Q&A: sexual violence in armed conflict
Sexual violence is tragically prevalent in many modern conflicts. The ICRC is committed to further increasing its efforts in the prevention of this devastating violation and to provide assistance to the victims. This article examines the nature of sexual violence, the needs of the victims, the ICRC's work in terms of prevention, protection and assistance as well as the legal basis for the prohibition of sexual violence.
Responding to the needs of victims of sexual violence
Throughout history, sexual violence has been widespread in armed conflict, and often viewed as an unavoidable consequence of warfare. Sexual violence persists as a devastating phenomenon with damaging consequences for victims – women, men, boys and girls – as well as their families and whole communities. Additionally, such violations remain vastly under-reported, and underestimated in terms of prevalence and consequences. The humanitarian response to the diverse needs of victims remains insufficient.
Despite these challenges, the ICRC firmly believes that sexual violence in armed conflicts can be stopped. Through a comprehensive response including assistance, protection and prevention it seeks to ensure that the needs of victims are met, and that activities to prevent these crimes are undertaken. The ICRC has committed to improving its response over the next four years, by enhancing and expanding its programmes and strengthening its capacity to address this complex and sensitive phenomenon.
1. What is sexual violence?
The term "sexual violence" is used to describe acts of a sexual nature imposed by force, or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power directed against any victim – man, woman, boy or girl. Taking advantage of a coercive environment or of the victim's incapacity to give genuine consent is also a form of coercion. Sexual violence encompasses: rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of a comparable gravity.
Such acts rarely occur in isolation. They form part of a pattern of abuse and violence, which includes killing, child recruitment, destruction of property and looting. Sexual violence can be used as a form of reprisal, to create fear, or as a form of torture. It may also be used systematically, as a method of warfare, aimed at destroying the social fabric.
2. Who is affected and how?
Armed conflict and other situations of violence affect women, men, girls and boys differently. Certain people may be more vulnerable to sexual violence than others. This includes those who are internally displaced, migrants, widows, female heads of households, detainees, those associated with armed forces or armed groups, or those belonging to a specific ethnic group. Sexual violence is also perpetrated against men and boys, and in some contexts detention may render them particularly vulnerable.
Sexual violence can result in severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection and, occasionally, in death. In addition, victims often face double victimization: not only sustaining potentially dangerous and long-lasting injuries and trauma, but also facing stigmatization and rejection by their families and communities.
Despite the pervasiveness of sexual violence in many armed conflicts, it frequently remains invisible. Feelings of guilt and shame, fear of retaliation, or taboos surrounding the subject may prevent victims from coming forward. As a result, the full extent of the problem is often concealed. For these reasons, it can be very difficult to reach and provide support to victims.
3. What are the needs of victims of sexual violence?
Above all, victims of sexual violence must be treated with humanity, fully respecting their privacy, and maintaining the strictest confidentiality when responding to their needs. Assuring the security of victims and preventing further attacks are also of the utmost importance. Fear of reprisals and attack may prevent victims from coming forward, or place those who do in precarious security situations, making them more vulnerable to attack.
Sexual violence is a medical emergency, potentially resulting in severe physical and psychological health consequences for victims. It is crucial that they have unimpeded access to quality and timely medical care within 72 hours to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and infections and HIV and to obtain access to emergency contraception in accordance with domestic law.
When rape results in unwanted pregnancy, victims may seek out unsafe practices to terminate their pregnancy, potentially placing their health and lives at risk. Unsafe abortion is a significant public health concern. Children born of rape, and their mothers, are also highly vulnerable, and can face a heightened risk of exclusion from the community. These children may even be at risk of infanticide or other forms of violence.
4. What barriers can victims face in obtaining access to health care?
Victims' access to comprehensive health care, including psychosocial support, is essential in the acute phase and over the long term. Yet, in situations of armed conflict, obtaining access to medical care is often a significant challenge. In many cases, victims are unaware of the need to seek urgent medical care or are not able to obtain access to it because of fear, insecurity, or a lack of suitable medical facilities. Medical infrastructure can be limited, or may be damaged or destroyed as a result of the conflict, thereby denying victims access to treatment.
Victims often face great risks to their safety as they attempt to reach health care services. They may also have to travel long distances in an insecure environment to seek help, possibly to find that health structures and services are no longer available because of the conflict. Due to the complex nature of armed conflict, humanitarian actors may face challenges in reaching victims in order to provide the necessary care and support.
5. What about non-medical needs?
In addition to health care, there are a range of other elements that must be integrated in the humanitarian response. It is important to ensure that victims of sexual violence are protected from further violations through risk awareness and risk reduction activities.
Victims who wish to seek justice need be to be fully informed about the support available and protected against reprisals, exclusion or security risks. It is crucial to ensure that victims are not put at risk by pursuing legal processes.
In many circumstances, victims may face significant challenges in reintegrating the community. Education is important to avoid stigmatisation, rejection and exclusion of victims and their children. Partners, children and other family members also need support, guidance and care.
Those who have been displaced or who have lost their means of subsistence as a result of sexual violence frequently require shelter and economic support to rebuild their lives.
6. How does the ICRC address the needs of victims of sexual violence in its programmes and activities?
As a humanitarian organization, the ICRC strives to address both the causes and the effects of sexual violence in responding to the needs of the men, women, girls and boys affected. Its activities encompass the provision of health care, protection, assistance, awareness-raising, and prevention.
