Women Still Suffering in War Zones, Special Representative Tells Security Council, Highlighting Unmet Global Commitments to Victims of Sexual Violence

Facing pandemic lockdowns, spiking violence and eroded access to services and legal protections, women in war zones continue to suffer and global commitments remain largely unmet, the United Nations senior official on sexual violence in conflict told the Security Council today, calling for a “paradigm shift” in how resources are allocated in the post-COVID-19 world.

Pramila Patten, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, briefed the 15-member Council’s quarterly debate on women, peace and security, which was held in a videoconference format.  Spotlighting worrying increases in misogyny and attacks on women who are visible in public life, she urged States — many of whose resources are dwindling amid the pandemic’s economic shocks — not to cut funding to crucial health care and protection programmes for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.  Instead, she said, they should shift their historically massive military expenditures towards human resilience.

“The only cure for these overlapping ills is an injection of political resolve,” she stressed, insisting that the COVID-19 moment must be more than “just a point in time” in human history.  Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on sexual violence in conflict (document S/2021/312), she underscored his strong case for national COVID-19 response and recovery plans that include stronger protection efforts and more access to victim-centred support services.  During the pandemic, humanitarian workers in conflict zones across the world are reporting new cases of rape and gang rape daily.  Chronic underreporting of crimes and limited access to care has only been compounded by the movement restrictions, lockdowns and cuts in service.

Proactive measures are urgently needed to help survivors come forward, she said, noting that shame, isolation and fear of rejection continues to plague many of those struggling with sexual and gender-based violence around the world.  Recounting many personal stories, she said each of those cases cries out for justice.  Council resolutions demand that they be treated with dignity and be seen by their societies as the holders of rights, she said, emphasizing that victims and survivors must be treated as individuals even as they face broad systemic challenges.  Among other trends, she said the Secretary-General’s report also cites particular challenges wrought by terrorist organizations and community militia — including the high toll on women in the Lake Chad Basin amid the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.

Emphasizing that in past pandemics more women have died as a result of lack of health services than from viruses themselves, she went on to praise recent strides in prosecuting sexual and gender-based crimes.  However, many other investigations remain stalled and cases paralysed.  As sexual and gender-based violence has not yet been prosecuted in the context of terrorism, no precedent exists in that regard.  As such, she advocated for sanctions regimes that effectively target sexual and gender-based crimes, which can “change the calculus” of parties who assume they can commit such crimes with no repercussions.  In all contexts, it is crucial to emphasize that “policies of zero tolerance cannot carry zero consequences”, she said.

Denis Mukwege, a doctor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, agreed that progress made in international law should not mask the fact that the scourge of sexual violence continues in all conflict situations around the globe, and that responses remain underfunded.  “We are still far away from being able to draw a red line against the use of sexual violence in war and conflict,” he stressed, calling for efforts to render the Council’s important resolutions into tangible obligations and results.  Recalling that no individual perpetrator was targeted by Council sanctions specifically for sexual or gender-based crimes in the first 10 years of the Special Representative’s mandate, he welcomed the organ’s recent imposition of sanctions against the Return Reconciliation and Rehabilitation (3R) group in the Central African Republic in 2020, adding “we hope this important precedent will not be a one-off”.

Appealing to the international community to take a firm stance against the use of rape as a weapon of war, he stressed that effective responses must include blacklists, sanctions and prosecutions.  Describing the victim-centred model used by his hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where impunity against sexual violence crimes remains one of the main obstacles to peace and stability, and continues to feed the conflict in the east of the country — he outlined its holistic “one-stop shop” that provides physical care, psychosocial support and judicial assistance.

More than a decade since the publication by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of a human rights violations mapping report for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he described it as unacceptable that none of its recommendations have yet been implemented.  As plans progress for the gradual drawdown of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he urged the Council to pay close attention to sexual violence crimes and include access to internationalized prosecution mechanisms as a key part of the transition.

Beatrix Attinger Colijn, Senior Women Protection Adviser with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), recalled the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangui, where it was predicted the country’s weak health system would not be capable of dealing with a large virus outbreak.  After pausing initially, internal flights have long since resumed and most United Nations staff who left the country have returned.  “With testing being rare, COVID-19 looms over the country with an unknown magnitude,” she said, noting that most of the population does not wear masks and little social distancing exists.

