Sexual violence is used as a war tactic and a political tool to dehumanize, destabilize and forcibly displace populations across the globe, the UN’s expert on the issue told the Security Council on Friday, pressing countries to adopt a survivor-centred approach that ensures victims will not be forgotten.
“This is a crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare,” said Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Wartime sexual violence is a biological weapon, a psychological weapon, an expression of male dominance over women, she said, “a crime that sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace.”
Updating the Council on the Secretary-General’s report, she said it documents almost 3,000 UN-verified cases committed over the course of a single year, the vast majority of them (89 per cent) targeting women and girls.
Accordingly, it emphasizes the imperative of a survivor-centred approach, she said, as articulated by the Council in resolution 2467 (2019), which requires tailored solutions that build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all affected individuals.
‘Countless’ stories shrouded in silence
“War does not speak with just one voice”, she cautioned, pointing to “countless” stories that are shrouded in silence and left off the historical record. Diverse life experiences must inform policy, operational and funding decisions. “If these decisions are not gender-based in their design, they will be gender-biased and exclusionary in their effect,” she assured.
Ms. Patten also drew attention to the problem of underreporting, which is often linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals, lack of access to the justice system and harmful social norms around honour, shame and victim-blame.
She called for decisive action to empower survivors and those at risk, through enhanced resourcing and quality service-provision. Acting on reports and information received is also important for bringing parties into compliance with international norms. In addition, greater accountability would serve as a “critical pillar of prevention and deterrence”, ensuring that when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.
Prevention is the best response, she said. But the Council has struggled to measure – or even define – progress on the prevention pillar of this agenda. “We must keep these crimes and their perpetrators in the spotlight of international scrutiny,” she insisted.
Jolie spotlights child survivors
Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Sexual violence in conflict, broadly agreed. “Entrenched discrimination in society and the gendered impact of sexual violence demands that actions are taken for survivors.”
She acknowledged that resolution 2467 (2019) was the first to place survivors and their needs at the centre of all action. But words are promises.
“What counts, is if those promises are kept”, she said. Having met child survivors everywhere, she said there is no country, rich or poor, that should not take a hard look at its own laws, agencies, immediate reporting, treatment of survivors and social attitudes.
Services for Yazidis fall ‘far short’
She drew particular attention to the plight of Yazidi women and children in Iraq, who were abducted, enslaved and tortured by the thousands by ISIL terrorists in 2014. Many children were murdered. Nearly 2,000 returned and now suffer from post-traumatic stress. Many had witnessed the murder of their relatives and the rape of their mothers.
Yet, there are “very few” services available for Yazidi child survivors and children born of rape, she said. According to a new Amnesty International report, psychosocial services for Yazidi children fall “far short” of meeting their long-term specialist needs.
“I have heard this replicated in every conflict setting that I have visited for nearly 20 years with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)”, Ms. Jolie said, stressing that the lack of services flows from the international community’s failure to provide the funding or political will.
Sexual and gender-based violence is the most chronically under-funded sector of United Nations humanitarian appeals and receives less than 1 per cent of humanitarian assistance. “Think of how many lives could be saved if we simply doubled that percentage.”
She described today’s world as one where child survivors live with stigma, gaslighting and fear of retaliation at the hands of powerful perpetrators. More often than not, including in Syria and Myanmar, not a single perpetrator of alleged systematic conflict-related sexual violence has been held to account.
“These are all choices, choices of the Member States,” she said, pressing countries to “do the hard work” of supporting survivors, changing laws and attitudes, and bringing perpetrators to account.