The UN Secretary-General’s 2018 Report on Sexual Violence in Conflict tracks developments relevant to the implementation of Resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) and 1960 (2010) in 19 conflict-affected and post-conflict states, for the reporting period of January to December 2017. Information provided in the report has been verified by the United Nations, with relevant monitoring and reporting assistance from women’s protection advisers and peacekeeping missions.
The UN Secretary-General outlines complex and differential impacts of conflict-related sexual violence, as it remains a tactical tool in the operations and ideology of a range of state actors and non-state armed groups. The report also highlights that a lack of access to economic, social and other resources often puts marginalised communities and groups at greater risk of this violence. As an integral part of the struggle for land and resource-control in conflict-affected countries, sexual violence has devastated the physical and economic security of countless displaced, minority and rural women. In this regard, the report specifically underscores the importance of socio-economic reintegration support aimed at restoring community cohesion in the wake of war. Recent efforts have been made by national authorities, civil societies and the United Nations in preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence through legal reforms , legal assistance programmes, community security programmes, specialised services for victims and witnesses, awareness-raising campaigns and rehabilitation programmes . This demonstrates increased political will and dedicated assistance for victims and survivors of sexual violence. However, the rise and resurgence of conflict and violent extremism, typically accompanied by a mass proliferation of arms, mass displacement, harmful gender norms and collapsed rule of law, continue to trigger patterns of sexual violence.
Notable themes in the report include:
The UN Secretary-General pointed out that the international community continues to spend more time on conflict response than conflict prevention. He claimed that many atrocities in the report could have been prevented if more had been done, early and collectively. In South Sudan, for example, the UN Secretary-General suggested that removing suspected perpetrators from armed and security forces would ensure the prevention of sexual violence. To ensure peace agreements are more durable, societies more resilient and economies more dynamic, he called for a re-balancing of the international community’s approach to upholding human rights, ensuring sustainable development, and harnessing the power of women’s participation. The UN Secretary-General noted that transitional justice must address the root causes, and not merely the outcomes, of conflict and crises. He also called for the UN to work with religious and community leaders in challenging entrenched and harmful gender norms that enable sexual violence, perpetuate underreporting and allow for impunity for perpetrators.
Political Economies of Peace
According to the report, self-reliance, economic empowerment and political voice are the most effective forms of protection from, and prevention of, sexual violence, particularly for women from marginalised communities. The political economy of war and terrorism sees combatants continue to profit from sexual violence as a weapon of war. The threat and use of sexual violence remain integral to this shadow economy, often forcing populations to flee contested territory and allowing aggressors to seize control of assets left behind. As the report describes, the phenomenon is two-fold: while combatants raid, pillage, abduct, extort, ransom, trade and traffic to supplement their personal “micro-economies”, women suffer structural discrimination at the macro-economic level which greatly reduces their resilience to financial and security shocks. Further, the concentration of female-headed households in the wake of war in Yemen and Sri Lanka has left people with less access to protection and quality services. To address this, the UN Secretary-General called for the improvement of services, including socio-economic reintegration support for displaced and returnee women and adequate reparations for survivors of sexual violence.
The UN Secretary-General suggested that the chronic underrepresentation of women in the justice and security sector impedes reporting and response. In some cases, suspects have been released from custody with the connivance of local officials who share their political or ethnic affiliation, and victims have been re-traumatised. The proliferation of arms in conflict settings has also effectively shrunk civil society spaces particularly for women rights defenders by either preventing or discouraging participation. The UN Secretary-General has thus called for the inclusion of women and women’s civil society groups in all ceasefire agreement, peace talks, political negotiations and accountability initiatives, and humanitarian assistance including the provision of shelters. Lastly, he stressed the importance of women’s participation in disarmament and peace processes, including ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations.
Justice, Rule of Law and Security Sector Reform
The UN Secretary-General stressed the importance of accountability and justice mechanisms in combating sexual violence. For example, to date, not a single member of ISIL or Boko Haram has been prosecuted for sexual violence offences. The report thus called for the inclusion of transitional justice mechanisms in peacebuilding and peace processes in conflict areas afflicted with sexual violence. In calling for governments to combat cultures of impunity in their countries, the UN Secretary-General commended efforts by CAR, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Guinea, Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan to implement joint communiqués and action plans to curb conflict-related SVC. For example, the report lauded efforts by the DRC Government in prosecuting high-ranking officials responsible for the rapes of women and girls in North and South Kivu. However, although transitional justice presents a window of opportunity for tackling systemic discrimination, structurally transformative reparations continue to elude sexual violence survivors. The report highlighted the three-pillar priority vision articulated by new Special Representative, Ms. Pramila Patten, in combating sexual violence in conflict, namely: converting cultures of impunity into cultures of deterrence; addressing structural gender-based inequality as the root cause and invisible driver of sexual violence in times of war and peace; and fostering national ownership and leadership for a sustainable, survivor-centred response that empowers civil society and women’s rights defenders. The UN Secretary-General further urged the international community to channel investment and funding into this agenda so as to realise it.
