By Richard Verber, Campaigns Manager, World Jewish Relief
I have a confession to make. I got a bit giddy hanging out with Angelina Jolie last week. I didn’t think I would – I’m the consummate professional of course – but there was something about being around her that was very exciting.
She – like me – was at the ExCel centre in London, home of the table tennis and boxing during the 2012 Olympics. We were there for The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Ministers and representatives from more than 100 countries took part, along with NGOs, faith leaders and survivors.
Foreign Secretary William Hague co-chaired the summit with Angelina Jolie, in her capacity as Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
This is no superficial celebrity engagement. Two years ago, the pair launched the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Its goal is to end the culture of impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war worldwide. Jolie has committed publicly to dedicate the rest of her life to this cause.
Although I’m constantly amazed at how many Jews I meet who are engaged every day with difficult social justice issues, sexual violence in conflict appears difficult for the Jewish community to challenge publicly.
Jewish tradition teaches us to have a healthy attitude to sex. Far from being sinful, it’s unambiguously codified in Jewish law as an act of pleasure to be enjoyed within certain boundaries.
The Talmud (Nedarim 20b) suggests nine cases that do not constitute a permitted sexual act. Rape is explicitly named as one of these.
This was a theme picked up by Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, who spoke at an interfaith event at the summit.
She told the audience of the need to tackle the shame sometimes associated with being a victim of rape.
“We need to say to people: ‘This is not a sexual act you have taken part in, but an attack on you as a human being made in the image of God and shame does not enter into it’.”
Rape is indescribably horrible. Perpetrators in some parts of the world are free to act as they please, knowing authorities cannot or will not bring perpetrators to justice.
The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative seeks to address the prevailing impunity for these crimes.
Sexual violence in conflict goes beyond rape. It destroys families. Bloodshed creates fatherless children. Young boys become victims of sexual violence, too.
The graphic testimony of survivors at the summit was extremely powerful.
It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such terrible atrocities. But it must motivate us to act.
Gender-based violence is a serious problem in the conflict areas in which World Jewish Relief works, most recently supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan. Jordan is currently ‘home’ to more than a quarter of Syria’s two million refugees. Thousands still enter Jordan every day.
Fully three-quarters of the refugees are women and children. Despite fleeing violence at home, many face further attacks.
The emotional – and physical – scarring can last a lifetime.
World Jewish Relief has funded trauma therapists and psychologists to make practical interventions with women and young girls who have been traumatised by sexual and other violence.
Building resilience takes time. Unlike Angelina, the work is unglamorous. But it is essential.