of sexual violence. In Iraq, we are only just beginning to learn about the true extent of sexual violence committed by ISIS.

Last year, the UN predicted that there would be 31 million more cases of sexual violence in conflict during the pandemic alone, and 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation. This crisis has been ongoing and must be addressed. The list goes on and on, yet the one common thread among all instances is that the perpetrators of these crimes will, in all likelihood, escape justice. Tackling rape in war, providing justice and supporting survivors—all are integral to peace negotiations, conflict resolution and helping communities and countries to recover and rebuild after conflicts.

The success of the weekend past shows that the Government can convene global leaders, reach international agreements and strike new trade deals—all of which I consider to be part of global Britain’s agenda. The pandemic has reasserted the need for the international community to work together, not just to defeat covid but to address the major global challenges that humanity faces. From climate change to girls’ education to tackling conflict-related sexual violence, the only resolution to these issues will arrive through international agreement and co-operation and designated leadership and action. The UK has shown that leadership in previous years and can do so again. It was particularly welcome that at the summit and in our own communiqué we committed to consider how best to strengthen international architecture for conflict-related sexual violence. However, I might go further and ask whether the Government will consider adopting the suggestion of the G7’s own gender equality advisory council, which called for an international convention to eliminate the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, with clear consequences for perpetrators and for Governments who fail to act.

Given our own G7 communiqué calling for the strengthening of international architecture for conflict-related sexual violence, I have the following, I hope helpful, suggestions. First, a new international body should be created in the international community to collect and preserve evidence of conflict-related sexual violence and help bring perpetrators to justice. Providing support for survivors and delivering justice are necessities that cannot be overlooked. After all, it is not just the absence of conflict that denotes peace, but the presence of justice.

Secondly, responsibility for the PSVI must be restored to the Foreign Secretary. At this point, I would like to apologise to Lord Ahmad, because I am trying to take a job away from him. He has done a sterling job in promoting the Murad code and the faith leadership declaration, but top-level leadership is needed on this issue. It must be viewed not as a supplementary matter but as an integral part of the Government’s agenda, and that is where it must be firmly placed.

Thirdly, the PSVI must be run with a long-term funding cycle and strategy. The yo-yoing of budgets, as highlighted by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, restricts the initiative’s ability to address deep-rooted issues. Instead, we should seek to create a long-term, 10-year plan that regularly reports to Parliament on the progress made and the strategy implemented.

Fourthly, the PSVI team should be institutionally ring-fenced in the FCDO. Such a team, or unit, should be able to stand the test of time and the changing of Ministers. In ring-fencing the PSVI, we can build real institutional knowledge that is to the benefit of us at home and those abroad as well.

The G7 has reminded us all that multilateralism is once again in the ascendancy. We should seize that opportunity, create new bodies and lead successful initiatives. The Prime Minister has rightly and admirably focused on the promotion of girls’ education. I wholeheartedly support him in that mission, but the success of one should not mean failure in another. If we are to address education for girls, we will have to tackle gender-based violence.

As I reach my concluding remarks, I respectfully ask the Minister to consider the following questions. Will he work with Members across this House and the other place to help create a new international body? Will he help to ring-fence spending and create that long-term strategy for the PSVI team? Does he agree that the PSVI must be led by a Cabinet Minister, preferably the Foreign Secretary? When will the PSVI team be deployed to Ethiopia, as mentioned by Lord Ahmad on 24 May? Does he agree with the G7 gender equality advisory council recommendations? When will the PSVI global conference be held? I recognise that an election and a global pandemic have got in the way of it, but we are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to hold a second conference and reignite that leadership.

In Christina Lamb’s book, “Our Bodies, Their Battlefield”, which should be compulsory reading for any Member who is interested in this subject, she details the different communities around the world that have been victims of sexual violence in conflict. She makes many powerful points, but perhaps the most powerful are the words:

“rape is the cheapest weapon known to man”.

It has become a tool of Government forces, militias, terrorists and criminals. It costs nothing to the perpetrator and everything to the victim. It is the weapon that brings incomprehensible harm and damage to victims. It destroys communities and societies, and it is, more often than not, responsible for sowing the seeds of future conflicts.

As I said at the start of my remarks, I am only highlighting the commitment that we made in 2012 and asking the Government to step forward to reignite their global leadership on this issue. Failure to act now not only lets down our allies and flies in the face of what we have already achieved, but can result in the blocking of other countries taking meaningful action. If the UK lacks the willpower, the ambition or the vision to renew its efforts in this area, we must be prepared to take steps to hand the initiative over to willing partners, such as America, Canada or Germany. For the sake of the Government, and for my own sake, I hope that today they will reassert their intentions to provide that global leadership. The point of today’s debate is to reflect on the positive work that has been done to date in a constructive and positive way. I look forward to hearing from other Members who have far greater experience in this area than I do. We have the opportunity here. We have the international community waiting for us to take this step. I thank the House for its time in hearing me.

We will begin with a time limit of seven minutes, but I envisage that that will later be reduced to six or even five minutes.

It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I say what a huge pleasure it is to speak in the wake of the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who is such a force when it comes to making the argument for why we should be investing in preventing sexual violence in conflict? The work that he and his colleagues have done over the years is truly admirable. I am proud of what our Government have done, but I am very concerned that it is starting to drip away, so I share his request to the Minister to champion this moment and make it very clear that the UK will continue with its PSVI programme.

The hon. Member spoke about the work that started in 2012. I want to bring this slightly more up to date, because 2020 was set to be a historic year for women’s rights, marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration, which is the most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights, and the 20th anniversary of the UN security resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. But here we are, halfway through 2021, and we have seen the pandemic pull girls out of school, increase unequal pay, expose women and girls to more abuse, and halt the employment of women and girls, often overnight and without any safety nets on which to fall. Progress on women’s rights and gender equality across the globe is unfortunately in retreat. The International Development Committee’s report on the secondary impacts of covid-19 highlights the stark increase in violence against women and girls, noting that the pandemic could result in an additional 2 million cases of female genital mutilation and an additional 13 million child marriages by 2030. This surge in violence is horrifying, but covid-19 has, unfortunately, just exposed and indeed reinforced deep structural inequalities.

When we think about the PSVI, one thing that always comes to my mind is that, if someone is shot in the leg, we immediately identify that as a war crime, whereas raping someone is almost seen as a side effect and inconsequential because of it. As the hon. Member has clearly outlined, rape needs to be seen as a weapon of war with the devastating impact that it has as a consequence, which I will go into later in my speech.

The situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia serves as a horrific reminder of sexual violence in conflict. Women have been raped by soldiers in camps for displaced people, while others were abducted from their homes in rural areas and held for days as soldiers repeatedly abused them. That is not unique to Ethiopia. Sexual violence in conflict is pervasive and, despite being punishable by international human rights and humanitarian laws, the cases highlighted by the hon. Member, or those that we have seen in Ethiopia, could have been in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Myanmar right now.

It is very sad to say that where there is conflict, sexual violence is very likely to follow. Women and girls, and indeed men and boys, are subjected to these horrifying acts, and it leaves lasting trauma and really intense long-term physical and mental health conditions as a consequence. The impact ricochets across communities, pushing peace further and further out of reach.