All of that is taking place against the backdrop of continued efforts to push back armed groups, she said, noting that the national army and bilateral forces carried out a range of military operations in the past five months.  Many humanitarian organizations’ installations were destroyed or occupied by fighters, and hospitals were looted, bringing service provision to a halt.  Humanitarian access to many regions has moved from risky to impossible.  Spotlighting hopeful developments — including broad participation in the country’s elections in December 2020 and the continued provision of support to survivors of sexual violence, despite the pandemic — she described her role, which is to advise and support MINUSCA’s civilian, police and military components in implementing the Mission’s mandate to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.

She went on to cite two crucial areas that define the extent of the response to conflict-related sexual violence, namely the social obstacles that impede survivors from reporting violations and access to justice.  In most places outside Bangui, the capital, there is no functional chain of justice, with courts non-operational and prosecutors absent.  Similarly, access to health facilities is difficult or impossible due to weak infrastructure and lack of transportation in much of the country.  Describing her own recent interactions with survivors of sexual violence — including with a father and daughter who had walked 15 kilometres to wait by the side of a road, hoping to report a rape to MINUSCA — she emphasized the urgent need to connect people in remote areas with essential services and justice.

Caroline Atim, Director of South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, also briefed the Council, emphasizing that despite the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan the country remains engulfed by conflict.  Gender-based violence is deliberately used to humiliate women and girls, and over 65 per cent of South Sudanese women have experienced sexual or physical violence — double the global average.  Women and girls with disabilities are at even greater risk, she added, noting that she herself is deaf.

“A lethal combination of impunity for perpetrators and deep-rooted inequality and discrimination means that gender-based violence, including sexual violence against women and girls, is not taken seriously as a crime, nor is its devastating impact addressed,” she said.  Even before the current conflict, rape in marriage was considered acceptable in South Sudan and more than half of all girls married before the age of 18.  The pandemic has only exacerbated the rate of child, early and forced marriage, and the survivors of sexual violence are often forced to wed the men who raped them.  Girls in South Sudan are sometimes raped to compensate for crimes committed by relatives, and women are raped to bear children to replace dead kin.

Globally, she said, women and girls with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation — especially during conflict.  She shared the story of a 14-year-old deaf girl in Bor, the capital of South Sudan’s Jonglei state, who was raped several times in 2014 after having been abandoned by family members fleeing the fighting.  Only through sign language could she explain not only that she had been raped, but that she was also HIV positive.  Noting that persons with disabilities are easy prey for perpetrators, she said both they and their children can find themselves targets of extreme stigma and discrimination, ostracized by their communities and left with few resources.

“The rights, experiences and voices of survivors must be at the centre of any response to gender-based violence,” she continued.  Survivors have fundamental rights that entitle them to services based on their specific needs, including psychosocial support, sexual and reproductive health and rights, access to legal counsel and vocational training.  She added that the proliferation of firearms in South Sudan’s highly militarized society is putting women at risk.  Calling for those responsible to be held accountable through the country’s Hybrid Court, she said all parties to the peace agreement must prioritize the full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership of women — including those with disabilities — in the peace process, and fully respect human rights.

In that regard, she warned that, if the suffering of women and girls is forgotten, “our wounds will never heal”.  She urged the Council to ensure that a holistic, survivor-centred, accessible and rights-based approach is designed in partnership with women.  The United Nations Mission in South Sudan must fulfil its protection mandate and respond to gender-based violence wherever it is deployed, she said, also calling for justice accountability, compensation and reparation and a halt to the flow of illicit weapons.

As Council members took the floor, many reiterated their support for the Council’s women, peace and security agenda, as well as frustration that the global community’s unified stance against sexual violence in conflict has yielded few tangible results for women on the ground.  Several speakers praised the various Council sanctions regimes that have increasingly begun including sexual and gender-based crimes as standalone criteria for targeted measures against individuals and entities, while others echoed the Special Representative’s call for a reallocation of resources in post-COVID-19 national recovery plans.  Still others emphasized that Governments’ “zero-tolerance” policies on sexual and gender-based crimes in conflict must finally be given the teeth they need to succeed.

