Responding to sexual violence: Supporting victims/survivors, changing attitudes, reducing risk

Sexual violence is widespread, preventable and never acceptable. No one, without exception, should ever be subjected to any form of sexual violence.

An ICRC employee visits a beneficiary at her home, where she recounts her experience and discusses her depression after her husband's death.

Sexual violence is usually part of a pattern of violence linked to other violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

When linked to situations of conflict, it can exacerbate existing sexual and gender-based violence – such as marital rape and child marriage – among civilians.

These factors may lead to the emergence of new trends or patterns, such as transactional or survival sex and people trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation or abuse.

The devastating impact of sexual violence

Despite being prohibited by national and international laws, sexual violence remains widespread and prevalent during armed conflict and other violence, as well as in places of detention and along migration routes. In conflict, it is often used as a tactical or strategic means of overwhelming and weakening the adversary by targeting the civilian population. Victims are disproportionately women, girls and sexual and gender minorities. However, men and boys can also be victims, and greater societal stigma and being held in detention put them at higher risk. Sexual violence constitutes a crime against humanity, a war crime, a form of torture and potentially an act of genocide. It can have serious consequences and is rarely an isolated issue. 

Standing behind victims/survivors of sexual violence

Sexual violence is devastating, with damaging consequences for victims/survivors – women, men, boys and girls – as well as their families and whole communities. Such violations remain vastly under-reported and underestimated in terms of prevalence and consequences. The humanitarian response needs to be as diverse as the needs of the victims/survivors themselves. Through a multidisciplinary and holistic response, including assistance, protection and prevention, we seek to ensure that the needs of victims/survivors are met and that activities to prevent these crimes are undertaken. Ensuring access to services is our priority. In some cases, we can provide these services directly, while in others we refer victims/survivors to external partners.

Providing care in the clinical management of rape

We provide care around the clinical management of rape, which includes the provision of post-exposure prophylaxis for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the management of injuries and sexually transmitted infections, immunization and wound care – in a safe, timely and confidential manner.

Helping to heal psychological wounds

We work to make mental health and psychosocial support available to victims/survivors of sexual violence to help ease their distress, which may also be compounded by distress from other sources.

Training care providers and education communities

We work to give the appropriate training to local health staff, volunteers and community members – for example, traditional birth attendants – to help them identify cases and needs, and to provide these services or make referrals. We organize community information sessions to raise awareness of available services and improve assistance-seeking behaviours among victims/survivors and their families.

Assisting survivors to access continuity of care

After providing services or referring victims/survivors to other organizations, we follow up with them to ensure they have been able to access the continuity of the care they need – for example, continued health care, legal assistance or economic support. This is always done with their informed consent.

Working towards prevention

We remind parties to armed conflict – whether state military and security forces or non-state armed groups – that sexual violence is prohibited under international humanitarian law. We urge them to fulfil their obligations to protect people from violence and to ensure victims/survivors’ unimpeded access to health care and other essential services. 

Documenting instances of violence

As part of our dialogue with all parties to a conflict, we strive to encourage discussion of specific instances of violence – shared through oral and written representations – as well as the patterns in which they take place and the serious consequences for victims/survivors, their families and communities, with the aim of reducing and ending these violations. We discuss with communities and the authorities the legal and other disciplinary measures that need to be taken to sanction perpetrators and prevent violations from occurring.

Frequently asked questions

  • The term "sexual violence" is used to describe acts of a sexual nature imposed by force, or coercion, such as those caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power directed against any victim. 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, forced nudity, forcing a person to watch or commit sexual violence, 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, as a way 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.

  • Above all, victims/survivors of sexual violence must be treated with humanity, fully respecting their privacy and maintaining the strictest confidentiality when responding to their needs. Ensuring their safety and preventing further attacks are also of the utmost importance. Fear of reprisals and attack may prevent victims/survivors from coming forward, or place those who do in precarious 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, including 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.

  • The survivor-centred approach is an evidence-based framework for considering the needs, wishes and well-being of each individual victim/survivor, and for providing a response that promotes their safety and recovery.

    It aims to create an environment in which every victim/survivor has access to the services they need and feels respected, safe, listened to and in control of their own choices. This approach is based on four principles: respect, safety, non-discrimination and confidentiality. These guide the establishment of coordinated service-delivery pathways and referrals and should guide every interaction with victims/survivors. These principles must be upheld at all times and at all levels – individual, family, community and institutional.

    Learn more.

  • The Statute of the International Criminal Court lists rape and some other forms of sexual violence as war crimes and as 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 intentionally carried out to prevent births within the group, through for instance sexual mutilation or sterilization. Rape can also be a measure that is intentionally carried out to change the ethnic composition of a group: in patriarchal societies, for example, a woman may be deliberately impregnated by a man of another ethnic group so that she will give birth to a child who will not belong to their mother's ethnic group. In some cases, this can constitute genocide. 

    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 law and of many bodies of national and religious or traditional law.