An Overview of Sexual Violence in Conflict

defining sexual violence

According to the World Health Organization, sexual violence is: any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, acts to traffic or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, or any setting. In addition to being a crime in most national legal systems, sexual violence is also a violation of human rights and in some situations, a violation of international humanitarian law. The statutes and case law from international courts and tribunals consider sexual violence to include: rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, which may include indecent assault, trafficking, inappropriate medical examinations and strip searches. It is important to recognise that women, men, girls and boys can all be victims of sexual violence. Nevertheless, the historical and structural inequalities that exist between men and women, and the different forms of gender-based discrimination that women are subjected to all over the world, contribute to women and girls being disproportionately affected by sexual violence in conflict settings. Additionally, the prevalence of sexual violence against children in particular is extremely high, and can have a devastating impact. 

Victims of sexual violence in conflict

Data from UN OSRSG-SVC

Debunking some common Misconceptions

It's an AFRICAn problem

Recent news coverage would seem to suggest that wartime rape is a uniquely African issue. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, has been repeatedly called the rape capital of the world, and many recent high-profile cases of widespread wartime rape have occurred in sub-Saharan African countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, reports of wartime rape are not limited to one geographic region. Indeed, high or very high levels of civil war-related rape were reported in nearly every region of the globe between 1980 and 2009. Although sub-Saharan Africa experienced the most civil conflict during the study period, human rights reports from the U.S. State Department indicate that eastern Europe reported the highest level of rape in 44 percent (four of nine) of conflicts during the study period. Thus, on a per-conflict basis, eastern European civil wars were more likely than sub-Saharan African conflicts to feature reports of massive levels of rape. These patterns confirm the scale of the problem and refute the idea that wartime rape is an African problem. 

perpetrators are always men

Recent examples of reports highlighting female perpetrators of sexual violence include the following: 
A population based survey conduct- ed in 2010 in the eastern DRC found that 41 percent of female sexual violence victims reported that they were victimized by female perpetrators, as did 10 percent of male victims. This study used a wide definition of sexual violence that included psychological violence. In Haiti, women in armed criminal gangs, paramilitary groups, and self-defense groups are reported to have committed several forms of sexual violence, including gang rape, against other women and members of enemy gangs. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, women were active perpetrators of both killing and sexual violence, including rape. A report from a nongovernmental organization cites examples of women involved in rape, including encouraging and ordering it, and turning over victims to be raped and killed. The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, in which photographs of Iraqi prisoners being sexually abused and humiliated by U.S. soldiers were broadcast by American media outlets, revealed women sexually abusing men during wartime.

victims are always female

Although the focus is generally on women and girls, men and boys face sexual violence in armed conflict as well. The extent of male sexual violence is not known but it is likely more prevalent than is currently thought. It has been documented in over 25 armed conflicts. The language of the Security Council Resolutions should include men but given that the focus on sexual violence has arisen out of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, attention to violence against men and boys is not included. Furthermore, if attention is limited to violence against civilians, then sexual violence carried out in situations of detention, against prisoners of war, members of armed forces/ groups, will not be dealt with. The misconception that women are the only victims of sexual violence comes with an equally incorrect corollary: that sexual violence is the main form of violence suffered by women in wartime. It is clear that the types of violence directed against women vary from conflict to conflict. Measurement is difficult: direct comparisons of the incidence of multiple forms of violence are rare, and—because reporting rates vary across both victim populations and types of violence—estimates of relative incidence may not be fully reliable. However, it is clear that sexual violence, though often portrayed as the predominant form of violence wielded against women, is far from the only, and frequently not the most numerous, type of violence that women report they have suffered.

Key players

The United Nations

The United Nations Inter-Agency Action Committee Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action) unites the work of the UN system with the goal of ending sexual violence as a tactic and consequence of conflict. Launched in 2007, it represents a concerted effort by the United Nations to “work as one” – improving coordination and accountability, amplifying advocacy, and supporting country efforts to prevent conflict-related sexual violence and respond more effectively to the needs of survivors. As of 2010, UN Action coordinated the efforts of DPA, DPKO, OCHA, OHCHR, PBSO, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNODC, UN Women and WHO. UN Action is led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC), Zainab Hawa Bangura.

The SRSG-SVC is the “voice” of UN Action in condemning conflict-related sexual violence, calling for an end to impunity, and speaking out on behalf of survivors. Through strategic advocacy and political dialogue, the SRSG-SVC galvanizes action to combat sexual violence in countries affected by conflict and unrest. The Office of the SRSG-SVC was established by Security Council Resolution 1888 in 2009. The Office of the SRSG-SVC also oversees the work of The UN Team of Experts on the Rule of Law, a new three-year joint program developed in coordination with the DPKO, OHCHR, and UNDP. It is tasked to support national authorities in the investigation and prosecution of sexually violent crimes in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea and South Sudan. Recently, the UN came under fire for the widely publicized allegations of sexual abuse committed by UN Peacekeepers against women and children in the Central African Republic. 

Allegations of Sexual abuse against UN Peacekeepers

Data from UNSC Report S/2015/716
 UN, NGO, and Government leaders stand together in solidarity

UN, NGO, and Government leaders stand together in solidarity

There is new political will to ensure that rape and sexual violence is not an inevitable part of conflict. Much of this effort is being led by the United Kingdom, which runs the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), founded in 2012 by the former UK Foreign Minister William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie-Pitt. PSVI aims to address the culture of impunity, ensure more perpetrators are brought to justice and ensure better support for survivors. They're campaigning to raise awareness, rally global action, promote international coherence, and increase the political will and capacity of states to do more. A key strand of PSVI has been the establishment of a UK Team of Experts who have been deployed to conflict areas to help support local responses to conflict-related sexual violence. The team draws on the skills of doctors, lawyers, police, psychologists, forensic specialists, and experts in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses. It significantly strengthens the UK’s specialist capabilities in tackling these issues. In 2014, PSVI hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the largest-ever forum of its kind, and published The International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In 2015, Mr. Hague and Mrs. Jolie-Pitt announced the launch of  the UK’s first academic Center on Women, Peace and Security, to be based at the London School of Economics, tasked with providing students with a rigorous academic understanding of sexual and gender based violence in conflict.

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