colorful posters and signs protest sexual violence
June 19th commemorates the elimination of sexual violence in conflict. | Image: UN Women Asia and the Pacific via flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shattered Lives: The Global Crisis of Sexual Violence in Conflict

June 19th is the international day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict. It is a day of silent remembrance, as the crime of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is not a priority on political agendas. Survivors are often too traumatized to report, or experience further criminalization and stigmatization. The recent annual report of the UN Secretary General stresses the continuous prevalence and the global scale of this horrific crime. This blog summarizes its core findings.

Conflict-related Sexual Violence: A Heinous Crime with Many Faces

In its 14th annual report, the UN Secretary General refers to different forms of CRSV: rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity directly linked to armed conflicts. The UNSG report takes an explicitly intersectional approach, documenting cases of CRSV against women, girls, men, boys, and persons with diverse sexual orientations/gender identities, race and ethnicity, ranging in age between 3 to 70 years.

CRSV is also part of the crime catalogue of the Rome Statute that constitutes the International Criminal Court (ICC). As part of the statute, CRSV also entails gender persecution as criminal element. However, after more than 20 years of Court’s prosecution practice, gender persecution has not been addressed, despite the fact that numerous country cases exist where gender persecution amounts to crimes against humanity. One of the most prominent cases is Afghanistan, where the rights of women and girls have been eradicated in what experts describe as “gender apartheid”.

In 2023, sexual violence crimes were reported in the DR Congo, Myanmar, South Sudan and Sudan. In all those cases, CRSV is directly related to the illicit proliferation and widespread availability of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Research conducted by UNIDIR shows that 70 to 90 percent of CRSV incidents involve SALW. More practical disarmament and preventive measures needs to be taken to avoid these crimes being carried out at gunpoint during armed conflicts. The interaction between the illegal arms trade and CSRV also needs to be reflected more comprehensively at the 4th Review Conference of the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat, Eradicate the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons being held in June 2024 in New York.

Conflict-related sexual violence is multifaceted and is used by different groups of perpetrators. It is shocking that 70 percent of the parties listed in the annex of the annual report are persistent perpetrators that have been mentioned in the list for at least five years or more. While CRSV mostly occurs during armed conflict, these conflicts are sometimes long-lasting and of low intensity. In the case of Haiti, unprecedented levels of political instability and insecurity coincide with brutal patterns of gang-related violence, including mass rape. Humanitarian aid workers report a total of more than 3,000 cases of rape from January to October 2023.

Women and girls living in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable and frequently face CRSV, such as in Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan. Therefore, only monitoring domestic national situations does not seem sufficient to capture the regional dynamics of such crimes. Sexual violence also occurs in the context of abduction, trafficking, and forced displacement. Migrant and refugee women and girls held in detention centers in conflict-affected settings often face increased risks of sexual violence, such as in Libya and Yemen. In Ukraine, the Russian war led to the displacement of 5 million internally and 6 million refugees displaced in third countries – the risk of being trafficked and facing sexual exploitation remains high. In the reporting period, Ukrainian men held as prisoners of war, but also women and children, experienced CRSV.

CRSV is closely linked to the continuum of violence. Feminists point to the fact that sexual violence encompasses other forms of physical forms such as domestic violence, but is also facilitated and caused by structural factors such as extreme poverty and food insecurity. This often relates to harmful coping mechanisms, such as forced and child marriages, or sexual exploitation in exchange for food, such as in the cases of Afghanistan, Tigray/Ethiopia or Mali. The report also stresses the increase in gender-based hate speech, gendered disinformation, and incitements to violence. Feminists pointing to the relevance of the continuum of violence also stress the need to focus on discursive violence, as it often paves the ground for actual physical violence. The UNSG report mentions the case of Sudan and Myanmar. While in Sudan, such attacks were ethnically motivated and targeted non-Arab women in West Darfur, in the case of Myanmar, online violence particularly targeted women associated with the resistance movement. Violence against human rights activists seeking to realize gender-sensitive human rights in the context of peacebuilding often begins discursively, with efforts to expose and shame them in social media. Women’s rights activists, humanitarian service providers, and sometimes also their families become targets themselves after reporting on sexual violence.

CRSV and the Dire Consequences

Survivors of CRSV are not a homogenous group, making it necessary to take on an intersectional and tailored approach to focus on their needs. Conflict-related sexual violence is often followed by lethal injuries, not only from the brutality of the violence but also from efforts to cover up such heinous crimes. Here, the report refers to incidents of rape during the Hamas armed attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, where victims of CRSV were killed afterwards. The mission report of Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, further illuminates this particular case. The UNSG document and a further Human Rights Council report also mentions the ill treatment and sexual assaults against detained Palestine women and men by Israeli security forces, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank.

In general, survivors of sexual violence often do not report these crimes out of shame and fear of stigmatization, so there is ample evidence that even the UNSG report is only the tip of the iceberg. In many armed conflicts, CRSV remains a systematic strategy of war to humiliate the enemy population and force them to flee. Survivors of CRSV often experience further stigmatization resulting in socioeconomic exclusion. Sexual violence unravels family ties and victim-blaming often occurs in the aftermath of attacks. CRSV in its various dimensions – directly conflict-related, but also as a consequence of abduction, sexual slavery or forced marriage – often results in pregnancies or in sexually transmitted diseases. In many situations of armed conflict, health facilities become a target themselves, which prevents women and girls from being treated.