“We should not fool ourselves that the shocking sexual and gender-based violence in times of war, disease and disaster is somehow extraordinary, or aberrant,” said the representative of Ireland.  Noting that the pandemic largely saw the transfer of violence from the private to the public sphere, as well as the further weaponization of gender-based violence, she stressed:  “This is a kind of ‘normal’ no woman wants to return to.”  Despite a robust framework to deal with conflict-related sexual violence, compliance by parties to conflict is appallingly low, and the Council must ask why that is so.  Going forward, she said members must ensure that monitoring and early warning processes on conflict-related sexual violence are incorporated into peacekeeping and special political missions, while making better use of targeted sanctions and accountability tools — including referrals to the International Criminal Court.

The representative of the United States, emphasizing that sexual violence in armed conflict demands a collective response, urged the Council to address reports of mass sexual violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.  She also warned that women in Burma face greater risks now that the military leaders responsible for sexual violence in Rakhine state have returned to power.  Worldwide, gender-based violence is more than a crisis, but a calamity made even more dire by the pandemic.  She called for more women to be elevated into positions of power, emphasizing that “women make the world more peaceful — and that is not anecdotal, that is a fact.”   She also recommended a survivor-centred approach that includes access to medical care, social support and legal services, noting that the President of the United States is committed to providing sexual and reproductive health care and services for women around the world.  Special attention must also be paid to under-examined and under-reported forms of sexual violence, including those faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) community.  She went on to underscore the impact of sexual violence on men and boys, including in Afghanistan where the terrible practice of bacha bazi — the commercial and sexual exploitation of boys — is well-documented as occurring within the security forces.

The representative of China, strongly condemning sexual violence as a means of war and terror, said that the international community, including the Security Council, should focus on addressing the root causes of conflict to eradicate the breeding grounds of conflict-related sexual violence while adhering to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and promoting dialogue.  Acting in an integrated manner, the international community should also bring an end to gender-based discrimination and the unequal treatment of women while also creating synergies for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  He added that the countries concerned should take the lead in preventing and combating conflict-related sexual violence, with support from the international community based on their respective national conditions.  United Nations entities should carry out their work in line with their mandates and expertise on the basis of existing resources, he said, adding that women’s groups and civil society need to be guided to play a constructive role.

The representative of the United Kingdom, also expressing concern about reports of rape and sexual violence in Tigray, said that in South Sudan and other post-conflict situations, survivors bear the effects of their trauma while perpetrators walk free.  Underlining her country’s commitment to tackling sexual violence in conflict, she stressed the importance of a survivor-centred approach that is based on human rights and puts the rights and needs of survivors first.  Such an approach should also consider the specific needs of persons with disabilities, LGBTQI individuals and other at-risk groups.  The Council’s recent sanctions against Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin in Yemen demonstrate the international community’s willingness to take action against perpetrators of torture and sexual violence in conflict, but “there is more than we can do” by strengthening accountability for such crimes in international and hybrid courts and tribunals, she said.

The representative of Mexico said sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war, repression and torture by both State and non-State armed groups, which see the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance to continue committing atrocities.  Drawing a link between sexual violence and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, she said there is still a long way to go to address structural inequalities, discrimination and negative social attitudes that put women at risk around the world.  Health care and other support services must employ a human rights-based and intersectional approach, she said, emphasizing that a lack of accountability and impunity contributes to recurrence of crimes and a broad lack of trust.  Legal frameworks that ensure reporting channels, as well as investigation and prosecution mechanisms, are crucial.  Agreeing that sanctions committees must continue to include sexual violence as a listing criterion, she warned that results will remain limited if those measures are not complemented by information sharing with other organs and bodies.  She also recalled that sexual violence in conflict constitutes a war crime, noting that the Council is obligated to refer them to the International Criminal Court where appropriate.

