It is my honor to participate in this Missing Peace Scholars Workshop and to engage with the community of researchers working on conflict-related sexual violence.
The Coronavirus pandemic is indeed dramatically impacting all aspects of the work being carried out by the United Nations and my mandate is not spared.
Since March, my office has been analyzing the policy and operational implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the prevention of and response to conflict-related sexual violence through consistent engagement with our Women Protection Advisers (known as WPAs) and other field practitioners, as well as with local grassroots organizations and our civil society partners.
COVID-19 is indeed causing an unprecedented crisis that is disrupting lives, healthcare systems, economies and societies. The global nature and climate of fear and uncertainty associated with this pandemic are providing an enabling environment for diverse forms of violence against women and children, including sexual violence.
The pandemic also poses a significant threat to the maintenance of peace and security, with international, regional and national conflict resolution efforts and peace processes stalled as the world responds to COVID 19.
Yesterday, after four months of negotiations, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2532 (2020) on the devastating impact of COVID-19, with a focus on countries ravaged by conflict and humanitarian crisis. This long-awaited resolution notes that the unprecedented extent of the pandemic is likely to endanger international security, and to reverse peacebuilding and development gains. It recognizes the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global ceasefire and calls on all parties to ensure a durable humanitarian pause to enable the delivery of assistance. Significantly, it notes the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and girls, calls for concrete actions to minimize these adverse effects, and calls for measures to ensure the full, equal and meaningful participation of women and youth in the development and implementation of a sustainable response.
Indeed, while COVID-19 does not discriminate, its impact does, and victims of sexual violence are also bearing its brunt.
The outbreak is exacerbating protection concerns and exposing vulnerable populations to new threats in pre-existing humanitarian crises. In addition, restrictions on the movements of police and security forces are creating a rule of law vacuum in remote communities, and the resulting sense of impunity is increasing the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence.
An escalation of violence in some conflict settings has been noted, with sexual violence used as a tactic of war and terror by different armed and terrorist groups who see a window of opportunity to strike while governments are preoccupied by the pandemic. Despite calls to silence the guns, acts of sexual violence by parties to armed conflict persist, in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali, and elsewhere.
As reported by the Senior WPA in CAR, human rights monitoring, even though reduced due to confinement of staff, shows that women and girls continue to be attacked and raped, especially on their way to procure water and food for their families. While the risks of falling victim to sexual violence have not diminished, the possibility of accessing assistance and redress has.
My Senior Women Protection Advisors (SWPAs) and other partners in the field indicate that the pandemic is also having a negative impact on reporting of sexual violence, service provision, and justice and accountability.
Underreporting of crimes of sexual violence
Already a chronically underreported crime, CRSV risks being further obscured by the pandemic. Among shame, stigma, and fear of repercussions as reasons for underreporting, there is now;
The fear of contracting COVID-19: Victims are less willing to seek help because of actual or perceived risks of contracting the virus and potentially transmitting it to their families.
The imposition of quarantines, curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions on movement: Constraints further hamper the possibility for survivors to report. And finally,
Limited access to first responders, crisis hotlines, and civil society organizations: Parties such as women’s groups often serve as first points of call.
Access to services
A direct outcome of the pandemic is an increased burden on health services as resources are being prioritized for the COVID-19 response. Many countries’ weak coverage of health services is further strained. In many conflict settings, social distancing rules mean that health centres and mobile clinics have reduced the number of patients they see. The contraction of routine health services means barriers to service provision for victims of sexual violence, including reduced supply of essential services, and limited access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.
Fears of contracting COVID-19 exacerbate the challenge of service provision. Quarantines, curfews, school closures and other restrictions on movement negatively impact the ability of survivors to physically access services even where they do exist. For refugee and internally displaced communities, disproportionately comprised of women and children, the challenges of availability and accessibility of services are exacerbated by the circumstances of their displacement.
Impact on rule of law and accountability
COVID-19 is also posing serious challenges to the effective functioning of justice systems. The pace of justice for conflict-related sexual violence, already painfully slow, has in some cases ground to a halt due to the closure of courts and the suspension of investigations and trials. There are also limitations on the availability and capacity of law enforcement and judicial authorities to receive and process reports, as well as to investigate incidents of sexual violence. Combatting impunity is a fundamental aspect of deterring and preventing such crimes.
Yet, in the DRC, a joint investigation mission to South Kivu province, where mass rape had been documented, was twice postponed. In addition to the judicial investigation, that mission would have brought much-needed medical and psychosocial assistance to the survivors.
The liberation of detainees, as part of efforts to mitigate transmission of the virus, has included the release of a number of convicted rapists, which endangers civilians, particularly victims and witnesses. This was the case in CAR, where two Presidential decrees resulted in the release of 676 prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of rape.
In some countries, key legislative reform has been put on hold, such as the Sexual Offences Bill in Somalia, the Prevention of Violence Against Women Bill in Myanmar, and the Yezidis Survivors Bill in Iraq.
In the face of this unprecedented crisis, the humanitarian community has mobilized swiftly. Field-based specialists continue to deliver on the mandate despite lockdowns, quarantines, curfews, shifting priorities, and ever-more constrained resources. Women Protection Advisers continue monitoring and reporting on conflict-related sexual violence as a basis for remedial action, including by deepening partnerships with community-based networks to enable new referral pathways and remote case management.
Allow me to reiterate three concrete recommendations that I have made since the advent of this crisis:
First, all parties to conflict must immediately cease all forms of sexual violence as part of the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. Compliance must be monitored and enforced.
Second, sexual and gender-based violence response services must be designated as essential services in order to prevent their de-prioritization and defunding. It is a lesson from past epidemics, such as Ebola, that more women die from the lack of access to services, including reproductive healthcare, than from the disease itself.
Third, efforts to address sexual and gender-based violence should be integrated into national COVID-19 response plans, including proactive measures to broadcast information to the most vulnerable. The needs of survivors cannot be put on pause and neither can the response.
The impact of COVID-19 will be widespread, long-lasting, and likely generational.
The current crisis is a test of our resolve. We must not allow it to reverse the gains that have been made in recent decades to combat gender-based discrimination as a root cause and driver of gender-based violence in times of war and peace, nor can we allow the political commitments obtained in recent years to be rolled-back.
How we respond today presents a unique opportunity to course-correct and to tackle the root causes of discrimination and structural inequality that have been harmful for so many women and girls who were made more vulnerable both to the disease itself and to sexual and gender-based violence.
The coronavirus pandemic requires us to act in solidarity to address the intersecting inequalities that have held women back and to re-imagine and transform societies.
No crisis is gender-neutral, and no effective response can be gender-blind. ‘Building back better’ in the wake of this pandemic requires an inclusive, intersectional, and gender-informed approach. This means considering the diverse realities of IDPs and refugees, ethnic minorities, indigenous and rural communities, people living with disabilities, LGBTQI individuals, and other marginalized groups to ensure that ultimately, no one is left behind.
I thank all the partners from Member States, civil society and the research community who are working in common cause to keep this issue in focus. We cannot allow the world to look away. We cannot allow the survivors to be forgotten.