The report of my Committee, the International Development Committee, on the humanitarian situation in Tigray highlights the issue and calls for support services to be restored and expanded to meet present and future needs without further delay. These services are vital. On Monday, the Minister estimated that 26,000 people could be in need of support in Ethiopia in the coming months. Astonishingly, though, he could not say whether the PSVI team would be deployed. I hope that he can clarify that point today. The UK must act to set out how it intends to ensure that services are there for those who need them in conflict zones the world over. That is especially important as vital programmes addressing violence against women and girls, of which sexual violence in conflict is of course a part, are currently being cut.

On the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, I praise the Government for initially showing real leadership. Women’s rights organisations welcomed it as crucial to the global debate around peace, conflict and women’s rights. But profile-raising alone is not enough unless it is followed by a positive impact on the ground. An investigation by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact on how the UK followed up on its PSVI summit commitments concluded that there were

“unsatisfactory achievements in most areas, with some positive elements”.

The close association between the PSVI and the then Secretary of State ultimately appears to have been detrimental to the programme’s long-term success, and we cannot let that happen.

ICAI’s report also highlights that the intervention suffered due to short one-year timeframes, a lack of investment in technical expertise, the lack of any overarching theory of change, and a failure to allow women’s and girls’ voices to be part of a survivor-centred approach. All this led to a weakening of the programme. The final point is key, and led to one of my Committee’s key recommendations. We will not make meaningful inroads into preventing sexual violence and abuse if we fail to take a survivor-led approach. Survivors’ voices, and the involvement of women’s rights organisations, can no longer be an afterthought or an add-on. This input must be built in through consultation, through to design, delivery, implementation and evaluation.

We are at a crossroads in preventing violence against women and girls, including sexual violence in conflict. The G7 delivered on the rhetoric, but we need more than this, especially given the cuts to the aid budget. Ahead of the UK PSVI conference, the UK has a unique opportunity to scale up quality work on prevention, protection and responses in conflict-affected states and to ensure that survivors are at the very heart of this work. I really hope that is exactly what will happen.

I want to touch on two concerns. The first is the reports of widespread sexual violence as a weapon of war by armed groups in Tigray, as referred to by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) in her excellent speech, which I am pleased to follow.

The second is the separate but by no means disconnected issue of the importance of promoting the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief, or FORB. Preventing the abuse of FORB helps, in turn, to prevent atrocities such as sexual abuse from happening in the first place—atrocities sadly occurring, as we have heard, in many parts of the world today. Societies that respect FORB are more likely to be stable, secure places in which to live and flourish, but sadly, this respect is sometimes absent. A lack of respect for the right of another person to hold their faith or core beliefs, and disrespect for their culture or ethnicity, are all too often the root causes of conflict, and are even at times used to justify atrocities such as sexual violence in conflict.

Reports of the experiences of women in Tigray bear this out. One Tigrayan woman was told by her rapists, “Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane”, a derogatory term, and “A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” Hundreds of women have reported horrific accounts of rape and gang rape since the start of the conflict in Tigray nearly six months ago. Medics have reported removing nails, rocks and pieces of plastic from inside the bodies of rape victims. Individuals are allegedly forced to rape members of their own family. We hear of sexual violence against women and girls in refugee camps, and even of child soldiers forcibly conscripted and then being subjected to sexual abuse.

The UN Security Council heard evidence of an internally displaced woman who, when conflict began in her town, fled and hid in the forest for six days with her family. She gave birth while in hiding, but her baby sadly died a few days later. At the same time, her husband was also killed. When she resumed her journey, she met four soldiers, who raped her in front of the rest of her children throughout the night and into the following day.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, has concluded that

“there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”

I therefore welcome the statement from the Minister for Africa that the UK is working to prevent sexual violence in Tigray, to provide support for survivors and their children, and to promote justice for them. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Eritrea, I want to ask the Minister a number of questions before turning more specifically to the issue of FORB. What steps is the UK taking to press for UN investigators to have full access to the region to conduct its assessment of such atrocities? How is the UK supporting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that its joint investigations into atrocities with the Ethiopian high commission are independent, transparent and impartial? Will that assessment look specifically at the situation of ethnic and religious groups?

What update can the Minister give following plans to deploy the UK Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict team to the region? What action has been taken following the mission by UK representatives to Shire in Tigray to assess humanitarian access, emergency services provided in camps and the support gaps that need to be filled, in particular for survivors of sexual violence and their children? Finally, what steps will the UK take to ensure that those responsible for such crimes are held to account and that a timely mechanism is implemented to collect and preserve evidence of sexual violence, to ensure the best possible opportunity to bring perpetrators to account and allow victims to see justice?

Let me turn to the separate but by no means disconnected topic of freedom of religion or belief. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I welcome the G7 Foreign Minister’s communiqué, in particular paragraph 55—which I hope Hansard will perhaps print in full—which states that, as representatives of

“nations...engaged in creating a safer, more,”

the G7 Ministers

“are committed to promoting freedom of religion or belief for all”


“to co-ordinated defend freedom of religion or belief for all”.

I also welcome last week’s G7 Open Societies leaders’ statement, which similarly committed countries to working together and with partners to promote freedom of religion or belief, and the joint statement by our Prime Minister and the US President in the new Atlantic charter, which again specifically referred to the UK and the US working together to support democracy across the globe, including by

“protecting freedom of religion or belief”.

The coming year is a vital one for the UK to demonstrate our global leadership in championing FORB and putting those words into action. I am doing so as the PM’s special envoy by actively working to oversee the full implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review by its three-year review deadline of July 2022. Recommendation 21.b makes reference to matters relevant to today’s debate, and looks forward to the UK hosting the FORB ministerial international gathering, also in July 2022, when we can bring senior Ministers and others concerned about FORB from across the world to discuss what actions have been taken and need to be taken in this respect.

Another key platform for action on FORB is the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance, of which the UK is a leading member, where over 33 countries meet regularly through representatives, such as myself, mandated to take forward FORB internationally, including by challenging specific abuses and violations. I look forward to continuing to work with Ministers, partners in likeminded countries, faith leaders and non-governmental organisations, as we seek to put the G7’s words on FORB into action, not only to help those suffering abuses of the kind that we have heard about today but, equally importantly, to help to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. It is often an intentional strategy to further terrorise vulnerable women, girls, men and boys. Sexual violence can be committed at the hands of state-affiliated perpetrators or, indeed, non-state armed groups, including terrorist organisations. Violence against women and girls—gender-based violence—is much more common, as we have heard, in conflict zones. Victims of sexual violence in conflict are often subject to rape, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and forced marriage. These unspeakable acts and their unspeakable consequences are almost unbearable to discuss, but we must speak up, and debates like this are absolutely vital. Also vital are the funding and resources that help tackle these horrific acts and support those who face it. As a developed family of nations, we have a moral obligation to do our bit. However, the disturbing direction in which the Prime Minister and his Government have taken the UK breaks a legally binding commitment and yet again, another of his manifesto promises.

