One of the most widely perpetrated crimes in conflict zones
As if countless sleepless nights and the constant fear of war is not traumatising enough for people residing in areas of battle, many are also faced with conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). It comes as no surprise that women around the world are disproportionately affected by sexual and gender-based violence. And these statistics become even worse when looking at data from fragile and conflict-stricken countries. The brutal reality for women and children living in war-torn areas is not only fearing ammunition and explosives, but also being frightened of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups and others. Children in particular become easy targets due to their age, lack of experience, and dependencies. Despite the countless efforts of the United Nations to contain and counter CRSV, it is still a sad reality for many of those living in war zones. However, it is one often still not well understood.
What are the drivers of CRSV?
Conflict significantly increases displacement of a population. Unaccompanied children and fleeing women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence at transit points, in refugee camps, and during their journey to a safe haven. The absence of functional justice and law enforcement institutions during an armed conflict or post-conflict tends to allow CRSV and encourage a culture of impunity by perpetrators. As an example, studies revealed that Boko Haram and the Islamic State use sexual violence and sex trafficking for recruiting, funding, and spreading their extremist ideology, as well as terrorising and controlling the civilian population.
Perhaps one of the most shocking factors contributing to conflict-related sexual violence is the horrific truth that in some cases, high ranking individuals and people originally tasked with the protection of civilians, take part in this exact type of crime. Disturbingly, the most recent report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict concludes that non-state armed groups, official national defence forces, powerful politicians, or humanitarian workers, can all be involved in perpetrating and maintaining high levels of sexual violence in conflict settings. Not only does this shatter any dreams and hopes of safety for the victims themselves by showing that even those who are out to protect them cannot always be trusted, but also highlights the dire dysfunctionality of the system. Why are these criminals being allowed to exert their power in such a merciless way?
The consequences: long and short-term
Several studies on sexual violence in armed conflicts demonstrated that the victims may experience devastating physical (e.g., infertility or sexual transmitted infections) and psychological consequences (e.g., lasting trauma in the form of PTSD). Women and girls are often strongly stigmatised by their peers, being perceived as dirty and dishonoured, often resulting in direct violence against them and the development of mental health issues. Besides, this defamation can also be directed towards children being conceived through rape. Some governments even imprison children because of forced or suspected links to an armed group (e.g., child brides or sex slaves), resulting in precarious living conditions and deprivation of minimum guarantees such as access to humanitarian relief or a fair trial. The depressing reality is that even after being rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community, the victim's struggle often continues. They frequently face multiple devastating socio-economic issues created by the inherent lack of access to education and social support. This significantly increases the victims' challenges for reintegration into “normal life”, including finding a job, re-establishing trusting relationships, and finally taking their rightful place in the community.
Is legislation the answer to reducing CRSV?
For a long time, sexual violence was accepted as an inevitable by-product of war. Luckily, there are now finally more and more international legal instruments specifically addressing sexual violence in conflict settings. Several legal judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have created precedents. Alongside that, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes CRSV as a war crime, crime against humanity and, depending on the circumstances, a crime of genocide. More recently, multiple United Nations reports, and non-governmental organisations’ studies have concluded that CRSV can constitute a method of torture, a weapon of war and a terror strategy, to gain a military advantage or destroy minority groups. Remarkably, thanks to a strong willingness of the international community, CRSV was ultimately listed as one of the six grave violations against children in armed conflict by the Security Council’s resolution 1261.
Failing framework: The issues and flaws
To make a significant impact, any international treaty and convention must be widely ratified and implemented through robust and detailed national laws. Unfortunately, the CRSV’s legal framework is currently not used to its full potential. Only 123 States have ratified the Rome Statute and barely any of them have subsequently put in place related legislation. On top of that, the terminology of legal texts on sexual violence is sometimes ambiguous, possibly resulting in wrongful reinterpretation or grey areas which can lead to Human Rights violations. Vague terms such as "appropriate" or "possible measures”, regarding a state’s obligations, as well as the lack of meaningful sanctions for non-compliance, reinforce the persistence of negligence and impunity. Similarly, existing international and national laws can also exacerbate the problem by, for instance, excluding children from protection or compensation, or by not clearly defining what makes an act “sexual”, or what should be considered as “unacceptable violence”. One gruesome truth is that boys are typically excluded from current legal instruments and community approaches. How can the issue be eradicated if the system doesn’t even include both as equally vulnerable genders?
A better future?
The fact that the CRSV level continues to be maintained around the globe shows that the actions taken to eradicate the horrific problem have a long way to go before achieving the desired outcome. By developing the scope and precision of acts consisting as sexual violence, strengthening the legal implementation, and adapting it to the reality on the ground, CRSV could eventually decrease. The ambiguity of essential legalisations needs to be eliminated through providing guidance on terminology, as well as becoming more inclusive through including all vulnerable groups. Sadly, CRSV is not an issue which will ever go away, but with increased awareness and measures put in place to decrease it, we are moving towards a brighter future for at-risk women and children around the globe.
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