Sexual violence in conflict ‘terrorizes populations, destroys lives and breaks communities’

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In his message for the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, commemorated on Sunday, Secretary General António Guterres also noted that perpetrators rarely suffer the consequences of their actions.

“It is the survivors who carry the burden of stigma and trauma throughout their lives, often doubly mistreated by harmful social norms and victim blame

Stand in support

And Virginia Gamba, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, noted that while at least 14,200 children have been verified as victims of sexual assault, that’s “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Mr Guterres testified: “We stand in solidarity…support the most vulnerable women, girls, men and boys as they struggle to live in dignity and peace amid humanitarian crises”, including through increased support for the victims and displaced persons; people who are vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Rural areas with weak protection systems should also be a focus for additional support, he added.

This means strengthening national justice systems to hold perpetrators accountable, to ensure that victims receive medical and psychosocial support and to uphold the rights of next of kin.

In addition, it requires supporting women-led civil society organizations to overcome social, economic and cultural barriers to protection, equality and justice, and to address root causes of sexual violence in conflict.

With greater political determination and financial resources, we can combine words with actions and end the scourge of sexual violence in conflict, once and for all‘ the secretary general emphasized.

© UNICEF/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

A quarter of the reported cases of conflict-related sexual violence in South Sudan are directed against children.

‘Save next generations’

At the same time, the UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten, together with Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, made a joint appeal to the international community to help conflict-related sexual violence eradicate, and “save generations to come from this plague”.

It’s time to move beyond reactive approaches and tackle the root causes and invisible causes of sexual violence…as well as harmful social norms regarding honour, shame and blaming victims,” they said in their joint statement.

They expressed deep shock at the impact the war in Ukraine is having on civilians, and expressed deep concern at the harrowing personal testimonies and mounting allegations of sexual assault.

“We strongly condemn such crimes and call for an immediate end to the violence.”

Increased Militarization

From Afghanistan to Guinea, Mali, Myanmar and elsewhere, they drew attention to an “epidemic of coups and military takeovers” that have “turned back the clock on women’s rights”.

And as new crises escalate, wars continue elsewhere, including in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Each is characterized by alarming levels of conflict-related sexual violence used as a tool of political repression, intimidation and reprisal against frontline actors and activists.

It is critical to initially create a protective environment that deters and prevents sexual violence and enables secure reporting and adequate response,” they said. “Prevention is the best form of protection, including the prevention of conflict itself”.

Targeted action

Addressing sexual violence requires greater political and diplomatic involvement, they said, in ceasefire and peace agreements, threat analysis, more gender-sensitive justice and security sector reform; and for empowering the voices of survivors and affected communities.

“On this day, we stand united in our unwavering commitment to support survivors and end impunity for the perpetrators,” they said. †Survivors should be seen by their societies as the holders of rights, to be respected and enforced, in times of war and peace

Bodies become battlefields

Natalia Kanem, head of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, pointed out that “when wars start, so does the terror and destruction of sexual violence”.

“The bodies of women and girls become battlefields. Rape is as surely a weapon of war as the bomb that blows up a building or the tank that plows through a mob,” she wrote.

She elaborated on the many consequences of sexual violence, from battered bodies to battered minds.

It silences and shames women, she said, and sows fear and insecurity and leaves a destructive legacy of long-term disability, sexually transmitted infections, lost wages, health care costs and stigmatization of survivors and their families.

‘Violation of human rights’

Ms Kanem recalled that sexual violence is a “violation of human rights and a crime under international humanitarian law” that should never be ignored, excused or downplayed. “Actually, it shouldn’t happen at all.”

“It highlights the magnitude and pervasiveness of gender inequality and gender-based violence in all societies, everywhere, an unacceptable reality that is only exacerbated by crises and conflict,” she stated.

Regardless of the circumstances, all women and girls have inherent rights to be safe, to live in peace and with dignity, to enjoy freedom and equality.

The UNFPA chief pledged to stand behind survivors’ investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault allegations and to “do everything possible to disrupt the gender inequality that fuels all forms of gender-based violence”.

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