Expert’s take: A decade of efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict—Where are we now?

Date: Friday, June 30, 2017

About the author

Pablo Castillo Díaz. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Pablo Castillo Díaz is a Policy Specialist at UN Women, focusing on efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, post-conflict, and emergency settings. He also works on mainstreaming gender equality in peacekeeping operations and engaging with the UN Security Council on women, peace and security issues. Before joining the United Nations in 2009, he taught international politics at several universities in the United States of America, including Rutgers, Fordham, Queens and Lehman.

After 52 years of conflict, a peace accord was signed in Colombia last year. This milestone owes much to women like journalist Jineth Bedoya, who in 2009 broke her silence and shared her story of sexual assault to start a courageous campaign on behalf of the thousands of women and girls who were raped by all sides in the country’s civil war. Her act of bravery added impetus to a global movement that was starting to speak louder.

Ten years ago, the United Nations launched its first-ever global campaign against sexual violence in conflict. In the decade since, addressing sexual violence in conflict became the focus of a string of UN Security Council resolutions, calls to action, national commitments, and the mandates of peacekeeping missions. Funding for research, advocacy and programmes has increased significantly, and new programmes are reaching hundreds of thousands of survivors every year. Today, an emerging cadre of specialized lawyers and investigators are pursuing these cases. Journalists are covering these atrocities with unprecedented regularity.

In recent years, we have seen many historic firsts in the international jurisprudence on sexual violence in conflict and unprecedented advances in awarding reparations for sexual violence survivors. In 2009, the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued the first-ever conviction in an international tribunal for crimes against humanity of sexual slavery and forced marriage. In the Sepur Zarco case last year, Guatemala became the first country where a national court issued a conviction for sexual slavery during armed conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first conviction for sexual and gender-based crimes in 2016 against Jean Pierre Bemba for atrocities committed in the Central African Republic. Only a few months ago this year, in a separate case against a Congolese warlord, the ICC ruled that international humanitarian law prohibits rape and sexual slavery committed against own soldiers, and not just civilians or enemy soldiers.

In my work, I have also seen countless debates over the years about whether Security Council resolutions are the right tools or celebrities the right advocates; whether focusing on sexual violence in conflict brings skewed light to women and girls as victims, rather than to their transformative potential as agents; and whether an emphasis on conflict-related sexual violence comes at the expense of neglecting other forms of violence against women and girls that are more prevalent. Some worry that too many resources are spent on advocacy and coordination at the global level, rather than on actual services for people on the ground. Some academics discourage students from joining the rapidly growing number of researchers on this topic, concerned about saturation, or the wrong motivation or approach. I have been part of discussions about whether our response has too much or too little attention to data, too much or too little focus on perpetrators or on survivors, and too much or too little focus on engaging men as security actors, political or religious leaders, or as victims themselves.

These are all important debates, but they should all share the same starting point: that conflict-related sexual violence continues to be pervasive, and the response from governments and the international community ranges from insufficient and inadequate at times, to scandalously negligent and complicit at others.

In 2009, at least 109 women and girls were raped or sexually assaulted by security actors in the crackdown of a pro-democracy protest in Conakry. In only three days in 2010, rebels raped close to 400 civilians in Walikale, in North Kivu, eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. No one has been brought to a domestic or international court to date for this atrocity. The nearly 300 girls from Chibok that were kidnapped in 2014 were just the best known among thousands of Nigerian women and girls who suffered a similar fate. The thousands of Yazidis enslaved by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are also only a fraction of the many women and girls that have been trafficked, sold, or raped as a core component of that armed group’s ideology and economic strategy in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this year, the UN reported that sexual violence had reached “epic proportions” in South Sudan’s civil war.

The UN Secretary-General has included information on conflict-related sexual violence in 27 different countries in his annual reports to the Security Council since 2009. Impunity is still rampant, services are still too scarce, and our peace and security responses are still dominated by men.

When peace negotiations are conducted mainly among men, it is less likely that justice, care and reparations for survivors will be included in the peace accords. When 97 per cent of our blue helmets are men, it is less likely that peacekeepers can offer adequate protection to women and girls. When 80 per cent of elected officeholders are men, it is less likely that our governments will invest substantively in the health, psychosocial, livelihood and justice needs of survivors. Women’s organizations, often the first or only frontline responders, have access to a pitiful amount of funds from the international community.

Much has happened in the last decade—and not just on paper—but we have an enormous task ahead. Now that sexual violence in conflict is no longer silenced and hidden, we must never get used to hearing these gut-wrenching stories or accept them as normal or inevitable, and hold everyone accountable—including ourselves—for matching our words and outrage with action.