Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual violence in conflict. This is a day set aside by the United Nations (UN) to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world. The day is also set aside to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of violence.
On 19 June 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 19 June of each year as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. This year the theme is: “Preventing Sexual Violence Crimes through Justice and Deterrence”.
“Conflict-related sexual violence” according to the UN refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked temporally, geographically or causally to a conflict.
It is important to note that while these atrocities are used as a weapon of war, they do not occur in a vacuum. States have failed to put mechanisms in place that ensure the safety of particularly young girls and women in conflict situations.
In 2016 alone, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented almost 600 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence in the country affecting mostly displaced women and girls. Survivors included 57 girls, several of whom were below 10 years of age. Most of the cases occurred at Sudan People’s Liberation Army checkpoints near designated protection sites and reports show that sexual violence is being used to punish communities for their ethnic background or perceived support for opposition groups.
A case in point is how about 15-20 South Sudanese soldiers were accused of raping at least five foreign aid workers and killing their local colleague last year. In the Congo, between January and September 2014, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recorded 11,769 cases of sexual and gender-based violence. 39 per cent of these cases were considered to be directly related to the dynamics of conflict, perpetrated by armed individuals.
A study by Ragnhild Nordås (2011) from a pilot study of conflict-related sexual violence in 20 African countries showed that in Africa, sexual violence is mostly indiscriminate and is committed by only some conflict actors. Some of the key findings showed that not all armed actors in African conflicts engage in sexual violence. Even in conflicts with high reported levels of sexual violence, some groups seem to refrain from such acts. It also showed that government forces, rebels and militias seemingly commit sexual violence without a clear purposeful selection of victims. The violence seems indiscriminate. Most armed actors also perpetrate sexual violence in periods when they are largely inactive on the regular battlefield.
The UN says a consistent concern is that fear and cultural stigma converge to prevent the vast majority of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from coming forward to report such violence. Practitioners in the field estimate that for each rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented.
In any situation such as this, a lot is often done to try and combat the crisis. In the Congo, an application developed by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), MediCapt allows clinicians to record medical examination results digitally and photograph victims’ injuries. The app aims to go beyond obtaining justice for rape victims and collect data that could help secure prosecutions for war crimes.
Social media has been a great tool for raising awareness of sexual violence in conflict zones. In the battle against sexual violence social media allows for a relatively level, non-political platform to engage in the conversation about the most serious of issues. More importantly, there is a need for states in collaboration with the International community to have explicit policies that will prevent sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. We can #EndRapeInWar.