Having set up the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which 155 nations joined to commit to ending sexual violence as a weapon of war, the UK has sadly rowed back. The initiative has faced significant issues, and in a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact in 2020 it was found that, despite initial strong leadership following the departure of Lord Hague as Foreign Secretary, senior ministerial interest waned and funding and staff resources fell. The initiative made some important achievements, it said, including creating an international protocol, that was used to secure convictions, but also had no overall strategy, did not focus on learning and failed to include survivors systematically, which we have heard is absolutely crucial.

The Government are asleep at the wheel on this important issue, and the Prime Minister, who was previously Foreign Secretary, is front and centre of this folly. The UK is the only G7 member to cut its international aid as a covid-19 response. That should shame us all, and it is not supported by a majority of Scottish MPs or, I suspect, the majority of the Scottish people. The Scottish Government recently conducted a review of its international development policy and committed to offer at least £500,000 for projects that promote gender equality in partner countries across the world. Rather than claim to be hampered by it, our review in Scotland was prompted by the covid-19 pandemic. Scotland will continue to employ whatever levers and resources it has within the constraints of this Union to ensure that it is doing its bit, but I have no doubt that an independent Scotland would take its place on the global stage as a nation ready to meet its international obligations.

As even the Prime Minister’s own Back Benchers have admitted, the aid cuts will cost lives. The UN said that more than 500 rape cases were reported in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in March this year; at least 27 cases of sexual violence have been recorded during the recent protests in Colombia, and China stands accused of organised sexual violence against its Uyghur population. These are just a few horrific examples of what people, mainly women and girls, are at risk of enduring in an already devastating and volatile situation. So the UK must not use the covid-19 pandemic to shirk its responsibilities to fight what the UN calls a global pandemic of gender-based violence. It is an outrage that the House and its democratically elected representatives were stripped of our right to vote on the cut to aid. It shows once again that this Tory Government cannot be trusted.

The people of my Livingston constituency and indeed, the people of Scotland are an outward-looking, forward-thinking and progressive nation. I cannot wait for the day when we as an independent nation on the global stage have the full basket of powers to operate and support those in need with all our might and power. Until then, we in the Scottish National party will continue to challenge the Conservative Government on their despicable actions. A change of heart and a change of actions are sorely needed. The world is watching, and the UK is at present at grave risk of doing lasting damage to its international reputation and, more importantly, to the most vulnerable people on the planet. At the very least, the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative needs new money and new life breathed into it.

Throughout our history, rape and sexual violence have been used as weapons of war. They are horrendous crimes so it is important that we debate the subject today. Let me first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) not just on giving a great, well-informed speech but for all his work over many years on this subject, and his leadership of the APPG, of which I am very pleased to be a member. It is good to see a man with a leading voice on this important issue, for it is overwhelmingly men who are the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes. Our gender has an incredibly important role in helping to drive action against those responsible, and my hon. Friend is at the forefront, leading the calls.

It is also an important time to have this debate, in the context of the global pandemic, for we know that the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality, and we know that gender equality is one of the key drivers of gender-based violence. My hon. Friend pointed out that the United Nations estimated that last year, in just six months of the lockdown, 31 million cases of gender-based violence were recorded. By my rough maths, that is about five million a month—truly staggering—so it is incredibly important that we meet today to discuss this.

We should not forget that much progress has been made over the last decade. The Murad code—the global code of conduct—was introduced by Lord Ahmad and Nadia Murad for the recording of sensitive information from survivors, and that should be applauded. Our British armed forces are playing an important role, with British troops now receiving comprehensive pre-deployment training on preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and violence against women. We have also made strong commitments to ensuring that UN peacekeeping is equipped to tackle sexual violence. Indeed, on the international stage, 150 countries have now endorsed the declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. Some progress is being made but, as Lord Hague of Richmond has pointed out, apathy does endure, sadly, on the world stage so we must go further to re-engage the international community.

The main point that I want to make today is that I entirely endorse and wholeheartedly support those calling for a new international, independent, permanent body focused on the collection of evidence. Ultimately, the way we solve this issue is to increase prosecutions, and I believe that this body could help drive that forward. Britain could help drive that forward.

The situation you walk past is the situation you accept. It was Plato who once said, “Only the dead have truly seen the end of war.” If military conflict is to endure, let it be Britain that ensures that the existence of rape as a weapon of war does not.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate and on his very powerful remarks, because there can no doubt that, as he said, these are the most terrible crimes and we must step up in this situation. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) was right to say that, in the past, the UK has been an important global advocate for survivors of these appalling war crimes. Sadly, though, this UK Government are swiftly squandering that reputation, and that is deeply regrettable.

Conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls, but also against boys and men, is a horrendous crime. The use of rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, forced marriage—I could go on—as weapons are things that do not always hit the headlines. Actually, they so often go unreported to the wider world, but that does not mean that these things are not happening and, in fact, regrettably, these things are happening more and more.

We know that during crises and conflict, sexual violence can both increase and yet be less noticed. This pandemic is no different. In fact, the United Nations has described gender-based violence as a global pandemic, so we need to be very clear that the current covid-19 crisis cannot mean that this issue is allowed to fall down the priority list, because it absolutely must get the attention and funding that it deserves.

In 2012, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set up the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and 155 nations joined forces to make that commitment to ending sexual violence as a weapon of war, things looked to be on a positive track, but momentum has fallen away since that point. In 2020, an Independent Commission for Aid Impact evaluation of the initiative concluded that, since 2014, ministerial interest has “waned”, and that there was an overall lack of strategy and an overall lack of funding.

It is also a pity that recommendations have not yet been published, given that we are in a state of limbo on the previously planned international conference on PSVI, which should have been held during 2019. I appreciate that that was put off because of the general election, but we are some way down the road from that now and victims cannot wait. I say that in the context of the UK Government’s own narrative. The recent integrated review of foreign policy does not give gender equality globally the priority it deserves. The word “gender” is mentioned only once in what is a very lengthy document. That is in stark contrast with the Scottish Government’s vision, which is the correct focus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) set out.

The lack of attention here is not new, and programmes to tackle gender-based violence are notoriously and persistently underfunded. According to the International Rescue Committee, from 2016 to 2018, global allocations for sexual gender-based violence funding were just 0.1% of total humanitarian funding. That is 0.1% to tackle this most harrowing aspect of conflict across the globe, with more than 500 rape cases reported in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, 27 cases of sexual violence reported in Colombia in recent weeks, and many others deemed likely. Persistent reports exist of organised sexual violence against the Uyghurs in China, reports very effectively highlighted by the campaign group Yet Again, which is hosting an important event on that topic with the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities this weekend. Continuing reports of this kind of violence emerge across the world from countries including Cameroon and Iraq.

What is the UK Government’s response? Their response is to cut the aid budget that helps to tackle this global pandemic of gender-based violence. While the Prime Minister has been pleased to host global leaders and sign high-sounding charters, the fact is that the UK was the only country present at last week’s G7 that is cutting its aid budget. Yet again, the UK Government demonstrate their strategic incompetence by cutting aid at a time when they should be increasing it. It is Tory austerity all over again, but this time on the global stage. France is growing its budget and is set to reach 0.7%. Germany will exceed 0.7% this year. The Americans are increasing aid by $14 billion.

