17 June 2021, via UN WebTV

Thank you, Your Excellency, Ms. María del Carmen Squeff, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations.

It is an honour to co-host this event with you and with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict.

Distinguished guests and participants,

We are marking this International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict against the backdrop of overlapping crises. What began as a global health crisis has also deepened existing challenges of displacement, institutional fragility, structural gender-based inequality, and insecurity, rendering survivors vulnerable to revictimization, at a time when avenues for reporting and redress are more restricted than ever.

Tragically, sexual violence remains in the headlines. Since we met at this moment last year, new conflicts have erupted in which sexual violence has been deployed by perpetrators whose crimes will reverberate down generations, threatening both individual and international security. In Tigray, women and girls are being subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension. Despite the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, sexual violence continues to be used as a cruel tactic of war, torture and political repression to gain ground, extract resources, and dominate or forcibly displace populations.

Today’s event is an opportunity to take stock of progress toward our common goal of eliminating sexual violence in conflict with a clear-eyed look at the appalling resource gaps on the ground. It is an opportunity – amidst multiple, complex crises – to ensure that the voices and choices of survivors of sexual violence are integrated into national, regional and global pandemic recovery plans, and backed with the necessary political resolve and resources to tackle the problem.

Today we will hear the perspective of a resolute advocate, the First Lady of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Global Champion for the Fight against Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi; of a United Nations agency supporting reproductive healthcare and gender-based violence service provision through the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Natalia Kanem; and of civil society, represented by Ms. Kaavya Asoka, Executive Director of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. We will also hear directly from a survivor, Ms. Ekhlas Bajoo from Iraq.

Building back better requires an understanding of both persistent and emerging challenges. Over the past year, existing structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers to reporting and accessing services have been exacerbated by pandemic containment measures and economic shocks.

With cautious optimism, we must begin to formulate recovery plans, even though COVID-19 continues to spread, including in many of the countries covered by my mandate. In conflict-affected settings such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, facing crippling economic effects, families have turned to early and forced marriage in a desperate attempt to protect their daughters from sexual violence.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a range of inequalities. Women and girls already marginalized will be left further and further behind unless we act. The lens of intersectionality is needed to bring the root causes of sexual violence into focus. Forms of inequality based on ethnic or political affiliation, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, income and migratory status intersect and increase the risks faced by diverse individuals.

So much is at stake: protection is directly linked to participation and power. Yet in many conflict settings, the nexus between sexual violence, conflict-driven trafficking in persons and violent extremism deepens insecurity. New gender-based protection concerns have surfaced, including reports of sexual violence against women detained for alleged violations of curfews, as well as by armed groups taking advantage of the pandemic to intensify their operations.




Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As those hardest hit by overlapping crises are often the hardest to reach, our data on the crime of conflict-related sexual violence can never present the full global picture. Despite these challenges, Women Protection Advisors deepened partnerships this year with community-based networks and swiftly pivoted to virtual approaches thereby avoiding a data “black-out.”

The monitoring and reporting of Women Protection Advisors, is a critical function of my mandate as it provides the foundation for targeted prevention and response. Their work should inform recovery planning. Indeed, any discussion of long-term health measures and resilience in the face of further pandemics, must include sexual and reproductive health services. Equally, plans for economic recovery should include survivors: not as passive beneficiaries, but rather as engaged participants.

Just one year before the outbreak of the pandemic, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2467, which articulated the importance of a survivor-centred approach in all prevention and response efforts.  A survivor-centred approach is integral to transformative pandemic recovery. Building back better means developing proactive measures to ensure an enabling environment for survivors to safely come forward and seek redress. Such an approach would not only advance the rights and needs of survivors, but would also enrich recovery by introducing a range of often-neglected voices and perspectives, helping to lay the groundwork for sustainable and inclusive peace and development.

Allow me to conclude with three concrete recommendations for a survivor-centred approach to pandemic recovery:

Firstly, we need to move boldly towards gender equality and to address the root causes of sexual violence in conflict. We cannot and should not return to the pre-pandemic status quo, but instead promote a new social contract in which no one is left behind, and everyone is heard.

Secondly, our response must be comprehensive, multisectoral and age appropriate. It must include life-saving medical care, sexual and reproductive health services, psychosocial and socioeconomic reintegration support, and access to justice. Service coverage must reach survivors in rural, remote and border areas, as well as in refugee and displacement settings.

Thirdly, we need to shift to investing in public welfare rather than the instruments of warfare. We need to foster human security and the resilience of individuals, including survivors and their communities, to social and economic shocks.

Finally, I wish to express my profound gratitude to Argentina whose leadership and vision were essential to establishing this International Day, which is now widely commemorated the world over. As multiple crises shift the ground beneath us, we must seize this opportunity to build back better by tackling the root causes of sexual violence in conflict. In this transformative moment, we must aim high. Survivors must be heard and heeded by national authorities and policy makers as part of an intersectional, gender-responsive pandemic recovery.

Thank you for your attention.  I now give the floor to my co-host, Under-Secretary-General Virginia Gamba.




Today, I am pleased to launch the Digital Book of testimonies by survivors and service-providers, entitled “In Their Own Words: Voices of Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and Service-Providers”.

 I have long prioritized first-hand encounters with survivors and affected communities as a means to ensure survivor-centred prevention and response. This book is a continuation of these efforts in the COVID era, when field visits have been suspended.

The aim is to ensure survivors’ perspectives and concerns feed into policy and decision-making forums. In complement to the data presented in the annual Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual violence, this compilation illustrates that behind every statistic there is a mother, son, daughter, sister, or friend.

This unique anthology spans a dozen countries and includes more than 150 testimonies from conflicts ranging from 1992 to the present. In addition to survivors, service providers on the frontlines, who are often under-resourced, also share their accounts. Gathered by United Nations Women Protection Advisors, United Nations partners in the field, and civil society organizations, the testimonies are presented exactly as we received them: unedited and unabridged.

The testimonies demonstrate the incalculable human cost of war’s cheapest weapon, but they also include specific proposals. I have always been struck by the quality and farsighted nature of the recommendations made by survivors; and this book is no exception.

Survivors’ risk-mitigation proposals  include : avoiding troop deployments close to civilian population centres; safely locating waterpoints and wells; deploying patrols of police and trained peacekeepers; and issuing command orders to prohibit sexual violence in addition to the need for stricter laws and better implementation. It is evident that in addition to responding to sexual violence when it occurs, survivors focused on eradicating it altogether, so that in the words of one contributor, “no other woman has to go through what I went through”.

The compilation challenges the notion that social norms, attitudes and taboos around honour, shame and victim-blame are immutable. Many testimonies point to evolving attitudes of acceptance, which encourage reintegration. It is possible to shift the stigma from the victim to the perpetrator and send a clear signal that the only shame of rape is in committing, commanding or condoning it.

The resilience of survivors is striking. I think of Noor, a young woman living in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp, who was abducted and raped for her activism in promoting women’s leadership. She writes, “the sexual violence I endured broke my heart and mind – not my spirit! I am persisting.” We must all persist in showing solidarity and support for the survivors.

I am now honoured to introduce a contributor to the Digital Book, Ms. Ekhlas Bajoo, a 20-year-old Yazidi woman from the Sinjar District of Iraq, who has recorded a message for this commemoration. After six months of brutal rape in ISIS captivity, during which she attempted suicide four times, she finally managed to escape. Hers is a long journey, from an initial refusal to speak about her experience, to the decision to share her story widely, in the hope of giving voice to others. Her story is one of more than 150 testimonies that feature in the Digital Book. Let’s listen to her message.