The representative of Kenya described progress in implementing the second phase of his country’s women, peace and security action plan, which among other things addresses the institutional, structural and cultural drivers of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls.  It seeks to advance women’s leadership in Kenya’s security, police and peacekeeping ranks, and provides for judicial accountability and redress.  Spotlighting Kenya’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual and gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, he said the Council should focus more on the gendered impact of intra-State conflicts, particularly where conflict-related sexual violence leads to early marriage, girls dropping out of school, forced displacement and threats to local women peacebuilders.  Calling for strengthened coordination with community and religious leaders, as well as with the Peacebuilding Commission, he underlined the emerging threat of climate change as disproportionately affecting women and girls and called for better gender- and age-disaggregated data to inform policy and mitigation measures.  He also called for more attention to the protection pillar, clear sexual-violence related benchmarks in all peace operations mandates, women protection advisers in peacekeeping missions on a case-by-case basis, and the incorporation of sexual- and gender-based violence as a separate sanctions listing criterion in the remaining mandates and regimes that do not yet employ such language.

The representative of Norway recalled that, shortly after the adoption of resolution 2467 (2019), an international conference in Oslo on sexual and gender-based violence brought together a wide range of actors, making hundreds of commitments to end those crimes in humanitarian crises and conflict.  However, despite progress, sexual violence is still deliberately used as a tactic of war, torture and terror, and women are still targeted for their activism.  Calling on conflict parties to end such crimes and on States to make full use of the support offered by OHCHR and the office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, she said it is also imperative that conflict-related sexual violence is addressed in ceasefires, peace agreements and monitoring mechanisms.  A strengthened focus on justice and accountability, more survivor-centered approaches and an end to the targeting of people based on disabilities and actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is also needed.

She went on to note that Norway supported the production of the Policy and Handbook on Preventing and Responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, which provides practical guidance to civilian, military and police components, and proudly counts Norwegian staff among the United Nations police team supporting South Sudan in investigating sexual and gender-based violence.  Turning to the Council, she said sexual violence as a stand-alone designation criterion for sanctions must be used when applicable and should become a criterion in more sanction regimes.  In that respect, she welcomed the recent decision by the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 2140 (2014) to list individuals on the basis of sexual violence.  “This Council must be a strong voice,” she stressed, adding:  “We cannot allow our political commitments being reversed by COVID-19.”

The representative of India said that, despite the Council’s strong framework against sexual violence in conflict, the level of compliance by warring parties remains alarmingly low.  Stressing the need to prevent atrocities, end impunity and rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors, he called on States to develop legal frameworks in line with international standards and ensure the prosecution of sexual violence as a self-standing crime.  While national Governments bear that primary responsibility, the United Nations can help build capacity.  States should also adopt victim-centred approaches in line with the resolution 2467 (2019), providing non-discriminatory and multisectoral assistance to victims.  “Understanding the nexus between terrorism, financing of violent extremist groups, trafficking and sexual violence in armed conflicts must inform Council action on this important matter,” he stressed, adding that the Council’s sanctions regimes and other targeted measures need to be strengthened to better protect women.  Greater participation by women in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation processes is also needed, as is a greater mainstreaming of gender perspectives in peace operations, he said, recalling that India joined the Circle of Leadership on the prevention of and response to sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations operations in 2017 and deployed the first all-woman formed police unit to Liberia a decade earlier.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the current global crises have compounded sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, particularly against women and girls.  “Today, we recommit to ending the enduring inequalities, protracted conflict and underdevelopment which contribute to unconscionable levels of conflict-related sexual violence,” she said, noting that her country is facing the additional crisis of explosive volcanic eruptions.  Warning that underreporting of sexual and gender-based crimes often results from shame and fear of reprisals, she called for survivor-centred responses that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  Spotlighting important international developments such as the establishment of one-stop centres in South Sudan, the creation of specialized courts in all 34 provinces in Afghanistan, the launch of a sexual and gender-based violence helpline in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and growing United Nations support in providing model legislative guidance, she nevertheless cautioned against allowing funding for such crucial work to be divested to address the current crisis.  In fact, authorities should designate sexual and gender-based violence responses as central to pandemic recovery planning and funding, she stressed.