It is easy to sign a charter to get your name in the history books, but as is often the case with this Prime Minister the follow-through is sadly lacking. Instead of working to confront injustice, he is forcing through swingeing cuts at the worst possible time. He does not even have the courage to give this House a vote or to publish an honest assessment of what the cuts will mean for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalised. President Biden may come to regret putting his name to a charter with a Prime Minister who seems to have an unerring ability to commit to one set of actions on paper while planning all along to do the opposite.

We do not need a formal assessment to see the damage that those cuts will do to efforts to protect the most vulnerable from sexual violence in conflict. The UK Government have already cut research programmes aimed at advancing gender justice, equality and security in 22 countries. Spending that helps to keep more girls in school and for longer has been slashed by 40% compared with 2016 levels. The UK does not even contribute to the UN Trust Fund in Support of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which helps women and girls in severe distress.

Baroness Helic and Chloe Dalton, both advisers to William Hague when he was Foreign Secretary, have recommended ring-fencing a minimum of 1% of our aid budget to challenge violence against women and girls abroad. That would not only increase the UK’s capacity to tackle this horrendous problem at source; it would also set a valuable example for others to follow. That is a proposal that has wide support across this House. I would ask that its adoption be seriously considered, as well as using some of the additional funding to reverse the troubling decline in the budget of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict team.

I am very pleased to be able to speak in this debate on the very important issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on bringing this matter to the House. We probably do not spend enough time tackling these humanitarian issues in this place—we spend far too much time playing knockabout—but this country is at its best when it shows global leadership on these humanitarian matters.

We know that sexual violence is a weapon of war. It has been since time immemorial, but perhaps only in recent years have we collectively faced up to that. That might be the case for any number of reasons. Interestingly, it is a fundamental part of the strategy where conflicts are between ethnicities and, when we think about it, it is pretty obvious why. Although we readily talk about the murders and killings that take place as part of an ethnic genocide, we talk rather less about the rape and sexual violence that is associated with it. That has to change. We need to face up to the fact that men are perpetrating terrible, heinous, evil acts against women and girls specifically, but also against men and boys. Rape and sexual violence are being used as a way of exerting power, and humiliating and degrading people. We need to show that and shame the perpetrators out of it. Things such as the Geneva convention have pointed out international and multilateral actions against gratuitous execution, and we need to do exactly the same about rape and sexual violence.

I think that “sexual violence” is often a vanilla-sounding term for something that is fundamentally evil, so let us call it what it is. It is rape; forced incest; mutilation; and buggery. It is the ultimate defiling of human beings, and the ultimate corruption of an act that should be about love and intimacy. In that sense, it is a crime against humanity and one that we should show global leadership on in tackling.

I am very proud that William Hague, when Foreign Secretary, showed that global leadership on the issue by establishing this initiative. It was a very personal interest of his and in that sense he put it front and centre of foreign policy at the time. I hope we can use this presidency of the G7 to reboot that agenda, particularly in the light of the other ethnic conflicts going on in the world at this time, which we have heard about in previous speeches.

I remind the Government that this is entirely complementary to their wider policy towards women and girls. Domestically, we are for the first time having a proper violence against women and girls strategy, so it makes perfect sense to take that into the international field. At the heart of our international aid programmes is the focus on education for girls around the world. We recognise the immensely civilising influence that the education of girls has on societies. So it is absolutely consistent that we put the prevention of sexual violence at the heart of our future agenda.

As I said earlier, since the dawn of time, rape has been a weapon of war and it is important that we continue to treat it as a serious crime as we prosecute on a global basis, but it is only recently that we have begun to understand just how prevalent it is. It is only by making sure that we spread that understanding of how prevalent it is that we will encourage anyone to take action.

The conflict in Bosnia was the first time the international community recognised properly that rape was being used as part of the military strategy. We understand that there were as many as 50,000 rapes during that conflict. When we think that each of us represents 80,000 constituents, it brings home how significant this is. When we remember Srebrenica, we always remember the murder of all those men and boys, but we never talk about the rapes. I was a student at university during that conflict. I remember seeing the pictures of the camps and the shelling in Sarajevo, and hearing about the fact that this was an ethnic conflict between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, but I never heard about the rapes. We will not be able to take actions until we are honest about this. We should not just see this as an inevitable fact of any ethnic conflict. We have to call it out for what it is and say that it is unacceptable. I am pleased that, in prosecuting the war crimes following the conflict in Bosnia, rape was included. It was seen as a genocide and as a crime against humanity.

It is inevitable in an ethnic conflict that rape will be a fundamental part of the strategy. Again, we need to highlight exactly what we are talking about. In the Bosnian conflict, rape camps were established where women were systematically raped and released only once they were pregnant. Gang rape and public rapes were common. Men were forced to rape their family members. There was one report of a 14-year-old boy being forced to rape his mother. Forced oral sex and forced anal sex were also common, and in some prisons detainees were forced to rape other men. How horrific that this should be happening just 20 years ago in Europe. Once we face the facts about sexual violence in conflict, we cannot look the other way. This country is a great country that shows leadership on these matters, and it should please continue to do so.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate today and for the way in which he so persuasively talked about the need for continued focus on this hugely important issue. It is really challenging to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price); she really put her finger on it when she talked about the appalling way in which this abuse can affect people for generations.

The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is always unacceptable. The Conservative party’s work on preventing sexual violence in armed conflict was born of the tragedy of Darfur and the survivors of Srebrenica. It is a tragedy that today, 12 years on, and despite that leadership, events like these are still happening in places such as Ethiopia. Hon. Members are right to say that debates such as this are vital to ensure that we keep the focus on the use of rape, torture and abuse, particularly of women, as a weapon of war. We have to keep that central to the debate.

We also need to focus on the facts. This is where I think the debate needs to lie. There has been a great deal of progress as a result of the leadership of this Government, of the Conservative party and of Ministers who are in place now. We can see that in the integrated review and in the G7 communiqué. The integrated review makes it absolutely clear that the Government want to continue

“to strengthen justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict”,

as well as providing support to survivors and children born of conflict-related sexual violence. I do not think it could be clearer than that. In the G7 communiqué, I was pleased to see the leaders of the seven most important developed nations in the world, clearly with leadership from this Government, setting out clearly that the use of sexual violence in conflict situations constitutes crimes against humanity or war crimes. We could not be clearer, and that leadership should not be underestimated. The UK also continues to be one of the largest providers of international aid.

But let us get the debate to where it really needs to be, which is what we do next and how we move forward with this clear goodwill to make the sort of changes and approaches to this appalling crime that we need to see. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is absolutely right on this point. We need to hear from the Minister more on the specifics about how this Government are going to continue to drive forward this important agenda. I am interested in some of the ideas that he put forward, which echo those of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. It would be sensible to hear more about how an international convention on preventing sexual violence could be developed, or indeed, how we could have an international body to do more to collect evidence to bring perpetrators to justice. That has the added benefits of making it a crime that people are fearful of committing in the first place—for fear of that evidence being collected—and of bringing perpetrators to justice.

