Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, what the past year has revealed is that the risks of falling victim to sexual violence have not diminished, but the possibility to seek assistance and redress has.

Despite the Secretary General’s call for a Global Ceasefire during COVID 19, many parties to armed conflict continued to use sexual violence as a cruel tactic of war, terror, torture and political repression to advance their strategic objectives, including to propel population flight and control contested territory and natural resources. As the pandemic rages on, many armed actors have seized the opportunity to strike and gained ground while international and media scrutiny are diverted.

Conflict-related sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum but is linked with wider security factors, many of which have been exacerbated by the advent of COVID-19 and its ensuing consequences, such as economic hardship, social tensions, impunity, and institutional weakness.

Women and girls in congested refugee and displacement settings are among those hardest hit by the intersecting crises of conflict, forced displacement, and COVID-19, being exposed to elevated risks of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking; a situation that was exacerbated by an overall decline in humanitarian reach and resources. There are reports of how traffickers are taking advantage of the pandemic by finding ways to innovate and capitalize on the chaos while closures, suspension of law enforcement and legal services in some places, are driving the crime of trafficking already considered “invisible” even further underground.

Economic desperation and collapsed social safety nets have also increased recourse to negative coping mechanisms, such as child marriage and ‘survival sex’.

COVID-19 has also given rise to new gender-specific protection concerns linked with militarization, checkpoints, border closures; sexual harassment of women healthcare workers; and sexual violence against women detained for alleged curfew violations.

The pandemic is having a negative impact on both prevention and response efforts, notably:

  • the reporting and monitoring of cases;
  • access to services; and
  • Justice and accountability.

The imposition of quarantines, curfews, lock-downs and other restrictions on movement have hampered the possibility for survivors to report sexual violence, further heightening the existing structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers to seeking redress for such crimes. Already a dramatically underreported crime, conflict-related sexual violence is being further obscured by the pandemic.

Similarly, COVID-19 related restrictive measures and confinement of staff, have considerably reduced monitoring capacities. Oversight and monitoring of contexts in which conflict-related sexual violence occurs frequently, such as detention facilities, displacement settings, and remote rural areas where women undertake essential livelihood activities, are significantly impacted.

In terms of access to services, the diversion of already scarce resources to the health crisis, the contraction of routine health services, closures of mobile clinics and shelters for gender-based violence survivors as well as restricted transportation, has negatively impacted on the availability of immediate lifesaving assistance and multisectoral care accessible to survivors of sexual violence, including access to emergency post-rape care and sexual and reproductive health.

Last but not least, the pandemic has added a layer of complexity to the pursuit of justice and redress as the lockdowns impacted reporting mechanisms, the work of investigators, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and the overall effective functioning of

justice and accountability systems. This lack of access to justice is unfortunately opening doors to a context favourable to impunity.

This is a difficult time, challenging governments and humanitarian workers’ abilities to adequately adapt to protect and assist the most vulnerable. What is clear is that their needs cannot be put on pause and must be taken into account in all aspects of the COVID-19 responses. The priority of my office is to ensure that gains made in terms of political commitments, prevention and response efforts, are not rolled back or reversed.