Sexual violence is pervasive in conflict and post-conflict settings, and affects men, women and children differently. Sexual violence is a highly effective weapon of war due its devastating and long-lasting collective impact on whole communities, creating concentric circles of harm. It forces displacement and destroys connections to homes, families and communities thereby inhibiting return. It is used to terrorise, attack and/or alter the identity of persecuted groups. As such, it is used as a tactic of war by parties to a conflict and by non-state actors groups, including terrorist organisations and network as a means to terrorise a population. Over the last ten years, the targeted use of sexual violence against women and girls by violent extremists, including sexual slavery, has contributed to the systematic disempowerment of women and girls in those societies. Moreover, it is increasingly accepted that the occurrence of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) against men and boys is vastly underreported, and many men and boys remain silent out of fear of being ostracised or accused of homosexuality, in particular where it is criminalised. In June 2008, the United Nations Security Council recognised CRSV as a threat to international peace and security.
It is critical to place survivors and their needs at the forefront of strategies to prevent and make accountable authors of CRSV. In addition to trauma suffered as a result of CRSV, survivors frequently face intense, and sometimes lethal, social or cultural stigma from family, wider communities and sometimes the State. It is therefore essential that legal and policy approaches are mutually reinforced by community-driven responses to sexual violence, including by transferring the stigma of sexual violence from the survivor to the perpetrator.
The challenges facing survivors in seeking justice and accountability for CRSV remain daunting. In many conflict and post-conflict affected contexts, criminal convictions are rare, as a result of a number of converging factors. These include:
- fear of reporting by survivors due to lack of effective witness protection mechanisms, stigma and re-traumatisation;
- an overall climate of impunity;
- the involvement of state actors and armed groups in the offences;
- the breakdown of national judicial processes; and
- inadequate national legislation and international jurisprudence to prosecute the crime.
Survivors of sexual violence should not have to face ordeals or re-traumatisation in the pursuit of the legal redress and justice they need. Perpetrators of CRSV, whether state or non-state actors, direct perpetrators or those ultimately responsible for mass sexual violence, should be brought to justice and held accountable.
LAW recognises that sexual violence is not a stand-alone problem which can be solved in isolation. A fully integrated approach is required which both addresses deeply rooted gender inequalities and works to empower women. Further, the prevalence of sexual violence against men and boys in conflict and detention settings must be both recognised and addressed. Survivors must be empowered to drive the justice process and be supported to formulate and deliver their own advocacy messaging on their justice priorities to decision-makers and power-holders.
LAW utilises a three-pronged strategy to transform behaviour towards sexual violence in conflict affected areas using innovative legal approaches as follows:
- Preventing and promoting the non-recurrence of CRSV;
- Legal Response to CRSV and Promoting Accountability;
- Creating, supporting and mentoring survivor advocates and agents of change.
This strategy will ensure: the acceptance of sexual violence as an egregious violation of national and international norms; holistic, coordinated, and trauma-informed support for survivors; and the effective and ethical collection of testimony and evidence. Ultimately, this approach is designed to overcome barriers to prosecuting those responsible, to end impunity and deliver survivor-led justice.
See our recent work on drafting the Sexual Offences Bill in Somalia and our scoping exercise on increasing accountability for gender-based violence in Lebanon.