Depending on the context, the ICRC may provide health care directly or it may refer victims to existing medical services for appropriate care such as the prevention of illness, the treatment of injuries and diseases as well as ensuring reproductive health services in accordance with national legislation. The ICRC often supports national medical structures, transportation and personnel in terms of capacity building, infrastructure and medical supplies. In addition, the ICRC strives to integrate both medical and psychological support in its health activities for victims of sexual violence. The ICRC has several programs which provide care and support and address their psychological and social needs.
The ICRC provides economic support to victims to assist them in rebuilding their lives. This can include food and household items, shelter, assistance in developing new sources of income or transportation costs to help them access medical and psychological care.
In consultation with local communities, the ICRC works to raise awareness, identify risk factors and develop protection strategies against sexual violence. For example, the ICRC can provide women with fuel-efficient stoves to minimize the time they spend venturing out to collect firewood, an activity that puts them at risk of sexual violence. Similarly, it has assisted communities in drilling boreholes closer to villages to reduce the risk women face while fetching water.
7. What does international humanitarian law say regarding sexual violence in armed conflict?
Rape and other forms of sexual violence, when committed in the context of an armed conflict either international or non-international, constitute violations under international humanitarian law (IHL). All parties to an armed conflict must abide by the prohibition of sexual violence. All states have an obligation to prosecute the perpetrators.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence are prohibited under treaty law (the Fourth Geneva convention, as well as Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II) and customary law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict
8. Is sexual violence 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. Rape would typically constitute torture, for instance, when it is intentionally inflicted by a State official in order to obtain confessions from the victim.
Sexual violence can also constitute an act of genocide, for instance when it is an imposed measure intended to prevent births within the group, through for instance sexual mutilation or sterilization. Rape can also be a measure intended to prevent births: in patriarchal societies, for example, when a woman is deliberately impregnated by a man of another ethnic group, with the intent to have her give birth to a child who will consequently not belong to his/her mother's group.
Every single rape committed during and in connection with an armed conflict constitutes a war crime and must be prosecuted. Furthermore sexual violence is at all times a violation of international human rights instruments and of many bodies of national and religious or traditional law.
9. What about those who might be responsible for sexual violence?
The ICRC urges all parties in armed conflict to meet their obligation under international humanitarian law to protect women, men, girls and boys against acts of sexual violence and to ensure unimpeded access to health care for all victims of sexual violence.
The ICRC reminds parties to armed conflict that all forms of sexual violence are prohibited under international humanitarian law, and urges them to integrate this prohibition into domestic legislation, military codes and in the training manuals of weapon bearers. It delivers information sessions to weapons bearers throughout the world on the prohibition of sexual violence and adapts these sessions to the patterns of violations that it has witnessed in different contexts.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence that amount to serious violations of international humanitarian law entail individual criminal responsibility and must be prosecuted. All States are obliged to criminalize these violations under domestic law, and to effectively investigate and prosecute any instance of sexual violence.
Additionally, in confidential dialogue with authorities or armed groups, the ICRC raises concerns about observed or alleged facts relating to the perpetration of sexual violence. This includes the consequences of such acts for victims and communities, their legal and criminal consequences and possible measures to identify and sanction perpetrators, to protect the population and to decrease the risk of such crimes.
10. How does the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent work together on this issue?
Wherever possible, the ICRC works in cooperation with local service providers, and partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Movement), such as National Societies. As with a number of other issues, the different components of the Movement assume distinct yet complementary roles in relation to the issues of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). In accordance with its mandate, the ICRC addresses a specific aspect of these issues by focusing on sexual violence in situations such as armed conflict. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and individual National Societies, take a broader approach to sexual and gender-based violence, and, for example, also engage in violence prevention in the context of natural disasters.
Most recently, in December 2015, the ICRC and the IFRC jointly submitted a draft resolution, entitled "Sexual and gender-based violence: Joint action on prevention and response", to the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The resolution adopted, by consensus, by the International Conference (bringing together the States Parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the components of the Movement) condemns in the strongest possible terms SGBV in all circumstances, particularly in armed conflict, disasters and other emergencies.
Its preamble addresses concerns common to SGBV in armed conflicts, disasters and other emergencies. For example, recognizing that SGBV is often invisible because e.g. taboos and fear prevent victims/survivors from coming forward, it underlines that it is important to work towards the prevention and elimination of such violence and to prepare appropriate responses to the needs of victims/survivors before specific incidents arise. Furthermore, it recognizes that, while women and girls are disproportionately affected, men and boys can also be victims of SGBV. The resolution's first operative section then focuses on sexual violence in armed conflict, reflecting this particular alarming aspect of SGBV and the strong prohibitions of acts of sexual violence in armed conflict under international humanitarian law. The second operative section covers SGBV in disasters and other emergencies. Finally, the resolution's third operative section outlines measures by the components of the Movement, cooperation and partnerships.
At field level, the ICRC, IFRC and a number of National Societies implement various activities ranging from prevention, awareness raising, capacity building and humanitarian diplomacy to medical, psychosocial, economic and legal support. Movement-wide, since the 2013 Council of Delegates, common definitions for key terminology have been developed, and a survey of Movement initiatives, good practices and challenges and gaps regarding SGBV related to armed conflict and disaster has been undertaken. The main findings of the mapping were presented in a report to the Council of Delegates in 2015. Research to enhance policy, advocacy and operational activities on sexual violence in armed conflict and on gender-based violence (GBV) in disaster has also been undertaken.