Kateryna, 19, said Chechen fighters in Mariupol, Ukraine raped her. 42-year-old Vika and 44-year-old Natasha share the same story with a host of Ukrainian women and girls who have suffered sexual violence at the hands of Russian soldiers.

Half a million women were raped during the Rwandan genocide. As many as 64,000 women suffered sexual violence during Sierra Leone’s brutal blood diamond fueled civil war. And 40,000 women were raped in Bosnia.

In Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency is estimated to have led to the abduction of 6000 women and girls, claimed at least 20,000 lives and displaced more than 2.6 million people, the majority of whom are women, girls and children.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, it has been said that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier. 

Rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, and any other kind of sexual violence of equivalent intensity are the eight types of sexual violence that the United Nations recognises in times of conflict.

Sexual violence against women in conflict is a crime against humanity, a war crime and an unacceptable weapon of war. Unfortunately, it is also a very effective weapon of war. 

In addition to having horrific physical and psychological impacts on the victims individually, raping, sexually assaulting, and mutilating the wives, daughters, and mothers of the “enemy” can disrupt, if not destroy, entire populations.

The fact that the offenders are barely prosecuted is pathetic. The victims’ lives continue to be significantly adversely affected, while the perpetrators enjoy impunity for their crimes.

Drivers of sexual violence in conflict

War rape or other sexual violence committed by combatants against women and girls during armed conflict, war, or military occupation are often considered spoils of war. However, that is not the case.

Sexual violence is a war strategy to displace communities, expel so-called “undesirable” groups and seize contested land and other resources. For instance, in South Sudan, combatants raped women and girls as part of a campaign to drive opponents out of southern Unity State. 

Also, sexual violence is a means of radicalisation and violent extremism by terrorist groups to advance their ideology and destabilise social structures by terrorising women and girls. A good example where this is in play is Nigeria, where extremist groups target women and girls for abduction and sexual abuse as part of their political economy and self-perpetuation.

Sexual violence is also a recruitment strategy by terrorist groups, who may promise marriage and sexual slaves as forms of masculine domination and status to young men. 

Again, sexual violence is used by combatants to humiliate and punish perceived political opponents, as seen in Burundi, where combatants gang-raped and sexually humiliated detainees who are perceived as political opponents. 

However, the chief driver of sexual violence is the chauvinistic perception that women and girls are inferior to their male counterparts. Women who navigate through checkpoints and across borders during displacement during conflict without proper documentation, money or legal status are sexually exploited.

Women and girls are at risk in refugee camps or camps for internally displaced persons. There, they could be easily exploited, trafficked, raped, and forced into prostitution by armed groups, smugglers, traffickers, state authorities, and others who control resources and services in humanitarian contexts. 

In some cases, desperate parents force their young daughters into early marriage to reduce the risk of exploitation by strangers or to gain access to resources for the rest of the family. 

Ripple effects Sexual violence in conflict

In armed conflict, sexual violence infringes the rights of women and girls to sexual and reproductive health and their right to protection from sexually transmitted diseases like HIV. It threatens gender equality by endangering the lives of numerous girls and women. 

Lack of access to good health services in conflict zones complicates the impact of sexual violence on the victims, who often cannot access prompt medical aid and services such as post-exposure prophylaxis. Sexual violence in conflict endangers maternal and child health and increases mortality rates due to infectious diseases.

Sexual violence has serious negative effects on the victims’ physical and mental health, including unwanted pregnancies, traumatic genital injuries, sexual dysfunction, sexually transmitted infections, rape trauma syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, guilt, loss of dignity, and hopelessness and alienation.

Survivors and their children often face high levels of stigma, and the children can be at risk of abuse, abandonment and marginalisation. Children born of wartime rape are stigmatised at birth and may suffer a lifetime of detrimental consequences. They are often prime targets for recruitment by armed groups and terrorist organisations.

Where is the justice for victims of sexual violence in conflict?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) investigates and probes the gravest crimes of concern to the international community, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression.

Despite the increased attention of the international community to ending impunity for sexual violence crimes, sanctions remain elusive. 

Apart from the reluctance of most victims to report their experiences and actively seek justice because of stigmatisation, abandonment and rejection from their family and society, the major deterrent is the lack of confidence in the judicial system, fear of reprisal and the corrupt involvement of the powers that be.

The failure of state authorities and judiciary to bring perpetrators of sexual violence into conflict time and again leaves no hope of justice for the victims.

In Nigeria, the trials for prosecuting terrorists caught always take a long time. In some cases, before the trials are held, the suspects are rescued by their group or released after striking a deal with the government. Sometimes, these terrorists are given amnesty or integrated into the armed forces to continue their rampage. The worst is the involvement of the powers that be; these people can make victims disappear overnight.

What can be done to protect women and girls from sexual violence in conflict?

Due to individual and structural restrictions, there is usually insufficient data on sexual violence in conflict, and data collected are usually not commensurate with the true details of the cases. To resolve this, the international community should establish a system for detailed data collection and documentation of sexual violence cases for use in research, advocacy, policy discussion, and capacity building; this data can be utilised to liaise between the medical and legal sectors within the criminal justice system to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The United Nations Security Council should liaise with organisations and health professionals in conflict and safe regions to facilitate transnational justice processes.

To combat gender inequality and remove obstacles to women’s empowerment, state authorities must strictly comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Access to protection and support for victims before, during and after trial; putting in place measures to facilitate safety as they seek justice.

Victims should be evaluated for the psychological and psychosocial effects of sexual violence and go through therapy before reintegrating into society.

State authorities should provide professional training for health staff, especially female health personnel for data collection and documentation of incidents of sexual violence. They should allocate sufficient human and financial resources for advocacy, monitoring, and evaluation. 

State authorities should also promote women’s active and equal political, social and economic participation and end the stigmatisation of victims by promoting substantive equality and enacting laws and policies that prohibit discrimination against women. 

State authorities should adequately vet and train armed and security forces. A policy of zero tolerance of conflict-related sexual violence should be imposed to bring perpetrators to justice, irrespective of rank, and ensure that victims are protected and receive adequate reparations.

What we do at DO

#NeverAgain #NotoGBV project

In a global statistic by WHO, one in three women experiences either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence during their lifetime ranging from physical, sexual, emotional and other family violence to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, early childbearing, trafficking and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

#NotoGBV is a sensitisation project designed to increase the knowledge and understanding of gender, sexuality, GBV, rights, and laws.

Lend a helping hand to victims of conflict project

Lend a Helping Hand project is a community project aimed at helping people and communities who have survived conflicts to rebuild their lives through financial support, vocational training, access to health care, education and other services.

Here’s how you can TAKE ACTION

  • Organise an outreach to increase your community’s awareness about gender-based violence, and provide a helping hand to victims.
  • Speak up, lend your voice, advocate and raise awareness on this issue.
  • Lend your creativity to create relevant multimedia content, technology innovation or solutions that raise awareness or address this issue.