The representative of Estonia said that conflict-related sexual violence must be addressed systematically by picking up its early signs, countering its use, making it part of ceasefires and peace agreements, and making sure that those who commit it are punished and not included in amnesty provisions.  Victims and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence must be viewed as victims and survivors of war, deserving of support and justice.  He urged Ethiopia to guarantee a credible independent investigation into reports of sexual violence in Tigray and called for accountability for conflict-related sexual violence in Syria and into violent incidents committed by the Tatmadaw in Myanmar.  He went on to review the measures that Estonia is taking to underline the fundamental importance of human rights, including those of women and girls, in combating conflict-related sexual violence.

The representative of Niger said that women and girls face increased risk of sexual violence not only in conflict situations, but also because of the impacts of climate change, forced displacement and economic precarity.  In that regard, he reiterated Niger’s concerns about living conditions for migrants and refugees intercepted at sea and put into overcrowded detention centres in Libya.  He also drew attention to the security conflict in the Sahel where terrorist groups such as Boko Haram kidnap women and girls and force them to become sex slaves or human bombs.  Calling for a holistic approach for survivors, and for an end to impunity for perpetrators, he said that “we must break the cycle of double victimization” and tackle the root causes of sexual violence, including toxic masculinity and a lack of educational opportunities for girls.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that, each year, delegates and other speakers come before the Council to reaffirm their commitment to ending the scourge of sexual violence in armed conflict.  Asking why, then, the many recommendations emanating from the United Nations system remain unimplemented, he said the answer too often is the hate-filled “nature of war itself”, which is sometimes stoked by outside actors.  Only resilient societies with strong governance structures will be able to vanquish the atrocity of sexual crimes committed in conflict.  For their work to be effective and successfully reach victims, the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations must not be associated with any political preferences or seen as pandering to one conflict party, or turning a blind eye to the needs of another.  “All suspicions must by definition be credible,” he stressed, adding that the sources of information must always be verified.  Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the international community must not lose hope that the fight against sexual violence can be advanced for the benefit of international peace and security, he stressed.

The representative of France said instances of sexual violence in conflict remain prevalent in many conflict zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Syria and Ethiopia’s Tigray region.  Strongly condemning the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war or a tool of terror, as well as discriminatory attitudes that make its wielding possible, he said all victims must have access to proper reporting, comprehensive support services, justice, reparations and the guarantee of non-repetition.  Recalling that France has committed €6.2 million to the Trust Fund for Victims established by Dr. Denis Mukwege and others at the International Criminal Court, he voiced regret over the pollicization of health and other support services, which is leaving many women without access around the globe.  Pointing out that many of those issues will be addressed at the upcoming Generation Equality Forum, he urged the Council to do more, including by incorporating references to sexual violence in all its mandates and making resources available for teams on the ground.

The representative of Tunisia said that the best way to eradicate conflict-related sexual violence is to put an end to conflicts themselves and to build peaceful and resilient societies.  Emphasizing the importance of a survivor-centred approach, he said that survivors of conflict-related sexual violence need tailored measures and services that respond to their different needs and contexts.  They require psychological, legal and medical services that include sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as socioeconomic opportunities to ensure their reintegration and empowerment in society.  Stressing the need to put an end to impunity, he called for robust national legal and judicial measures as well as targeted United Nations sanctions that reflect the seriousness of these heinous crimes.  He went on to say that Tunisia is committed to putting a stronger emphasis on conflict-related sexual violence committed by terrorist groups.

The representative of Viet Nam, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing the need to take a comprehensive approach to the problem, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.  Such an approach should not only include timely assistance for victims, but also measures to address the root causes of sexual violence in conflict.  Preventing such violence also requires the full and equal participation of women in decision-making and peace processes.  While States bear primary responsibility to address sexual violence, the international community, and the United Nations system in particular, can provide much-needed development assistance, capacity-building, technical support and training.  In that regard, he called for sexual violence prevention and response to be incorporated in peacekeeping mandates and for more women to be deployed in peacekeeping missions to work closely among communities on the ground.

For information media. Not an official record.