Conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence: an introductory overview to support prevention and response efforts

14 Feb 2014

With a focus on improving understanding, this paper is intended to support efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict zones.

Executive summary:

Sexual violence—often examined under the umbrella term ‘sexual and gender-based violence’—is widespread in conflict and post-conflict environments. It has been described as a ‘hallmark’ of recent and continuing intrastate conflicts. Reports from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Myanmar and Chad, among others, reflect this characterisation. The field of conflict-related sexual violence is active and constantly evolving and expanding. There has been much activity by civilian, military and police personnel, non-government organisations, UN humanitarian organisations, UN peacekeeping operations, regional organisations, policy makers, practitioners and scholars at many levels to prevent and respond to sexual violence. New tools, research and on-the-ground initiatives and approaches are being developed regularly, resolutions are being negotiated and adopted in the UN Security Council, and cases relating to sexual violence are being heard at the International Criminal Court and in the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals. Workshops, seminars, debates and conferences are being held, and new data and analyses are constantly emerging.

The complexity of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence is increasingly acknowledged through recent research. This trend reflects a shift away from simplified narratives in which sexual violence is portrayed as predominantly a tactic of war (the incidence of which is increasing) and in which the perpetrators are predominantly uniformed men and the survivors are disproportionately women. Although some of these assertions are correct, they do not tell the complete story. Instead, recent data, research and analysis demonstrate considerable variation in the perpetration of sexual violence between and within conflicts. They also point to the need for a more inclusive understanding of experiences and the perpetration of sexual violence in conflict-affected environments. For example, a more inclusive understanding acknowledges that men can be survivors and that women can be perpetrators. It recognises, too, that some armed groups explicitly prohibit sexual violence.

There is also a growing understanding of the variation in the causes of and motivations for sexual and gender-based violence. Although sexual violence has been and continues to be used as a ‘deliberate strategy’ and a tool ‘to serve specific purposes’, many other ‘less strategic’ and ‘more complex’ factors  can influence the perpetration of this form of violence. Among these factors are entrenched and widespread beliefs and norms about the subordinate status of women, a breakdown in law and order, poor relations between armed forces and the civilian population, and post-traumatic stress disorder and other conflict-related trauma.

The wealth of information, activity and debate and the complexity that characterises the field of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence can be daunting. This paper provides an introductory overview for those who are beginning their involvement with the subject as it applies to conflict and post-conflict environments—whether they are civilian, military or police. With its focus on improving understanding, the paper aims to support efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence. As part of this effort, it is also intended to support the mandate of the Australian Civil– 4 ACMC Conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence Military Centre, to ‘support the development of national civil–military capabilities to prevent, prepare for and respond more effectively to conflicts and disasters overseas’ and to support the centre’s contributions to the implementation of the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012–2018.

A number of dominant patterns of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict settings are explored:

  • Women and girls account for the majority of survivors of conflict-related sexual and gender-base violence.
  • Sexual violence against men and boys is ‘regular’ and ‘widespread’ in conflict-affected environments.
  • Girls and boys account for a large number of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.
  • Sexual violence has profound physical, psychological and social consequences.
  • Domestic violence is widespread in conflict and post-conflict environments.
  • Civilians continue to be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping and humanitarian personnel.

Despite the proliferation of activity at the local, national, regional and international levels to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict-affected environments, a number of major gaps and weaknesses remain. Some important progress has been made in recent years at the
international and national levels, but most conflict-affected countries continue to be characterised by widespread impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and limited access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. Although the UN has reported progress in efforts to support survivors, overall
the lack of support services remains a ‘serious weakness’, especially in rural and remote areas. Furthermore, where support services and structures do exist, survivors often face a variety of obstacles when seeking help. Additionally, despite the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, there is a serious dearth of data on the matter.

This paper provides an introduction to a complex and active field. As well, the report aims to encourage readers to stay well informed about the subject. After all, to contribute effectively to prevention and response efforts, it is first necessary to have a sound understanding of patterns of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence and factors that contribute to such violence as it occurs in conflict-affected environments.

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