I also have huge sympathy for the need for longer-term funding commitments. We all too often hear as Members of Parliament about the problems created by short-term funding approaches. I hope that the Minister might be thinking carefully about that, as well as the ring-fencing of those working on this issue. That would build the sort of consistency that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes was talking about.

We should not speak about this issue without also remembering that in February Save the Children estimated that 246 million children around the world are living in conflict zones and that more than 70 million—one in six of those children—live within 50 km of conflicts where armed groups have perpetrated the most heinous sexual violence not only against adults, but against children, and that is in the past year alone. None of us can allow that to pass us by, because if we do, all the work we are doing on international development is for naught. If we allow children to be exposed to heinous acts and become the victims of sexual violence in conflict zones, we leave ourselves with generations of problems with trying to achieve peace and reconciliation, as well as all the consequences that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock went through so eloquently in her speech.

I hope that the Minister will use his contribution today to give us all more information and details on how the Government are taking forward the incredible piece of work done over the past 12 years, so that we can make sure that we save the next generation from the impact of war crimes. We have to ensure that our nation’s work on and reputation for dealing with issues of sexual violence in conflict zones continues to be something of which we can all be extremely proud as part of this Government’s legacy.

The horrific nature of sexual violence in conflict, the deliberate, humiliating violation of those targeted, the fear that it instils in survivors and potential victims, the stigma it can create and the trauma it leaves behind mean that it is rightly recognised by the International Criminal Court as a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, all too often sexual violence goes under the radar or, worse, is considered an inevitable consequence of war. Programmes to tackle it are notoriously and persistently underfunded, with global allocations for funding against sexual gender-based violence making up just 0.1% of total humanitarian funding between 2016 and 2018. There is no excuse for neglecting these efforts, and all Governments have a responsibility to increase support to those who have already suffered such crimes and to protect those who are targets now and will be in future.

In the past, the UK Government have shown that it can be a global leader on conflict-related sexual violence, such as with the establishment of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012. However, the regrettable keywords there are “the past”. Sadly, the momentum behind the initiative has not been sustained. The Government must revitalise that work to be an effective global partner in tackling sexual violence.

The budget for the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative team has been decreasing for several years, and the number of deployments of the UK’s team of experts has been falling, too. In 2020, there was just one deployment, in contrast with 27 deployments in 2014. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact concluded that since 2014, ministerial interest in the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has “waned” and “fragmented”. The protection of fundamental human rights and the prevention of such war crimes cannot be treated as a short-term campaign, rather than a long-term strategy. It has consequences.

In March, the UN said that more than 500 rape cases had been reported in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and that is likely to be a gross underestimate. In Ethiopia alone, the UN Population Fund estimates that there might be 22,500 survivors of sexual violence who will seek clinical care this year. It is clear that this is a weapon of war.

At this moment, the FCDO should be deploying teams of experts and specialist aid to treat survivors in Ethiopia and in neighbouring Sudan, where tens of thousands of refugees are arriving. However, we have yet to hear any news about that, and I hope the Minister will speak on it today. Will the FCDO be doing that? Given that its spending in this area was declining even prior to the cuts to official development assistance, does the FCDO still have a budget and resources for the initiative, particularly with aid now being cut to Africa by two thirds?

The UK Government have taken their eye off the ball, and there is a real danger that this issue will continue to be neglected and imperilled as further cuts to aid programmes are announced. The reduction in spending means there will be an almost £1 billion cut to the UK Government’s work on conflict in open societies. Surely making every effort to prevent conflict occurring must be part of the strategy to prevent conflict-related sexual violence. For every programme that is wholly or even partially suspended, there is an increased risk of bloodshed, conflict and sexual violence. That is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Each and every one of us was horrified when we heard stories of the sexual slavery of Yazidi women by Daesh, yet this year the Government have not only decided to slash aid to Syria, but, for the first time since 1991, will provide no bilateral aid to Iraq—none. How do those reckless decisions help protect against conflict and sexual violence? The simple answer is that they do not.

Ahead of the G7 summit, the UK Government spoke about building momentum to end violence against women and girls, denouncing the use of sexual violence in conflict situations, but words are simply not enough. Covid should have been a reason to step up, not step away. The UN estimates that each month in lockdown will result in an additional 5 million cases of gender-based violence. There will be 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation and 13 million more children forced into child marriage.

This Government are taking us all for fools by claiming that we had to cut the aid budget because of the pandemic. That was a political choice, and that was shown by the fact that other G7 countries increased their aid. Indeed, the Scottish Government increased our contributions by 50%. This cruel Tory Government’s austerity 2.0 is now on the backs of the most vulnerable in our global community. I am sure the Government will try to defend themselves by rattling off the statistics of what they are doing. However, we must ask whether, even though they might be doing something, they are doing enough. For every project this UK Government mention, we should remember the many more that have had their operations hindered or completely shut down.

Let us remind the Tories who exactly is affected when they make their cuts. For example, a woman in South Sudan was tied to a tree after her husband was brutally murdered, and forced to watch her teenage child being gang raped by soldiers. A primary schoolboy in Syria, who should have been watching cartoons and playing with friends, was instead kidnapped by Daesh, imprisoned and sexually abused over and over again. A Yemeni man was imprisoned and subjected to rape, electrocution, beating of genitals and threats of sterilisation. These actions are replicated many thousands of times the world over. These are the people this Government are abandoning with their cuts.

To answer my own question, no, this Government are not doing enough, despite their claims of support. This Government will not be doing enough until we can return to a full aid commitment, reprioritise the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and ensure that the victims of sexual violence get the full amount of support they need and deserve.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me and for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. This is not a topic that many like to discuss: it is uncomfortable and it is difficult. To be honest, I feel a bit uneasy about some of the things I have heard. I know they are true, but it is particularly hard to try to deal with them. However, I feel obliged to stand up today on behalf of those who cannot, especially as a father and a grandfather, given that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. I believe that we in this House, as good people, have an opportunity to speak out on behalf of those who need our help.

Sexual violence in conflict areas has become very common. It is often seen as a tactic of war, not a crime. These acts are not limited to rape and sexual assault; they can include forced prostitution, enforced sterilisation and arranged marriages. Save the Children estimates that some 72 million children—one in six children living in conflict zones—are at high risk of sexual violence by armed groups, which is a truly astonishing figure. It is also important to remember that these crimes do not discriminate and can occur to men, women and children of all ages. This is absolute, pure evil and pure wickedness of a bestial nature that is almost impossible to comprehend as we try to figure out what to do.

With the pandemic causing distress to all walks of life, sexual violence crimes in conflict zones have gone unnoticed. In 2020, the United Nations reported more than 200 sexual violence cases in many conflict zones, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Colombia and many others, but we find it difficult to take it on. Many of these have been ignored owing to the lack of reports and reliable data due to covid. As we gradually come out of the pandemic, there is time for reflection, and more importantly, time for action.

