On 19 June we mark the first anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Established in 2015 the day aims to “raise awareness of the need to end conflict-related sexual violence and urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the survivors of sexual violence around the world”.
Sexualised violence continues to be rampant in many conflicts, perpetrated both by individual soldiers and as part of military tactics. Yet it was only in 2008 that UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820 explicitly recognised sexual violence as a weapon of war and a threat to international peace and security (continued by UNSCR 1888, 1889, 1960 and 2106). The devestating effects of sexual violence go far beyond the physical trauma of victims, often leading to guilt, shame, stigmatisation and ostracisation. This not only affects survivors and their loved ones but also has devastating effects for society at large.
Violence against women is not a phenomenon unique to conflict; the World Health Organization reports that 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence. Yet conflicts tend to create a climate of rampant sexual violence. Meanwhile displacement and separation from family and community make women even more vulnerable. Protecting women and girls from gender-based and sexual violence in armed conflict must therefore count among our highest priorities.
While women and girls are the most frequent victims, in many conflict men and boys also suffer from rampant sexual violence. The shame associated with this violence leads to severe underreporting, lack of rehabilitation, and access to justice for male survivors. The underlying causes for sexual violence against men and women are often the same. As a report by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict finds: “It was also seen that sexual violence against men and boys builds on the same gender constructs as are evident in sexual violence against women and girls, and that the ‘feminization’ of men through sexual violence is an extension of the larger gender logic that informs the subordination of women”.
Providing victims access to a gender-sensitive and impartial justice system therefore needs to be a priority at national and international level. To allow fact-finding and documentation of sexual violence in conflict is essential to ensure accountability and to bring perpetrators to justice. It is estimated that for each rape reported in a conflict situation about 10-20 cases remain undocumented. Officials need to be trained and national institutions need to be strengthened in order to encourage victims to come forward.
At the same time, as researchers and policymakers we also need to be careful when researching sexual violence. The sensationalising of sexual violence has been fiercely criticised, as it often ‘re-victimises’ survivors of sexual violence and denies them an active voice by again reducing them to victimhood. We need to support local organisations that help victims report crimes and we need to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators in national courts and international tribunals. As Valerie Hudson and co. sum up, “where rule of law allows impunity for crimes perpetrated against women, there is greater tolerance for violence in general, and relatedly, greater instability. The best predictor of a state’s peacefulness—more than levels of wealth, levels of democracy, or ethno-religious identity—is women’s physical security against violence.”
Today should also be a day to celebrate the achievements in the fight against sexual violence. As UN Women states, this year has seen three landmark convictions of perpetrators of sexual violence. Peacekeeping missions with a mandate to protect civilians have also incorporated early warning systems for sexual violence and a focus on monitoring and reporting systems. National militaries have also increased efforts to include women in their forces.
The Government of Rwanda for example, in line with UNSCR 1820 and its related resolutions, has for the past decade been meeting the target of ensuring women constitute 30% of peacekeepers. It is also making progress in the gender mainstreaming of Rwanda’s security organs, which in turn has put pressure on the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) to recruit more female military personnel and establish a gender-sensitive work programme. We now need to ensure that effective conflict prevention, crisis management, monitoring of operations, and post-conflict rehabilitation all employ a gender lens — and that women have active roles at all levels.