Sexual Violence in Conflict – practical solutions?


It is my strong belief that when it comes to sexual violence, we cannot expect peace without justice, reparation without recognition, and sustainable development without the full empowerment of those who have suffered sexual violence or are at risk.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

There is a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. It will be in London from the 10th to the 13th of June 2014 and it is open to the public. The details are here

UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict publications state that “Sexual violence in conflict is a serious, present-day emergency affecting millions of people, primarily women and girls”. Women and girls are the primary targets of rape, but men and boys may also be targeted to inflict humiliation and this can shatter community structure.

In the context of conflict, sexual violence is less about sexual desire than the assertion of power and dominance. In this way, power dynamics affect men and women in terms of individual health and State stability. When governmental control has broken down, civilians are displaced in large numbers and the protections that would normally operate are often unavailable. The lasting effects of such experiences are severe. As well as the considerable physical and emotional damage to individuals, whole community structures are lost.

The international community has developed a language of sexual abuse as an instrument of warfare, ethnic cleansing, and genocide: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and sexual violence amounts to torture under the 1984 Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

However, the appalling reality of sexual violence in conflict zones continues despite decades of international condemnation and prohibitive legislation. UN Human Security initiatives recognize that making declarations and laws are clearly not enough. So, in addition to a common understanding on human security, what are the practical solutions?

Research and Data Collection

Targeted funding has been and will be invested in an attempt to reduce sexual violence in war affected countries. The WHO, in collaboration with the SVRI, commissioned the development of a research agenda to help guide research on sexual violence in humanitarian, conflict and post-conflict settings. Through a multi-stage, consultative process, the research agenda identified key themes which need more attention in research. The introduction to the Executive Summary begins as follows:

Conflict-related sexual violence has been a feature of war for generations, and in many places around the world. In recent years, however, members of the international community including, United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action), governments, humanitarian organizations, grassroots movements, and researchers, have challenged the notion that rape and other forms of sexual assault and abuse are an inevitable part of conflict, and that the needs of conflict-related sexual violence survivors are not a priority. There has been growth in the number and scale of programs to address the needs of female sexual violence survivors in humanitarian, conflict and post-conflict situations, as well as increasing efforts aimed at preventing sexual violence. Yet it is a complex issue, and the needs of both women and men, and girls and boys, who live with the health, social, psychological, justice, and economic consequences of sexual violence, and the challenges of preventing conflict-related sexual violence, continue to outstrip available resources.

 Research should not be limited to those harmed after the event but reliable research is required in relation to what can be done to improve safety before sexual violence actually occurs. Substantially this type of research can relate to movement of people. The importance here is the assessment of risk. At a recent conference on The Sensor Society, Felicity Gerry QC spoke about the ways in which data collection (for example) can be a force for good in relation to human rights abuses. It is quite plain that in order to formulate a programme of efficient responses to this issue, what is needed is reliable data on the magnitude of the problem, the forms of sexual violence used in conflict along with an understanding of rape as a tactic of war and the impact on men, women and children.


In terms of strengthening inter-agency coordination to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence in situations of armed conflict, the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325) in October 2000 marks a significant cultural change of the international community in empowering women as key players in dealing with matters of sexual violence.  In particular, SCR 1325 affirmed the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. With the emancipatory development within the international fora, there was greater condemnation of all sexual and other forms of violence committed against civilians in armed conflict, especially women and children.  This was well recognised in June 2008 Security Council Resolution 1820 which explicitly links sexual violence as a tactic of war with peace and security issues to the extent that sexual violence in conflict can constitute a war crime, crime against humanity or even a constitutive act of genocide.  This is significant in view of observations by UN Peacekeepers, for instance, Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former UN Peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said in 2008 “it is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict”.The  2014 kidnapping of  hundreds of school girls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorist group is a harsh reminder that in the battlefield of such militant groups, women and girls become their battle shields and weapons of negotiation.  Support, prevention and response efforts were recently well set out in Sarah Shteir’s paper for the Australian Civil-Military Centre:

Despite the proliferation of activity at the local, national, regional and international levels to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict-affected environments, a number of major gaps and weaknesses remain. Some important progress has been made in recent years at the international and national levels, but most conflict-affected countries continue to be characterised by widespread impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and limited access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. Although the UN has reported progress in efforts to support survivors, overall the lack of support services remains a ‘serious weakness’, especially in rural and remote areas. Furthermore, where support services and structures do exist, survivors often face a variety of obstacles when seeking help. Additionally, despite the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, there is a serious dearth of data on the matter


