International Women’s Day – The Countess of Wessex and prevention of sexual violence

Sophie has committed to support the Women, Peace and Security agenda

A key theme of The Countess of Wessex’s royal work has been supporting the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda and UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. Today, on International Women’s Day, it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on this work.

It’s been a journey that has taken Sophie to places affected by conflict, where she has met ‘inspiring people who have endured the most terrible experiences’. But how did her interest in this area come about? How does working with those affected by violence in conflict impact Sophie on both an emotional and mental wellbeing front?

The Countess of Wessex chose the Women, Peace and Security agenda and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative as one of her key themes of royal work. (Royal Family)

The Countess of Wessex first formally expressed her interest in tackling this area during a Women, Peace and Security agenda and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative reception at Buckingham Palace in 2019.

‘As someone who firmly believes in the equality of men and women, I feel drawn to your cause and to do what I can to help raise further awareness of your work. To help give voice to women and girls who are being denied their fundamental rights as humans and are being subjected to harm and violence as a result of conflict, to promote those who seek to play a part in finding peace, and to support others as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

‘Therefore I am publicly committing myself to doing what I can to champion and support WPS and PSVI and make this a central pillar of my work in the coming months and years.’

The Countess explained how she had been attending a number of conferences, meetings and events, and had encountered some extraordinary people prior to the reception in 2019. Sophie expressed how it was people like those who were present during the reception who ‘are devoted to doing what they can to tackle these issues’.

In 2021 during a seminar from the London School of Economics discussing promoting peace after conflicts, the Royal described the nature of this work has seen her go to ‘very dark places’ mentally as ‘as it’s traumatising to hear about it’.

She also said that she can’t help by weep when she hears stories from survivors of sexual violence in conflict because they are ‘dreadful’.

However, Sophie did explain how every story she hears fuels her passion to raise more awareness of the subject and it is ‘pushing me forward to try help them [victims of abuse] and support them, to de-stigmatise the issue of conflict related sexual violence’.

Image Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 16/04/2021. Windsor, United Kingdom. Prince Edward and Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex and their daughter Lady Louise Windsor view floral tributes at Windsor Castle on the eve of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
Picture by i-Images / Pool

In 2020, Sophie gave royal watchers an insight into her personal life and if she discusses this area of work with her family. She explained that she doesn’t tell her husband ‘the intimate details’ of what she sees in this area of work, but that the late Queen was ‘interested in my trips, particularly in Commonwealth countries’.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, the Countess revealed how daughter, Lady Louise, is interested in her preventing sexual violence work, and that she talks to her daughter about what she is doing. She noted: ‘She’s quite aware of the work I do with women, peace builders, and also the conflict-related sexual violence pieces as well’ and has a ‘natural curiosity’ about the topic.

However, Sophie said it’s harder to have the conversation around her work with her son James, who is younger. Viscount Severn is now 16. She added that he’s at the ‘age where he’s much more aware of girls around him and everything’ and ‘he’s quite conscious of this whole issue of inappropriate behaviour between girls and boys’.

She also works for women’s empowerment in another area of interest for the Royal, discussing gender equality and how a fairer society would benefit everyone.

Writing in the Telegraph in 2020 to mark the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, Sophie described her time working to champion the WPS agenda as a ‘journey’. Travelling to ‘places affected by conflict’ she could not have envisaged, she has ‘met inspiring people who have endured the most terrible experiences, where many live in desperate conditions and whole communities see no future’.

She said that the anniversary ‘is a critical reminder that women still face exclusion from peace negotiations, of the risks they take to resolve conflict and build peace, and how their fates are mostly determined by those in power’.

The King’s sister-in-law praised women fighting for peace around the world during the pandemic who ‘still face is the outdated attitude that they are not qualified to have a place at the negotiating table’. Sophie noted how there is ‘no magic wands when it comes to negotiating peace’ and ‘every negotiation will be fraught and difficult, requiring enormous patience and effort from all sides, open minds, a willingness to concede, but above all the desire to find peace’.

The Countess of Wessex visiting the Panzi Foundation Hospital, a specialist hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for those who have endured conflict-related sexual violence. (Royal Family)

Later that year, in an address at a virtual UN event for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Sophie said sexual violence in the home or during conflicts is likely to have ‘risen substantially’ during the pandemic. The interview saw her reaffirm her commitment to champion the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.

While public royal engagements stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, Her Royal Highness kept in touch with these international networks, who were working to tackle domestic and sexual violence in areas of conflict, remotely, as they dealt with the impact of the pandemic on their communities. The Countess joined a series of calls with ICAN (International Civil Society Action Network), an organisation which supports and furthers the work of women peacebuilders.

The Countess was presented with the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for her work in raising awareness around sexual violence in areas of conflict. (Royal Family)

In December 2022, The Countess was recognised for her commitment to raise awareness about preventing sexual violence in conflict when she was presented wit the the 2022 Hillary Rodham Clinton Award. Sophie said as she accepted the Award: ‘Too long have survivors of rape in war had no voice. Too long have they had to bear the burden of others’ inactions on these crimes. And too long have the perpetrators not been held to account. Attitudes must be challenged and changed.’

Sophie took part in a speaking session about why sexual violence in conflict must not be an issue to disappear. (UK in Netherlands)

The Countess of Wessex has travelled around the world for her world in raising awareness of sexual violence in areas of conflict, including South Sudan (March 2020) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2022), both countries where Sophie was the first member of the Royal Family to visit these countries.

More recently, HRH visited the Netherlands, her first overseas visit of 2023, which focused around the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. Sophie has convened meetings of women peacebuilders to discuss their work to resolve conflicts both within communities and at a governmental level on a global scale.

Prevention of sexual violence is clearly an area in which Sophie is committed, and we’ll keep you up to date on such visits and progress here at The Crown Chronicles.

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