One World

In 2018 the Nobel Peace Prize was shared between Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Nurad. Dr Mukwege has done incredible work treating thousands of women brutalised by Congolese militiamen. While, as a Yazidi, Nadia witnessed Daesh’s barbarity first-hand and has since found remarkable reserves of courage to speak out against such violence.

It is right we recognise these extraordinary individuals but their stories also act as a rebuke and reminder for all nations to do more. Both bear witness to the fact that the character of conflict is changing. Increasingly, civilians, and especially women and girls, are finding themselves on the frontline. Rape and kidnapping are being routinely used as weapons of war and yet, often, such innocents find no protection from the state. The evidence is clear. Current conflict disproportionately affects women

The UK has been determined to lead the way in tackling this appalling state of affairs. We were one of the first countries to sign UNSC Resolution 1325 urging nations to “increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts”. We were one of the first countries to adopt a national action plan.

And since then we’ve invested millions in training thousands of military and police to tackle sexual and gender based violence. In fact, our experts have deployed more than 90 times across the globe to support local people including in the wake of the Rohingya crisis where high levels of mass rape and sexual violence were reported. Last year the UK committed a further £1.6 million to increasing women’s participation in conflict resolution by offering peer-to-peer support to women mediators from the Commonwealth.

So Britain is acting. Other nations are acting too. But I passionately believe that to make lasting difference to our world requires concerted global effort in particular across international Armed Forces. So in 2019 I am pressing for three things to happen.

First I want to see greater participation of women in everything from peacekeeping processes to peacekeeping missions. In some societies, it is still taboo for women to talk to men outside their families. Yet we need to have that conversation in order to offer better safeguard and better understand the threats they face. Today’s UK military has now opened up all roles – including combat roles – to women so we will be able to make the most of their skills on future on peacekeeping operations,

Next Women Peace and Security (WPS) must be embedded into military training so it is part and parcel of the way our military personnel think. Here too the UK is making strides.

We’re the first Armed Forces in the world to have a policy on Human Security describing not only how the military can do more to involve women in the protection of civilians but how they should respond to child soldiers, survivors of conflict related sexual violence and human trafficking.

We’re training more than 100 Military Gender Protection Advisors per year to be deployed in national exercises and international operations.

Our military have sent Gender and Protection Advisers to Congo and advised Iraqi troops on responding to survivors of conflict related sexual violence.

And a few weeks ago I opened a unique military gender and protection adviser course. It offers attendees, including those from other nations, the chance to understand more about: conflict related violence; human trafficking; modern day slavery and child protection. The participants also heard a powerful first-hand testimony from a North Korean dissident and the shared experiences of officers from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Finally, nations must keep speaking out against these silent horrors. Sexual violence in conflict cannot just be wished away. But we can knock down the myths that regard these issues as too big to discuss. Together we can bring about the change needed. Militaries must realise too that the moral and strategic benefits of Women Peace and Security go hand in hand. Rape and sexual violence create a vicious cycle traumatising whole communities and leading to the revenge that perpetuates further instability. So our challenge is to break this cycle.

That’s why the UK meets with Non-Governmental Organisations and members of Civil Society who know much more about these issues than we do. And that’s why we’ve launched our WPS Chiefs of Defence network alongside Canada and Bangladesh to drive change amongst countries across the globe.

I am enormously proud of Britain’s reputation for doing global good rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean, helping people on Sinjar Mountain, bringing humanitarian aid to Jamaica after a hurricane or delivering lifesaving support in Ukraine. But we cannot rest until we outlaw the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war once and for all. That’s why this issues is at the top of my agenda. In November, this year the UK will host the international Preventing Sexual Violence meeting. It will be our opportunity to put gender at the centre of the peace and security map. If we do that we’ll be able to look back on 2019 as a turning point. A moment when women and children across the globe began to finally claim what was rightfully theirs – the freedom to live their lives free from fear.

Gavin Williamson is the British Secretary of State for Defence and has served as a Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire since May 2010. Prior to his appointment as Defence Secretary, he served as Chief Whip in Theresa May’s government.