Book Review | The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Content warning: this book, and this review, talks about violence, including sexual violence.

Women. We make up half the human race, and yet for so many of us, our very existence is an abhorrence. Women’s lives are simply worth less than their male counterparts. Sue Lloyd-Roberts, a masterful journalist, doesn’t shy away from delving into the deeply uncomfortable and deeply upsetting truth. Meticulously researched, referenced and recounted in a precise yet very human way, this is essential reading.

It’s hard to know where to start with this harrowing but necessary book. The course of her career takes Lloyd-Roberts to the front lines of conflict. She relentlessly pursues truth and justice, and she must have had a remarkable gift to have engaged in the kinds of conversations we hear about. From the other side of the world: the imprisoned women of Saudi Arabia, nothing without a male ‘guardian’, to the use of rape as a weapon of war in the DR Congo – to the close to home: the now-notorious Magdalene Laundries in Ireland that imprisoned unmarried pregnant girls, to the horrors of so-called ‘honour killings’ and prevalence of FGM amongst minority communities in the UK.

While all the stories were horrific and heartbreaking, one that will stay with me as perhaps the most stomach-churning was the documented pattern between international aid workers and sex trafficking. It was perhaps naive of me not to know about this: as if it were unthinkable that Western men working with diplomatic passports (and immunity) and “United Nations” in their job titles would be fuelling this terrible underground business. Because that’s what it is: there is big money to be made in the kidnapping, torture, abuse and rape of young girls – as young as 12 – tricked or stolen from rural, impoverished areas and sold into sex slavery. And when UN peacekeeping forces arrive in an area, with the purported aim of helping with stabilisation and recovery, they are consciously, actively implicit in the sexual abuse of trafficking victims. And it’s covered up to the highest levels of power.

Sadly, evidence suggests a sex industry involving vulnerable young women is always likely to follow hard on the heels of a large, male-dominated, international peacekeeping force.

It sounds bleak – and it is. But there are rays of hope, too. The book’s subtitle is ‘and the brave ones who fight back.’ In some of the worst places on earth to be a woman, there are grassroots activists risking their lives to advocate for women and girls. There are remarkable women raising their head above the parapet. Their bravery is astonishing. And slowly, things may be starting to change. But Lloyd-Roberts errs on the side of caution rather than optimism when it comes to a sustained cultural, social and economic shift in the way women are regarded globally.

You’ll be enraged. You’ll be heartbroken. But this is a book that needed to written, and that needs to be read. Educating yourself and others is a small but important first step in fighting against these horrific injustices going on both at home and abroad. Sue Lloyd-Roberts sadly passed away before she could completely finish the book. But she’s left an incredibly important legacy, and reading this account is one way of keeping her powerful voice and mission alive.

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