Here is where the good intentions of the UN Security Resolutions have to be matched with systemic and systematic implementation at ground level.  For example, in dealing with sexual violence as a war crime, certain procedural limitations within the justice system of the International Criminal Court must be addressed to pave the way in prosecuting such crimes.  In terms of implementation of the various UN Security Council resolutions on Women Peace and Security, the implementation by UN member states must be monitored and member states must be made accountable for failing to implement the operational protocols.   To this extent, the 2013 Security Council Resolutions of 2106 and 2122 are plausible additions to the SCR1325 as it adds greater operational detail and reiterates that all actors, including all member states and United Nation entities, must do more to implement previous mandates and combat impunity for such crimes.

However international criminal law is retroactive, serving to punish offenders and deter others, but not offering tangible help to victims until after their ordeal. International obligations are to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Plainly, for international law to truly function, the action needs to be proactive and combined with in-country support services and publicity.


The global world is inhabited by 7 billion people. There are over 2 billion internet users globally and rising. Key “rape” into “discover” on Twitter and on any one day there are numerous tweets using the word in numerous contexts. Hard hitting social media publications such as the interview on YouTube with with Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Congolese gynaecologist who co-founded and runs the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, which treats women who have been raped can be tweeted across the world and, combined with laws and community engagement, coordinated communication becomes a powerful tool. Campaigns to empower women have led to progress. In the early 1990s, after the conflict in Yugoslavia led to widespread pressure to work towards greater legal accountability for the atrocities committed, women’s groups campaigned successfully for the acknowledgement of sexual violence against women in international criminal law. It follows that States have positive obligations under international law to prevent abuses and can be held accountable for their failure to protect individuals from human rights abuses.


One suggestion for rape prevention in war affected countries has been the distribution of ‘dignity packages’ by the International Rescue Committee containing fuel-efficient stoves and extra clothing to women. The idea is that camps and homes become safer and more peaceful environments and the risk of sexual violence will decrease if women spend less time searching for firewood and water. The suggestion has been criticised for transfering the burden of security into the private lives of the most vulnerable but the essential thinking behind the idea is a smart one:If women are safer, they are empowered and they can act as agents of change.

Social media can be a powerful tool for raising awareness of sexual violence in conflict zones and empowering women. In the battle against sexual violence social media allows for a relatively level, non-political platform to engage in the conversation about the most serious of issues.

The Sensor Society conference also included an important presentation by Dr Lisa Parks who has undertaken ground breaking work in Zambia on create wireless network solutions for rural communities. The people there may well ask – why have Wi-Fi when we need toilets and on a basic level it is a good question. In reality, we are a long way off data solutions in many war torn regions but the power of good communication for disaffected people could be immense. Of course, this would be subject to the provision of suitable devices but, harnessing (for example) crowd sourcing technology currently being used with some success in relation to environmental challenges may be a step towards harnessing the power of people in camps in war torn countries in such a way that support and resources can be targeted to the right people in the right way.

International condemnation and / or legislative action cannot succeed alone, what is required to end sexual violence in conflict is community engagement. Such huge and important steps can be made with effective communication. Modern media gives women in every community a voice and giving women a voice on the issue of sexual violence is a major step towards empowerment that the modern international community should embrace.

The potential for data solutions to human rights abuses is enormous and just one topic that ought to be up for discussion at the summit in London in June.

By Felicity Gerry QC and Jeswyn Yogaratnam

Felicity Gerry QC Specializes in domestic and international law involving sexual violence. She also holds a research post at Charles Darwin University, Australia where she is researching modern methods to combat female genital mutilation and the rule of law online. In relation to sexual violence against men in conflict zones, see Tom Hennessey and Felicity Gerry QC’s paper here

Jeswynn Yogaratnam is a Human Rights Law Academic at Charles Darwin University. He has researched and published in the area of post-conflict gender violence in Timor-Leste. He has also participated in Australian Parliamentary Roundtables on gender violence in the South Pacific.


Note: This blog was originally posted on Halsbury’s Law Exchange blog.

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