We look to the Minister on the Front Bench to give us the necessary reassurance. The preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative set up by the Ministry of Defence and FCDO to raise awareness of these horrific crimes is welcome, but I am afraid that raising awareness is simply not enough. That is what we are saying: we can all raise awareness via the speeches we make, but we look to the Minister for how that awareness can be turned into action. That is what I want. As a legislature, we must legislate and act against this issue. We must work on delivering better access to support and healthcare for the victims of conflict; we cannot simply be aware of the need. Being aware of the need and of the issue is one thing, but acting on it is another.

Conflict and violence are things that Northern Ireland is familiar with—we still bear the scars—but they do not come close to the devastation that some in conflict zones face when that is combined with the impacts of sexual violence. Most recently, in March, I was horrified to read that some 500 rape cases were reported in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Note the words “were reported”. Sometimes that probably means that there were actually more, which is worrying. It is incomprehensible for people who have not been confronted with this before to try to deal with.

I am always grateful to hear the hon. Gentleman speak, because he speaks with such passion. He talks about the reported cases. In the UK, it is estimated that about 15% of women report cases, so I absolutely agree that the reported cases of PSVI will be the slightest tip of the iceberg.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think every one of us is aware that these figures come nowhere near the magnitude of the difficulties. I commend the hon. Lady—she is Champion by name and champion in the way she takes up her causes. I am certainly encouraged by everything she says.

In these and other post-conflict situations, survivors carry the effects of their trauma while the perpetrators, who deserve punishment for their actions, often walk free. A local church man in my constituency often brings issues of sexual violence in conflict zones to my attention. He has travelled to areas that are subject to such brutality, which reminds us of how essential it is that work is done on the ground. That kind of work starts here in this House, from us as elected MPs to our Minister and the Government. I also commend Lord Ahmad, who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), on his statement at the conference:

“It is time for justice. It’s time to put survivors first.”

We wish to do that. To help those survivors, we need accountability for those who carry out these awful, horrible attacks upon people, including women and children.

I note that, in 2014-15, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office legislated for more than £20 million to be allocated for PSVI activities. I find it quite distressing to see that figure reduced each and every year. I understand that the Government are trying hard to balance the books, but the good that this does and can do should outweigh the cost of it. In the last year, the figure was just £2.6 million, compared with £20 million in 2014. We in this House can take those decisions. I know that we cannot fund all the world’s problems, but we can honour commitments that we have made.

Where was that money used? The Library statistics referred to the deployment of PSVI expert teams. In 2020, we deployed only one team. My goodness, should we not be doing more? We deployed six in the previous year, 11 in 2018, and 27 in the big year of 2014.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Totnes for setting the scene extremely well and for the work he does as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. He highlighted how the PSVI has been downgraded and underfunded. I ask the Minister, with, as always, great respect, why that is the case, and will he change that decision?

As I have said, only one PSVI expert team was deployed in 2020. That may be as a result of the pandemic—that is a possible reason—but we need to do more groundwork to eradicate this. The Redress charity has done amazing work with non-governmental organisations in areas such as Sudan, Kenya and Uganda to ensure the effective documentation of crimes, which helps bring proper legal claims against perpetrators and accountability. People who carry out such damnable and terrible atrocities need to be made accountable. I want something to be done about that.

Finally, I urge the Minister to dedicate time to communicate with charities and NGOs, which ultimately give all their time to supporting victims and getting justice. As elected representatives in this House, we have a platform to act on this issue. What a privilege we have to act on behalf of other people and help them if we can. Thank you again, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I have faith that the Minister will listen to all the comments and allocate funding to help address this issue rather than simply talk about it.

I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), and indeed all Members who have contributed to this afternoon’s debate. There is no doubt that we are all united in our complete revulsion at, and total condemnation of, this awful practice. Yet, despite being widely acknowledged as one of the most heinous and despicable crimes imaginable, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war still, to this day, goes largely unreported and generally unpunished.

As we have heard, it is a long and depressing list. From Sinjar to Sri Lanka, Colombia to China, Tigray to Myanmar, Nepal to Nigeria, Bosnia to Libya—the list goes on and on of countries where women and girls are being raped and abused by men carrying guns, who act in the almost certain knowledge that they will never be held to account for their actions.

We have heard from a number of hon. Members that, having initially shown leadership on this issue, the Government have, unfortunately, at best stalled and at worst back-pedalled in recent years. I urge the Minister to recognise that we have a moral responsibility to ensure that those women and girls receive the justice to which they are entitled and that the perpetrators know that they will be tried and punished for their crimes.

Although legal consequences are vital, so too is the responsibility on us all, and all states, to ensure that survivors of sexual violence receive trauma counselling alongside any healthcare they require to assist in their recovery. It is absolutely vital that we all work to end the stigma that survivors of sexual violence experience both in their communities and in wider society. That is particularly relevant to children born of rape. Although a robust legal framework is essential, it is important that a holistic approach is taken towards the healing and recovery of those living with the consequences of these atrocities.

I have spoken a number of times on this issue since 2015, mainly in relation to the Yazidi genocide and the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women by Daesh. I have had the enormous privilege of getting to know very well Nadia Murad, whose story of how she was kidnapped, enslaved and raped shocked the world but shone a light on the vile atrocities perpetrated by Daesh on Yazidi women. Nadia is without doubt one of the bravest and most inspiring people I have ever met. Although I have quoted her in the Chamber before, I make no apology for retelling her story today. Having been taken from her village to Raqqa, Nadia was held, along with other women, in a school. She said:

“There were thousands of families in a building there, including children who were given away as gifts. One of the men came up to me. He wanted to take me…I was absolutely terrified…He was like a monster. I cried out that I was too young…He kicked and beat me…A few days later, this man forced me to get dressed and put on my makeup. Then, on that terrible night, he did it…He humiliated me daily. He forced me to wear clothes that barely covered my body…That night he beat me. He asked me to take my clothes off. He put me in a room with guards, who proceeded to commit their crime until I fainted.”

That is the harrowing reality of sexual violence in conflict. Sadly, in what will be an all too familiar story to women and girls who have been victims of these crimes, no one has been charged or convicted for what has happened.

Despite the well-documented atrocities of Daesh, and its military defeat and the mass arrests that followed, the crime of rape appears to have been completely forgotten, as criminal courts continue to use counter-terrorism legislation to prosecute members of Daesh, with no charges of sexual violence being brought. These Yazidi women deserve justice. The crimes that have been inflicted on them cannot and should not be airbrushed away. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said, the Government talk a good game, but the reality is that they cannot do that and yet take away funding from the very bodies that can make a difference. That is fundamentally wrong.

The women and girls who have suffered these awful crimes deserve justice, and their perpetrators cannot be allowed to believe that they act with impunity. I urge the Government to work with the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and other international partners to ensure that all countries have legislation that ensures effective prosecution of sexual violence as a stand-alone international crime. Sadly, as we have heard from many Members, wartime rape remains a rule, and accountability the exception.

