While significant normative progress has been achieved through a series of resolutions, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (OSRSG-SVC) continues to track emerging concerns related to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) globally. These include:
Sexual violence in conflict as a tactic of war and terrorism
Since 2014, the United Nations has intensified its monitoring on the use of sexual violence as a tactic of terrorism by a range of violent extremist groups and by armed groups in places such as Mali, Nigeria, the Republic of Iraq, the Federal Republic of Somalia, and the Syrian Arab Republic. The strategic nature of the violence is evident in the selective targeting of victims from opposing ethnic, religious or political groups, such as the targeting of the Yazidi community by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the targeting of women and girls by Boko Haram.
Across a range of settings, parties to conflict use different forms of sexual violence to attack and to change the very demographics of disputed regions. Sexual violence has been a significant push factor for displacement in contexts such as in Colombia, the Federal Republic of Somalia, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the Republic of Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, and elsewhere. The threat of sexual violence continues to serve as a driver of forced displacement and has inhibited the return of uprooted communities to their areas of origin, especially in the absence of accountability for past crimes. In this way, CRSV has led to the dispossession of land, resources, and identity.
Another rising trend is the use of negative and harmful coping mechanisms in response to the risk of rape in environments of instability and indigence. Early marriage has spiked in contexts where families have no other means of providing for, or safeguarding, their daughters. Early marriages have also been used by terrorist groups to get ties in communities such as in Mali where marriage confer a solid membership in the community. This has resulted in more repression in the name of protection. Indeed, sexual violence both arises from, and reinforces, unequal gender relations, impeding the realization of women’s rights and freedoms. In many contexts, victims are forced to marry their rapist in the name of restoring social harmony and family “honour”.
Children born of rape
The plight of children conceived as a result of wartime rape demands urgent attention. They number in the thousands after protracted conflicts such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Iraq, the Federal Republic of Somalia, and the Syrian Arab Republic. The marginalization and the uncertain legal status leave many children stateless, in a legal limbo, and susceptible to recruitment, radicalization, trafficking and exploitation, with wider implications for peace and security.
Sexual violence against men and boys
The OSRSG-SVC has focused increasing attention on sexual violence against men and boys, which often occurs in the context of detention and interrogation. For male survivors, sexual violence remains shrouded in cultural taboos, with few, if any, support networks available. Many countries still do not include male victims within the scope of sexual violence legislation, and many men and boys remain silent for fear of ostracism or accusations of homosexuality, in particular where it is criminalized.
A consistent concern is the intense stigma suffered by survivors of CRSV. Survivors risk being traumatized twice: first by the action of the perpetrator, then again by the reaction of society and the State, which is often unresponsive or even punitive and discriminatory.
Just as there are many manifestations of CRSV, there are multiple and intersecting forms of stigma that follow in its wake, including the stigma of “guilt by association” with the perpetrator and their group; fear of suspected sexually transmitted infections such as HIV; the perceived dishonour of lost chastity or virginity; the stigma of maternity out of wedlock, especially where children conceived through rape are considered “children of the enemy” and therefore often discriminated by their own families and communities; laws and practices that discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual and intersexed (LGBTI) community; and the shame of being unable to defend oneself and loved ones. Children born of rape may themselves also face a lifetime of marginalization, owing to stigma and uncertain legal status.
Socio-cultural stigma compounds the problem of universal under-reporting of sexual violence in times of war. While stigma is often framed as a persistent and long-term problem, it must be addressed in a strategic manner, because stigma can kill. In many contexts, it has led to lethal retaliation, “honour” crimes, suicide, untreated diseases, unsafe abortion, economic exclusion and indigence, and lack of access to accountability.
Impunity for wartime rape remains the rule and accountability the rare exception. To break the vicious cycle of violence and impunity, all diplomatic and enforcement tools must be used. The OSRSG-SVC continues to advocate for the stronger use of sanctions against those who perpetrate CRSV and that CRSV be a stand-alone criterion in all contexts. Sanctions and judicial accountability measures must work in tandem. Today, more than ever, strong and effective sanctions are needed against those entities and individuals who command, condone or commit sexual violence and those who aid, abet or profit from it.
The Security Council has sanctions tools at its disposal to punish perpetrators of sexual violence, but unfortunately, these tools are under-utilized.
Religious and traditional leaders
The OSRSG-SVC is engaging actively with religious and traditional leaders to encourage them to make clear through their public pronouncements and behaviour that the prohibition of sexual violence is categorical, that addressing its root causes is an imperative and that the stigma of culpability rests squarely with the perpetrator.
Economic support and Reparation
There is a demonstrated link between economic security and autonomy, and physical security and autonomy. The clear majority of CRSV victims come from marginalized, destitute and often displaced communities. Cross-national patterns show a strong correlation between economic desperation and exposure to sexual violence/exploitation, including trafficking in persons, forced prostitution, and to the use of harmful coping mechanisms, such as child marriage.
To guard against these risks, economic livelihood programmes are urgently required.
In addition to livelihood support, structurally transformative reparations can help to break the cyclical connection between poverty and sexual violence. Reparations are one of the most victim-centred justice mechanism available and the most significant means of making a difference in the lives of victims. However, despite being the measures that survivors themselves often demand, they are those least seen in responses to date.
International law recognizes CRSV victims’ rights to remedy and reparation under various international and regional instruments, which the victims should be able to enforce judicially. The United Nations Secretary-General has issued official guidance to United Nations Headquarters and Field Missions on reparations for survivors of CRSV including urgent and interim measures of reparation.
The Guidance Note can be found here: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Press/GuidanceNoteReparationsJune-2014.pdf
Sexual violence can seriously affect the victim’s mental health, with dire consequences in the short, medium, or long term.
Mental health and psychosocial support interventions are essential components of the comprehensive package of care that aim to protect or promote psychosocial well-being and/or prevent or treat mental disorders among sexual violence survivors.
Recovery from rape trauma is a deeply personal and highly individualized journey. The alarmingly high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in survivors of sexual assault is a strong indication that the current therapies for victims of sexual violence are inadequate and in need of improvement.
There is a need to go beyond psychological first aid and to provide specialized mental health care by developing more effective and holistic therapies in the future.
Broadening range of stakeholders
To fulfil the vision of the mandate, the OSRSG-SVC considers it critical to deepen engagement with civil society, especially grassroots organizations. Accordingly, a Civil Society Advisory Group was founded with the key role of strengthening institutional partnerships for more effective dialogue and consultation. The establishment of this Group formally recognizes civil society as one of the OSRSG-SVC’s most important constituencies for delivering the mandate, acknowledging that the leadership, dynamism and creativity of civil society is key to closing the implementation gap. This Group provides strategic advice and input to the advocacy and operations of the SRSG-SVC, including the work of the inter-agency network UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict and the United Nations Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Additionally, the OSRSG-SVC engages with regional entities and treaty bodies and has signed Frameworks of Cooperation with: the African Union, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Francophonie.
The OSRSG-SVC has also been increasingly inter-acting with academia, National Human Rights Institutions amongst other stakeholders.
Although the challenges remain daunting and new protection crises continue to emerge, the paradigm has shifted. Sexual violence is no longer treated as merely a byproduct of insecurity, but rather as a significant form of insecurity in itself.
The OSRSG-SVC will continue to track issues of emerging concern globally as part of its mandate. We welcome all voices to join in a productive discussion on the issue on our social media pages (@endrapeinwar) or by contacting our Office.