What is Being Done and What to Do at the Level of the United Nations?

The UN inter-agency network, United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, unites its efforts across its 25 member-entities to prevent and address CRSV. A multi-partner trust fund aims at realizing the survivor-centered approach established through UNSCR 2467 (2019). In 2023, this resulted, for example, in financing an innovative project in DR Congo enabling hundreds of CRSV survivors to gain access to legal, medical, psychosocial and socioeconomic reintegration support. However, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and renowned gynecologist, Dennis Mukwege, calls the situation of women and girls in North Kivu a “a stain on our humanity”, underlining that in April 2023 the organization Doctors without Borders treated 48 CRSV survivors per day. Protection and prevention of CRSV remains crucial for women and girls, but also for men, boys and persons of other sexual orientation/gender identity in armed conflicts. The regular deployment of women’s protection advisors for UN missions helps to ensure the monitoring, reporting and provision of reliable information. This also includes early warning indicators for such violence as part of the UN protection framework. However, in cases such as in Mali and Sudan, the UN became powerless after military coups and increased armed violence which also led to an increase in CRSV. In both countries, the UN missions were terminated and forces were withdrawn in 2023.

Punishing and suing the perpetrators also needs to be improved, in many cases impunity prevails. This should include targeted sanctioning of individuals as well as intensifying the prosecution and conviction of state’s leaders and military commanders under the International Criminal Court. Despite considerable efforts, the ICC failed to achieve indictments on the CRSV crimes on a larger scale, which mainly is related to the difficulty of obtaining sufficient evidence to charge perpetrators on the basis of responsibility in the chain of command. Only in the case of Bosco Ntaganda did charges of CRSV led to conviction and to reparation payments of the survivors and testimonies. Beyond the global level, national legislation is also a possible venue to prevail impunity for the perpetrators. But in many states, such as in Libya or in Somalia, those efforts remain frail due to weak statehood or lack of political interest. The Central African Republic made efforts after a visit by the Special Representative for CRSV, Pramila Patten, initiating a roadmap to combat impunity and strengthen judicial processes. In Nepal, a new amendment bill to the Transitional Justice Act exempts rape and other forms of sexual violence from amnesty.

Conflict-related sexual violence needs to be systematically addressed in peace negotiations and peace agreements. Moreover, gender-sensitive and inclusive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), weapons and ammunition management, and targeted community-based violence reduction programs all help to reduce sexual violence in post-conflict situations. Arms control and disarmament treaties and programs are also a critical tool of CRSV prevention. As part of the effort of the 4th Review Conference of the UN Program on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons, additional gender-sensitive measures will be taken and also need to be implemented. This includes synergies with other existing instruments such as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda or the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. State members of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) of 2013 should also give more consideration in their risk assessments for the potential of arms exports to cause or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or violence against women and children. The ATT and its risk assessment schemes should be understood and valued as tools of prevention and applied accordingly.

Conclusion

To commemorate the 19th of June as the day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict is an appalling endeavor. Conflict-related sexual violence remains omnipresent in almost all armed conflicts as a tactic of war and terrorism and even beyond, as the case of violent gangs in Haiti demonstrates. While norms against CRSV exist at the international level, the situation at the national level could be improved in the form of better legislation and protection of survivors and witnesses. Moreover, prevention efforts should be increased. Reports on the high number of CRSV cases in refugee camps in Northern Kivu/Congo are horrifying. The situation for civilians in Mali und Sudan, in particular for women and girls, has seriously deteriorated since the termination of the UN missions. The continuum of violence persists, and a focus should definitely be set on discursive violence in social media, as it often paves the way for physical violence, including CRSV. Sexual and reproductive health workers and women’s rights defenders often become targeted themselves when addressing CRSV – protective schemes should be improved for them as well. Some country situations are particularly bleak for women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people, such as in Afghanistan and Yemen. In both countries, the rule of law has collapsed, and the humanitarian crisis is on-going. As a consequence, gender persecution should be recognized as crime against humanity and become a recognizable reason for seeking asylum.

Simone Wisotzki
Dr. habil. Simone Wisotzki ist Projektleiterin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF. Sie forscht zu humanitärer Rüstungskontrolle (Landminen, Clustermunition, Klein- und Leichtwaffen), Rüstungsexporten und Geschlechterperspektiven in der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. // Dr habil Simone Wisotzki is project manager at PRIF’s Research Department “International Security”. She conducts research on humanitarian arms control (landmines, cluster munitions, small arms and light weapons), arms exports, and gender perspectives in peace and conflict research. | Twitter: @SimoneWisotzki

Simone Wisotzki

Dr. habil. Simone Wisotzki ist Projektleiterin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ am PRIF. Sie forscht zu humanitärer Rüstungskontrolle (Landminen, Clustermunition, Klein- und Leichtwaffen), Rüstungsexporten und Geschlechterperspektiven in der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. // Dr habil Simone Wisotzki is project manager at PRIF’s Research Department “International Security”. She conducts research on humanitarian arms control (landmines, cluster munitions, small arms and light weapons), arms exports, and gender perspectives in peace and conflict research. | Twitter: @SimoneWisotzki

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