All violence against women betrays the fundamental promise in the UN Charter of equal rights and dignity for women. It is one of the prime reasons why women remain in a subordinate position in relation to men in most parts of the world.
When this violence is committed as an act of war it tears apart families, creates mass displacement, and makes peace and reconciliation far harder to achieve. In fact, it is often designed expressly to achieve those goals as part of a military strategy.
Despite being prohibited by international law, sexual violence continues to be employed as a tactic of war in numerous conflicts from Myanmar to Ukraine and Syria to Somalia. It includes mass rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and rape as a form of torture, ethnic cleansing and terrorism. It accounts in large part for why it is often more dangerous to be a woman in a warzone today than it is to be a soldier.
In our different roles we have seen how conflicts in which women’s bodies and rights are systematically abused last longer, cause deeper wounds and are much harder to resolve and overcome. Ending gender-based violence is therefore a vital issue of peace and security as well as of social justice.
The Nato Alliance was founded to safeguard not just the security but also the freedom of its peoples: in the words of President Harry Truman, as “a shield against aggression and the fear of aggression”.
For nearly 70 years Nato has stood for collective defence against military threats. But also for the defence of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and the UN Charter.
We believe that Nato has the responsibility and opportunity to be a leading protector of women’s rights.
In particular, we believe Nato can become the global military leader in how to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict, drawing on the strengths and capabilities of its member states and working with its many partner countries.
Over the coming months we will be working together and with others to identify ways in which Nato can strengthen its contribution to women’s protection and participation in all aspects of conflict-prevention and resolution.
First, by building on Nato’s commitment to integrate gender issues into its strategic thinking as part of its values and reinforcing a culture of the integration of women throughout the organization including in leadership positions.
Nato’s senior military leaders, have a vital role to play in being positive role models, and promoting the role of women in the military.
Second, by helping to raise the standards of other militaries. Nato and Allied countries are involved every day in training partner militaries around the world. We want to explore ways in which existing training on the protection of human rights and civilians, including against sexual violence, can be strengthened.
Third, Nato has developed standard operating practices for soldiers in the field, learned through mandatory pre-deployment training. Standards and training are not the only answer, but they ensure that personnel recognize the different ways in which women and girls are affected by conflict and are trained to prevent, recognize and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.
This is a vital part of helping to create lasting cultural changes, including debunking the myths that fuel sexual violence and deepening understanding of the centrality of protection and rights for women in the creation of lasting peace and security.
Fourth, Nato already deploys gender advisers to local communities in Kosovo and Afghanistan, while Nato’s female soldiers are able to reach and engage with local communities. Stronger awareness of the role that gender plays in conflict improves military operational effectiveness and leads to improved security. Strengthening this culture can only benefit Nato’s contribution to peace and security over the long term.
Fifth, Reporting on conflict-related sexual violence is now one of the tasks of Nato commanders. Nato is also creating a reporting system to record instances of gender-based violence compatible with UN Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Arrangements.
With this data, which will be shared with the UN, Nato soldiers will be able to discern patterns and trends so that they will be able to respond more quickly to prevent potential violence. By reporting crimes and supporting work to bring perpetrators to justice, Nato can challenge the culture of impunity, including for senior leaders and those most responsible.
Nato Allies have strongly committed to put these issues front and center every day, in how they train soldiers, in how they operate in the field, and in how they interact with civilians who find themselves in combat zones.
We will also be urging more concerted action in the wider world. By working together with business, civil society, governments and political leadership writ large, international organizations such as Nato can help lead the way toward ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict.
It is humanity’s shame that violence against women, whether in peaceful societies or during times of war, has been universally regarded as a lesser crime. There is finally hope that we can change this. We owe it to ourselves – men and women alike – and to future generations.
Jens Stoltenberg is NATO Secretary General. Angelina Jolie is co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.