Sexual violence, conflict, and COVID-19: An invisible pandemic
Despite clear legal prohibitions, sexual violence remains widespread during armed conflicts and other situations of violence, as well as in detention. It occurs in various contexts and has grave humanitarian consequences. Sexual violence is often utilized as a tactical or strategic means of overwhelming and weakening the adversary, whether directly or indirectly, by targeting the civilian population. It also occurs opportunistically, including where rules of restraint are ignored or unenforced.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Regional Delegation in the Pacific works in 14 countries of the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea (PNG). In the Highlands of PNG, tribal disagreements, if not settled in a timely manner, can escalate and lead to armed violence. The situation is particularly serious in the Enga, Hela and Southern Highlands provinces, where violence often causes injuries and death. Women, boys and girls and the elderly are among the victims. This violence may also result in displacement and destruction of property. Sexual violence is widespread and takes place during tribal fights.
Applying its multidisciplinary response to the humanitarian consequences of tribal fighting in PNG, ICRC provides health services, including mental health and psychosocial support, protection and other forms of care to prevent the occurrence of all conflict-related abuses toward civilians, with a focus on sexual violence.
The ICRC supports health facilities with materials for the treatment of injured patients and technical guidance and provides training for their staff members to further develop their ability to provide specialized care to victims/survivors of sexual violence. For example, we train and support traditional community-based birth attendants and raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health services among community members. To ensure mental health and psychosocial support is available to victims/survivors of sexual violence, the ICRC trains health centre staff and Family Support Centres in hospitals to conduct structured and sensitive consultations. We also strengthen existing referral mechanisms and cover costs where needed, to help survivors receive appropriate care.
Furthermore, the ICRC interacts closely with violence-affected people in PNG to better understand their protection-related needs and to help them mitigate risks to their safety. By raising the humanitarian impacts of tribal fighting among the parties concerned, we urge them to abide by basic principles of humanity. Notably, this includes ensuring the protection of civilians from sexual violence and other forms of abuse.
In addition, the ICRC promotes the respect of relevant domestic and international law enforcement standards among military and police forces and provides guidance on integrating these norms into their training and operations.
Lastly, the ICRC engages the authorities including government forces in dialogue on measures they can take to ensure that civilians and their property are protected from harm during law enforcement operations. Where appropriate, we raise specific concerns based on documented allegations of unlawful conduct. We provide training and dissemination sessions for security forces personnel on international policing standards, particularly on the use of force. The ICRC engages with community members involved in tribal fights offering workshops on restraint and other means, to raise awareness of humanitarian principles and to discuss issues of concern such as the importance of preventing sexual violence. We engage closely with community members and their leaders to encourage the adoption of coping mechanisms and preventive measures to help reduce their risk of exposure to tribal violence, including sexual violence.
This year's International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is an opportunity for us to highlight the importance of taking concrete measures to prevent sexual violence as a weapon or consequence of conflict. Where it continues to occur, we aim to provide adequate support to the victims/survivors, such as the provision of appropriate medical care and other supports as needed, including mental health/psycho-social support.
Sexual violence during conflict cannot and should not be accepted. We must work together to prevent it and ensure victims/survivors receive appropriate care and treatment should it occur. Action against sexual violence must be taken now!
By Vincent OCHILET
ICRC Head of Regional Delegation in the Pacific