As the hon. Member for Thurrock said, in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, 50,000 Bosnian women were raped, mainly but not exclusively by Bosnian Serbs and Serbian paramilitary units, who used rape as an instrument of terror and a key tactic in their programme of ethnic cleansing. It is reckoned that for every reported rape, between 15 and 20 went unreported.

The same despicable tactic of ethnic cleansing was used during the Rwandan genocide, with half a million women raped, sexually mutilated or murdered in the course of just 100 days. The aim was to produce more Hutu children and, in other cases, to infect woman with sexually transmitted diseases, thereby destroying their reproductive capabilities. It is an appalling act.

What unites these women of Bosnia and Rwanda, and the Yazidi women, is that despite these atrocities—atrocities that have ruined hundreds of thousands of innocent lives—the number of men charged, prosecuted and convicted of carrying out these rapes is minimal, while survivors of conflict-related sexual violence have struggled to achieve recognition as legitimate victims of war and therefore access to reparations and redress.

In August last year, a UN report concluded that, almost a quarter of a century after the conflict in Bosnia, investigations into sexual violence had been “ineffective and slow” and that

“compensation and support for the victims were inadequate.”

To almost painfully illustrate the point, one Hutu commander, Jean Teganya, who was accused of the rape and murder of Tutsi woman at a local hospital, was convicted—of two counts of immigration fraud and three counts of perjury in the United States. That is appalling. It is simply not good enough. We are all failing these vulnerable women and girls. I repeat the call that I made earlier for the Government to give this issue a much higher priority.

Tragically and appallingly, rape and sexual violence in conflict is endemic—so much so that while it is loudly and rightly condemned, it has almost become an accepted norm. That has to change. We all have a moral responsibility to be part of that change. I am afraid that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) said, right now the UK Government appear to be asleep at the wheel. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) asked, how can the UK Government talk seriously about preventing sexual violence in conflict while at the same time taking away desperately needed funds from those organisations whose job it is to combat and prevent it? I urge the Minister, please, to rethink the cut to overseas aid. It is killing people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on obtaining this timely debate, with the UN International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on Saturday. The quality of debate from all hon. Members, on both sides of the House, has been excellent. Everybody is passionate about the commitment, and thinks this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and properly funded.

Nine years ago, there was a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict, where, following the 2012 creation of the United Kingdom’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative—PSVI—there was a commitment to bring the international community together to put an end to this act. We know that covid-19 has increased the risk of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence around the world. Projects that support survivors and train officials to identify and combat the issues are vital to address the symptoms of sexual violence.

The Government have not done enough. Only two weeks ago, Lord Hague, who helped to spearhead this initiative, stated:

“The UK government has continued PSVI but with lower priority. The sense of energy at a senior level…has dissipated. Funding for the initiative is the lowest since we started it. The team of experts is rarely deployed. The raising of the issue across all diplomatic gatherings has dried up.”

That is a damning indictment of what was a powerful initiative.

The Minister will know that in a critical report last year, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact found that the PSVI’s staffing dropped from 34 members in 2014 to just three now. In an answer to a written question, it was revealed that funding for the PSVI has fallen by 87% in the past seven years. The expert team that was assembled to be deployed to conflict areas to help gather evidence and support survivors has been cut from 27 members in 2014 to just one in 2020—thus, the claim by the Foreign Secretary that the PSVI is still a major priority for Government is plainly not correct. Instead of stepping up, the Government have actually scaled back.

If we are truly serious about ending sexual and gender-based violence, we need to begin by changing the way we think and talk about sexual violence and the motivation of its perpetrators and enablers. Yes, we need projects that support survivors and train officials to identify and combat the underlying issues, as this is vital to addressing the symptoms of sexual violence. But we also need to acknowledge the impact of structural gender inequality, which justifies, normalises and accepts these things as part of life.

We know that violence against women increases in conflict settings. Most notably, this takes the form of systematic rape by military actors. This has long been considered a strategic weapon of war; as the hon. Member for Totnes said, it is cheap and costs nothing. But we know that sexual violence is not unique to conflict settings. Policies that focus solely on military rape risk failing to address the continuum of violence between these crimes and the everyday, private forms of abuse that happen everywhere, in increasingly inequitable and unsustainable societal environments. In the United Kingdom and around the world, covid-19 lockdown measures have unleashed a surge in gender-based violence at exactly the same time that the services on which these survivors rely have been cut or forced to close.

UNICEF has reported that at least 120 million girls under the age of 20 have experienced forced sexual intercourse. Furthermore, it is anticipated that 47 million women are expected to fall into extreme poverty and, on top of the 131 million girls who were out of school before the crisis, 20 million girls are now unlikely to return to school. That is why the Opposition have been calling for gender analyses in the UK’s international response to covid-19. Instead the Government have shut down the Department for International Development, which was renowned for its work on gender equality throughout the world, and are now intent on slashing the aid budget, with women and girls disproportionately impacted.

The response to gender-based violence remains severely underfunded, with less than 0.52% of the overall global humanitarian response plan for covid-19 having been dedicated to it. We missed an opportunity at the G7 to right this wrong. As G7 host, it was an opportune time for us to look ahead to the value of the PSVI and the planned conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict next year.

We should be putting commitments to women, peace and security at the heart of our work and our recovery from covid-19. Does the Minister agree that we need to scale up the quality of our response to gender-based violence, including in respect of sexual violence prevention and protection, and services in conflict states? If that is to happen, the UK Government must make a concrete commitment to gender equality and other forms of prevention.

The Government have slashed their funding to the United Nations Population Fund by 85%. The fund helps more than 150 countries and has helped to prevent a quarter of a million child and maternal deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions. The director of BRAC said that the cuts to Bangladesh will be “catastrophic” for millions of women and girls.

Apart from the cuts, many in civil society have reported that there is a lack of transparency around the funding decisions that are being taken, with little or no consultation with external partners and poor and erratic communication. The G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council 2021 was clear that to achieve gender equality, world leaders should renew their commitment to spend 0.7 of GNI on ODA, to tackle violence against women and girls and invest in the care economy; will the Government and the Minister listen to that?

The United Kingdom is the only G7 country to be cutting its aid budget this year. Does the Minister agree that it is hypocritical to commit in public to the PSVI, the sustainable development goals and gender equality, while at the same time slashing aid to all those things? Every day, women and girls around the world face discrimination in every aspect of life, purely because of their gender, along with many other discriminatory issues.

Of course, in addition to financial resources we have to ensure that the voices of local activists are heard and that they are leading the decision-making process. That is why the Opposition have launched a gender equality consultation to understand how we can work with local activists and deliver a policy platform that seeks to tackle the effects of gender inequality as well as the causes.

Ending sexual violence in conflict requires a holistic approach, covering a legal framework to open up access to justice for survivors, gender training and support for authorities, and initiatives to prevent conflict in the first place. I want our Government, our country and our Ministers to be ambitious and to support the PSVI—to support it financially, properly, not with a piecemeal approach to reform. I urge the Minister to listen to what everyone in the House has said and act on it.

