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Sexual Violence, Conflict, and COVID-19: An Invisible Pandemic

19 Jun 2021
By Vincent Ochilet
A sexual health nurse at the local Support Centre for women who have experienced any type of violence. 
The ICRC assists Support Centres throughout the highlands by providing emergency response trainings and providing sexual health pamphlets. Source: Caitlin Welch/ICRC. Photo used with permission.

Sexual violence is used during times of armed conflict as a tactical or strategic tool to intimidate, insult, incapacitate, and injure. It affects individuals, but also their families, communities, and the entire society.

The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, commemorated annually on June 19, is a day to reflect upon and highlight the ever-pressing issue of sexual violence and rape in many different contexts and regions. International tribunals have recognised the use of rape as forms of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Yet, sexual violence in conflict still occurs, with many perpetrators, on all sides of a conflict, committing multiple acts, and very few going to trial or being convicted.

In recent years, many organisations and institutions – including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – have committed to creating safer environments for victims/survivors of sexual violence by implementing a survivor-centred approach. This approach recognises the destructive and wide-ranging consequences that sexual and gender-based violence has on individuals, and therefore the need for a holistic response that encompasses comprehensive health, mental health, and psycho-social care, legal aid, and protection services to support those affected. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to centre on survivors has become even more vital.

From January to May 2020, ICRC data revealed a fourfold increase of survivors of sexual and other violence in conflict-affected areas, compared to the same period in 2019. This figure is taken from those coming forward to report.  As sexual violence is believed to be chronically underreported, it’s likely the increase was much higher. As the pandemic progressed, numbers continued to spike globally in relation to sexual and gender-based violence. From China to the United Kingdom, and in many countries in between, calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 60-700 percent. This speaks of the compounding impacts of the virus, as well as indirect effects.

When data is this difficult to come by, it highlights that spaces for survivors to seek care and disclose their experience are shrinking. The ability of humanitarian agencies, including the ICRC, to monitor and provide support can also decrease in these times. When key services for victims/survivors to disclose information may be harder to access, this affects the real data collected.

Within the Pacific region, specific challenges exist in every area – these hurdles often become invisible when placed in the broader global context. Difficulties arise when programs are created or implemented without taking factors such as culture, societal and gendered norms, the ability and capacity of health and support services, and religious beliefs into account. One Pacific country is not the same as any other, and it is important to remember this when creating and implementing programs designed to target sexual violence.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), tribal fighting exacerbates existing levels of sexual, and other forms, of violence. While there are no exact figures of sexual violence in PNG, it is estimated to be among the highest incidences in the world outside of a conflict zone. Particularly in the Highland areas, access to health care, safe houses, or police assistance is often a day’s walk or more away. Existing stigma around sexual violence also means some victims/survivors are unable, or unwilling, to come forward. Natural disasters, combined with COVID-19 and tribal conflict, means many women and children are left without homes, and are more vulnerable to violence and trafficking. The situation is particularly serious in the Enga, Hela, and Southern Highlands provinces, where violence causes injuries and death – women, children and the elderly are among the victims – and often leads to displacement and destruction of property.

In neighbouring countries, the situation also remains challenging. In the Philippines, access to services, including to health and mental health care, remain difficult, especially among internally displaced populations. COVID-19 has created additional challenges, limiting access to services due to movement restriction, but also the capacity of humanitarian and service providers to reach individuals in need. The ICRC has put a lot of effort into addressing these challenges, supporting local health and mental health care services, and working jointly with communities to better understand the challenges they are facing and address them.

In Bangladesh, like in many other countries, sexual violence remains a major issue. The number of victims cannot be accurately measured, as sexual violence is most often associated with feelings of shame by the individual and blame and rejection by families and communities. This discourages victims from reporting or disclosing what happened, as they are afraid of retaliation and stigmatisation. In Bangladesh, the ICRC works to promote access to health and mental health care, to further support the reintegration of victims/survivors into society.

It is also important to stress the high risk of sexual violence to which migrants can be exposed, as part of a regional Asia-Pacific concern. When migration is caused by, or related to, conflict and violence, sexual violence can be part of the causes of the journey and occur during transit and in destination countries. Migrants face specific additional challenges including lack of family or community support, financial and language barriers, and legal impediments in accessing services due to their status. All these elements prevent the disclosure and the access to adequate services.

As overlapping crises continue to overwhelm us, we must remember that sexual violence is not an inevitable aspect of conflict. The idea that sexual violence is unavoidable in armed conflict and other situations of violence comes from multiple factors, including, but not limited to, harmful gender binary norms, societal or traditional acceptance, and historical precedent. Once viewed as legitimate spoils of war, over the last 70 years, sexual violence in war has been increasingly recognised as a war crime. During World War II, though all sides of the conflict were accused of mass rapes, neither of the two tribunals set up to convict war crimes (Tokyo and Nuremberg) recognised the crime of sexual violence. This precedent sent a message, at the time, that sexual violence was an inevitable aspect of war.

When the Geneva Conventions were negotiated in 1949, rape was expressly prohibited in Geneva Convention IV (article 27), and later in Additional Protocol I (article 76(1)) and Additional Protocol II (article 4(2)(e)) in 1977. Other protections also exist throughout international humanitarian law. Another major step in recognising these protections were the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR) in the 1990s. Propelling the idea of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict as international crimes, these tribunals issued landmark convictions of sexual violence, specifically rape, as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court codifies rape and comparable forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and, in some cases, amounting to acts of genocide.

Since this time, protection against sexual violence during armed conflict and other situations of violence has progressed even further, focusing on the prevention of these violations, rather than support to victims/survivors after the fact. Strategies involved include operating on a reversed burden of proof when working with victims/survivors, working with weapons bearers to change behavioural patterns and thinking, engaging in dialogue and training to further awareness of and sensitisation to sexual violence, developing effective monitoring mechanisms, and ensuring effective legal frameworks and policies conducive to compliance.

Fighting to eliminate sexual violence and to fully reintegrate survivors in their community is the most solid base for achieving sustainable peace. We can all play a role in our professional and personal capacities: service providers, armed and security forces, humanitarians, national authorities, donors, and more. Above all, to do this, it is important to engage with victims/survivors and their communities, and all relevant actors to address sexual violence as a global concern. Breaking the stigma around sexual violence is also fundamental to creating meaningful support for victims/survivors, and for implementing preventive action. In accordance with its humanitarian mandate, the ICRC seeks to respond to the needs of victims/survivors of violence, including sexual violence.  We need to address this issue in a proactive and multidisciplinary way, putting the voices of victims/survivors at the centre of every measure.

Vincent Ochilet is the ICRC Head of Regional Delegation in the Pacific.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.