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Sexual violence in armed conflict: can we prevent a COVID-19 backslide?

Analysis / COVID-19 and conflict / Gender / Gender and conflict / Health Care / Humanitarian Action / Law and Conflict / Sexual Violence 9 mins read

Sexual violence in armed conflict: can we prevent a COVID-19 backslide?
Three months into the pandemic, the ICRC’s Head of Addressing Sexual Violence published a call to humanitarian agencies to urgently address the risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) rising in the shadow of COVID-19. She called on ICRC and others to bolster efforts to ensure continued service delivery for survivors of sexual violence. It is now clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled two opposing trends: new sexual violence in places affected by conflict and violence, and fewer services available for victims and survivors. Marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, ICRC’s Addressing Sexual Violence Advisor, May Maloney, outlines the challenges and how international humanitarian law (IHL) can help address them.


None of it should come as a surprise; emergencies and crises have a well-documented history of deepening structural inequalities and exacerbating risks. Yet, eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves faced with a frightening dichotomy: an increase in sexual violence in places affected by conflict and violence, coupled with a reduction of services available for victims and survivors. We are witnessing a tragic backslide in the progress gained on preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian settings, and we can’t afford to let it happen.

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the start of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. It is a reminder of the strength and resilience of individuals and communities, but also of the magnitude of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), whose victims are diverse, including not only women and girls but also men, boys, and sexual and gender minorities. The global SGBV crisis requires a survivor-centred prevention and protection approach in all humanitarian activities, and international humanitarian law provides powerful protections to this end.

A shadow pandemic . . .

The spike in violence against women and their children since the outbreak of COVID-19 has been called a ‘shadow’ pandemic by Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Human rights experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, have labelled the situation a pandemic in a pandemic and have called for ‘peace at home’, imploring States to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV) through post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

Humanitarian agencies have estimated that in just the first six months of lock-down due to COVID-19, 31 million additional cases of GBV could have occurred. These acts include domestic violence – which is a crime in many places and can be a violation of human rights law – as well as acts of sexual violence within the scope of international humanitarian law, such as rape and gang rape by weapons bearers, enforced prostitution and sexual slavery.

While the ICRC, operationally, does not need to await such evidence to respond (as part of our reversed burden of proof position on sexual violence), we are tracking disturbing trends about violations of international humanitarian law, along with information which suggests new cases (incidents) contributing to a high and ongoing prevalence of SGBV in conflict-affected areas. Data from one of ICRC’s mental health and psychosocial support programmes revealed a fourfold increase of survivors of violence, including sexual violence, from January to May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In the same locations, we provided urgent primary health care within 72 hours of rape to 2,001 people from January to June 2020.

Growing needs are further compounded by risks of sexual exploitation and abuse by those in positions of power, plus the potential for a deeper proliferation of negative social and economic stress strategies, such as child marriage, sex for survival and other transactional sex.  As early as April, one country had court martialled a member of its armed forces accused of rape while he was disseminating and enforcing public health measures in marginalized communities.

. . . and a shrinking space to help

When we layer crisis atop crisis – such as an armed conflict with a public health emergency in the context of a global climate emergency – the risks of sexual and gender-based violence spiral, while the available support shrinks and becomes siloed or fragmented. Once strong referral networks – chains of support linking health centres to mental health and psychosocial support to available legal aid to relevant expert staff in the justice system – can cease to operate, fall apart, become ‘patchy’ or become overwhelmed.

Despite the rise in needs, service delivery – by the ICRC or other organizations – has been impacted by the pandemic, for a range of reasons: financial, human and technical resources directed to the COVID-19 response; increased movement restrictions, including confinement; people feeling uneasy about accessing clinics due to potential exposure to the virus. These new and evolving limitations – set against a backdrop in which SGBV is largely deemed a ‘secondary’ concern or sometimes even a ‘private matter’ – results in a reduced field presence and fewer services.

For the victims and survivors, this means disruptions to their existing care and support, lower chances of reaching healthcare facilities in the critical 72-hour post-rape window of time, and limited access to mental health and psychosocial services (or a remote or phone-based solution that could risk personal safety or financial stability).

We are seeking to address these gaps by updating referral pathways and sharing them with communities via radio broadcasts, through new partnerships with National Societies to address stigma, by continuing discussions with weapons bearers about sexual violence as a violation of IHL, and by ensuring that the primary health care services we support can continue to offer lifesaving care.

Without greater livelihood and economic support, including for cash- and voucher-based assistance, there is a heightened risk of negative coping strategies, including sex for survival. All actors on the ground must take seriously, and prioritize, community engagement, risk mitigation and resilience building. We have released individual cash and voucher assistance as part of adaption to this environment.

How can international law help?

International humanitarian law is unambiguous on the matter of sexual violence: it is prohibited in both international and non-international armed conflicts by a number of rules within the Geneva Conventions as well as their Additional Protocols, and its prohibition is a rule of customary international humanitarian law.

To be prohibited by IHL, an act must have a sufficient connection (often referred to as a ‘nexus’) with an armed conflict; certain acts of SGBV may occur during an armed conflict that do not have this nexus, thereby falling outside the scope of IHL. But the law on sexual violence that occurs during an armed conflict does not end with a reading of IHL; international human rights law sets out a complementary framework relevant to SGBV in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, types of gender-based violence beyond the scope of IHL, such as intimate-partner and domestic violence – which nevertheless continue to occur and indeed have been shown to worsen during armed conflicts and other crises such as pandemics – may fall under States’ positive obligations under human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Furthermore, in situations of armed conflict, IHL requires that the wounded and sick, including victims and survivors of sexual violence in need of medical care, must receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition. It further provides that no distinction may be made among the wounded and sick founded on any grounds other than medical ones. Non-discrimination within human rights frameworks mean that a victim or survivor of sexual violence has the right to access, without discrimination, timely and appropriate health care. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has underlined that the right to sexual and reproductive health is an integral part of the right to health and includes an obligation to guarantee physical and mental health care for survivors of sexual violence.

By laying out the facts, the picture becomes clear. SGBV is harmful, unlawful, and widespread. Much more should be done to prevent it and to address the needs of its survivors, including to safeguard the good work in this regard which is now under threat. We have powerful legal protections that protect against SGBV and guarantee health care access for survivors.

Let’s use them.

To prevent a COVID-19 backslide, it is now more urgent than ever to ensure legal protections are realized on the ground amid the combination of horrific new incidents of SGBV this year, combined with a reduction in access to services. For us, the 16 Days Campaign is about asking States to commit to international law, both on the prohibition of SGBV and on access to health care, without discrimination, and ensuring that national laws  are harmonized with it and effective. It is also about making sure that survivors of sexual violence have access to healthcare without discrimination, including by evaluating whether mandatory reporting is working in favour of their rights and the rights of healthcare workers.

Meanwhile, sexual and reproductive health care, mental health and psychosocial support, and protection services for survivors of sexual violence are and will remain an ICRC priority, and we will continue to engage in a dialogue on sexual violence in conflict as a war crime.

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