The House is clearly very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to their work respectively on the all-party group for the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and the International Development Committee. I also add my thanks, as my hon. Friend did, to Lord Hague, Baroness Helic, the special envoy Angelina Jolie, Chloe Dalton, whose name sometimes gets dropped off the list but who is equally important, and Lord Ahmad, who is doing a sterling job as the Prime Minister’s special representative, and also dual-hatting as a Minister of State, a really senior, high-level appointment. I can assure my hon. Friend that he makes sure that this matter receives the Foreign Secretary’s time, my time, the full team’s time and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s time.

As others have said, this is a very timely debate given the event on Saturday—the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict—and it is very important that we raise these issues. Before I entered the Chamber, I was discussing with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) her plans for her speech. She went through in great detail what was involved behind the PSVI. I will not repeat her horrific words, but I think it is important not to hide behind an acronym. We should call these things out, but given the brevity of the time available, I will not go through the list.

This House should be proud of its record in speaking out against sexual violence, and we should be proud of the work that has been done since 2012 through to 2014 when there was a surge of activity under William Hague. In 2019, there was an additional surge in the run-up to the potential conference, to which we are still committed.

This issue has been very important to me. Back in 2006, I went with Christian Aid to Rwanda and saw for myself the horrific impacts of what was going on. I can remember speaking to people for an hour and, literally, after every sentence, the next sentence was even worse, more horrific than anything I could possibly imagine. Later on, I visited South Sudan. I sat in a tent with women and heard not just their horrific stories, but their optimism about moving forward from what had happened and their need to ensure that it did not happen to others. Only last November, I was in the Congo learning about the work that we do there, speaking to our agenda on the protection of individuals who work out there.

This whole issue remains vitally important. I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is the case. I particularly recall that, as Lord Hague was leaving, I remained as a Minister and in 2014, for the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, I co-hosted a conference on this issue with Zainab Bangura.

We should be proud of what we have done, notwithstanding the fact that the House wants us to do more. Many other countries have helped to move things forward. We should not see that as a criticism of the UK. It was the intention of the initiative to take others—particularly the Germans—with us. We wanted different countries leading in different areas. I note Germany’s particular leadership in Ethiopia as a champion of the PSVI, even pre-dating the current conflict. I will come back to that as an issue.

We will focus on two aims: first, strengthening the pathway to justice for survivors and holding perpetrators to account; and, secondly, particularly on the back of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact report and the development report, improving support to survivors, including talking about the stigma they face and putting them at the centre of developments going forward.

Since the launch in 2012, we have put in more than £48 million. That has funded more than 85 projects across 29 countries. We have trained 17,000 police and military personnel around the world. Since 2012, there have been 90 deployments to a variety of countries. That has slowed down very recently, largely because of covid, but hopefully that will scale up again.

I spoke to Lord Ahmad only last night, and he reflected on his time in Cox’s Bazar, where he spoke to a woman who had to repeat her story of rape many, many times over. He was very keen for that not to happen again. Speaking to survivors, and pursuing a survivor-centred and survivor-led approach, as the hon. Member for Rotherham suggests, clearly needs to be at the heart of what we do. That is why, last summer, we launched the Murad code, which serves to be the gold standard. Various other Members have mentioned it and have talked about how they have met the Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad.

Let me tell the House what that code does. It helps investigators, interpreters, policy makers, and politicians to respect the rights and needs of the individuals involved, and also to make sure that investigations are safer, more ethical and more effective. In addition, Lord Ahmad launched a declaration of humanity by faith leaders and leaders of belief, which is really important. More than 50 organisations have signed up to the declaration, which recognises that children born as a result of sexual violence in conflict are often the most marginalised. They have a difficult legal status and struggle to get into education. It is really important that we recognise that, and we are pushing forward international action through the model framework for the wellbeing of children born of sexual violence. We will work through all international organisations—this debate particularly references the G7, although I shall not go through the list—in which that work will be embedded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes specifically asked me about the international investigatory body. I must admit that I am more sceptical than he is about the efficacy of putting that body in place. For that to be achieved, a number of obstacles need to be overcome. Certainly, we need to overcome the duplication with existing international architecture. We will need to look at jurisdiction issues and limitations on accessing some sovereign states, particularly in periods of conflict in the middle.

To be frank, despite our efforts, there has been a lack of political will among partner organisations, including the UN and other states, although we were trying to get a band of support together. Also, there are, in the broadest sense, significant resource implications for partners and an opportunity cost to deploying in this way rather than supporting PSVI in a more traditional way. However, we did consult on this proposal, and I have perhaps given my hon. Friend an indication of the some of the things he needs to work on to build support and move things forward through the group.

A number of individuals mentioned Tigray, off the back of the urgent question. I can confirm that we will be deploying the resource in the next few weeks. Resource has been identified in a number of locations, and there are some logistical issues in getting it in the field, but the British Government have been in Tigray. There have been five delegations, our head of development has been there, our ambassador was there this week and the Prime Minister’s envoy for famine was there, so there has been a lot of attention. Early on in the crisis, however, there was no access for humanitarian entities, let alone those involved in PSVI. We have directly helped 545 survivors in Tigray and 9,792 people we think are at risk, through partners. We have helped 643 children and provided specialist medical kits, through partners, and materials to 16,488, so while we are not there with the advisers at this time, we will be, and we are already providing support through partner organisations.

I can confirm that, in Lord Ahmad, the Foreign Secretary and me, we will remain champions of the prevention of sexual violence against women. I thank the House for raising this issue and holding the Government to account on this important subject.

I thank the Minister for his response, because there was a great deal to cover from over the course of this debate. A whole host of issues have been raised by Members with great expertise in different areas, and all the speeches have managed to inform the House of the severity of the issue and the fact that it is a crisis.

However, I would respectfully say that one of the problems we have when looking at other international organisations is that they have failed to achieve any meaningful prosecutions on this subject. If they are not working, we must try to take the steps forward to ensure that we can lead those prosecutions. It is no good our saying that there are other organisations that have objections, when we know that we can get 156 countries to sign a resolution and we know that we can get international support for what we have done in the past. We have the opportunity to take that leadership and create those new international bodies, because in the wake of every great conflict and crisis in the world, there have always been remarkable institutions and organisations set up in response. Let us be under no illusion: this is a crisis, and it will be a crisis in future conflicts unless we address it.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly said, the UK cannot respond to every single ill and evil in the world, but we stepped forward in 2012. I ask the House: what does it say about us if we do not deliver on the promises of the past to help for the future? That is what I want to see done.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), as ever, gave a splendid speech. I think the point about a survivor-led approach is right, and it is rightly reflected in the Murad code—the Minister is completely right—but the point is that the Murad code must be housed in an international organisation that sees that code of conduct deployed in every conflict area in the world but is also enforced by an organisation that can bring perpetrators to justice. Collecting evidence is only one of the pillars of what we must seek to achieve to be able to bring justice against perpetrators and to support survivors.

It has been said that, on Saturday, it is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In this debate, we have raised a whole host of ideas and thoughts as to what we can do, and I look forward to seeing Members from across the House work with the Government and other Governments to get it right.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and the G7.

I am now going to suspend the House for one minute, because I will be in trouble if we do not take the necessary precautions.

Sitting suspended.