Five things to know about sexual violence in conflict zones

Five things to know about sexual violence in conflict zones

Despite its prohibition in international law, sexual violence in conflict remains a brutal reality.
Article 17 June 2022

Unfortunately, it remains widespread and prevalent during armed conflicts and other situations of violence, as well as in detention. It occurs in various contexts and has serious humanitarian consequences. As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June, we reflect on five things to know about sexual violence in conflict zones.

1. Sexual violence is a war crime

Rape and other forms of sexual violence are prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL) in international and non-international armed conflict.

As a serious violation of IHL, sexual violence constitutes a war crime.The Statute of the International Criminal Court includes rape and some other forms of sexual violence in the list of war crimes and in the list of acts that constitute crimes against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence may also constitute other international crimes when committed under specific circumstances, for instance the crime of torture or a constitutive act of genocide.

2. Sexual violence is predictable and preventable

Evidence shows not all individual armed actors perpetrate rape and other sexual violence. It must be preventable. That should strengthen our determination to learn from those who set a positive example and hold accountable those who do engage in such practices.

Sexual violence occurring in an armed conflict can be committed for different reasons and in different circumstances, such as for policy purposes (strategy of war), a practice (tolerated although not specifically ordered) or it is committed opportunistically (private reasons mostly).

3. Women are disproportionally affected, but men and LGBTIQ+ people, too, can be victims of sexual violence

Women and girls are not the only victims although they are disproportionally affected by sexual violence.

A report published by the ICRC in February 2022 titled That never happens here: Sexual and gender-based violence against men, boys and/including LGBTIQ people in humanitarian settings indicated that diversity factors such as sexual orientation, gender identity and expression may influence to what extent a person is at risk.It also found that boys in humanitarian settings are at risk of a wide range of SGBV.They may be exposed to sexual violence by weapons bearers, exploited sexually or abused at the hands of humanitarian workers or peacekeepers, or trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Sexual violence against men, boys and/including LGBTIQ+ people is prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL).

4. Sexual violence is an invisible phenomenon

Sexual violence continues to be an invisible phenomenon, with few victims coming forward for help, care or justice because of feelings of guilt or shame, fear of retribution or taboos. In cases where sexual violence is combined with killing (or the death of the person), sexual violence can be overlooked or not properly documented and/or reported in fatality statistics or medico-legal documentation; often, medico-legal systems and forensic services are weak or weakened in humanitarian contexts.

Apart from physical and psychological health consequences, social consequences may also be dramatic, forcing victims into isolation due to shame and stigma; this also leads to serious economic consequences (with all family and social links broken, some victims are left with no means of subsistence).Victim-blaming also gets in the way of victims reporting.

Moreover, during armed conflict or other situations of violence, victims/survivors face additional obstacles to disclosing sexual violence.These hindrances may include: the breakdown of infrastructure; roadblocks or arbitrary check points; targeting of health facilities; deterioration or interruptions of survivor-centred services; disruption of community-based protection mechanisms; and existing inequalities and drivers of sexual and gender-based violence that are heightened by conflict. Each of these factors, or a combination thereof, may also impede victims/ survivors' access to medical treatment, legal and forensic services, psychosocial support, protection services and other assistance.

5. The consequences of sexual violence are multiple and long-lasting

They can affect all dimensions of a person's physical, psychological and social well-being, sometimes enduring across different stages of life, and can also affect families and communities. The physical consequences of sexual violence include death, physical injuries, pain resulting from physical violence, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, infertility, a proven higher incidence of disease burden and subsequent health problems.

Longer-term consequences continue to have an impact on a person's dignity and can include incontinency, urinary issues, and persistent bleeding, affecting all aspects of life including the capacity to work and to provide care for their family (including for male victims/survivors).Pregnancy resulting from rape may result in high-risk delivery (for example, for adolescent and young girls, women with disabilities, and females with comorbidities) and, in certain contexts, victims/survivors may contend with the risk of a potentially unsafe abortion.

Victims/survivors may also experience an acute mental-health impact. The ICRC, for example, has found that 23 percent of all patients receiving mental-health and psychosocial support through its activities and who reported distress noted rape as an experience and key factor in their distress or anxiety.