The report emphasised the UN system’s responsibility to protect women and girls from conflict-related sexual violence, including increased engagement with women protection advisers in peace operations and monitoring arrangements and early warning mechanisms in mission mandates. In 2017, United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict Network (UN Action) funded the senior women’s protection advisor in Iraq and successfully advocated for the inclusion of this post in the regular mission budget. Similar developments are have reportedly been carried out in Mali and Lebanon. To date, 21 women’s protection advisers have been deployed in 7 mission settings. The report noted that the presence of women’s protection advisers, who are responsible for convening the monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on conflict-related sexual violence in the field, has improved the availability and quality of information. Lastly, the text highlighted the Secretary-General’s new protection framework within the UN system (Special Measures for Protection Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, A New Approach), which is to include: the appointment of a Victims’ Rights Advocate, improved transparency and information sharing, and a signed commitment and compact by 89 Member States to make zero tolerance of sexual violence a reality.
1. Sexual Violence as a Tactic of War and Terrorism: Overview of the Current Trends and Emerging Concerns
The UN Secretary-General expressed concern regarding the continued use of sexual violence as a tactic of war. The report noted that strategic mass rape had been conducted in numerous conflict situations over the reporting period for ownership of land and other resources. Through this, members of ethnic, religious and political minorities, who typically have less access to resources, are more likely to become a target. The report affords particular attention to the use of sexual violence by extremist organisations, for which it is not merely an objective, but a tool to incentivise recruitment, displace communities and expand territorial and ideological control.
Ideological control is often accompanied by harmful gender norms that further lay a ground for and exacerbate sexual violence in conflict settings, including communal stigma, family honour and victim-blaming. To date, efforts made by Governments and community leaders in countries like Bosnia and Iraq  have helped alleviate stigma associated with sexual violence. However, entrenched gendered norms persist and greatly impacts the quality of monitoring and reporting of relevant cases.
The report also highlighted the shrinking space for civil society as a threat to effective sexual violence prevention and response mechanism. The UN Secretary-General noted that women’s civil society groups have established meaningful initiatives like women’s shelters in Iraq, and continue to work with the UN and its Special Envoy in preventing and addressing sexual violence in conflict. Shrinking civil society spaces has meant that the work of defending human rights become ever more dangerous, with activists being raped for denouncing sexual violence, witnesses intimidated for testifying at war crimes trials, and prominent women silenced by the threat of rape.
The rise and resurgence of conflict and violent extremism, accompanied by a mass proliferation of arms, continue to increase levels of sexual violence. As evidenced in Colombia, arms in the hands of changing armed groups continue to exacerbate sexual violence within communities. This undermines the effectiveness of any gender-responsive policy on disarmament and reintegration of former combatants. It also effectively shrinks civil society spaces, particularly for women rights defenders. The report noted that mass proliferation of arms also impacts women’s livelihoods, economic empowerment and extractive industries in conflict-affected regions.
The report highlighted the threat and use of sexual violence is integral to the shadow economy of conflict and terrorism, often forcing populations to flee contested territory and allowing aggressors to seize control of assets left behind. This impacts the physical and economic security of rural women, and indeed the percentage of women who hold legal title to land is halved in the aftermath of war. This problem is intensified when war-torn regions are left with mostly female-headed households. These poverty-stricken women are in turn left more vulnerable and lack access to justice and protection services.
Finally, the UN Secretary-General warns that impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence in times of conflict legitimises rape as a military strategy or inevitable result of war, and furthermore creates a culture of abuse likely to extend into post-conflict settings. In commending efforts by the DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan to combat impunity cultures, he noted that more can be done in addressing the underlying causes of conflict and crises, including harmful gender norms and other persistent barriers to reporting, in the form of policy coherence, transitional justice and women’s participation.
2. Sexual Violence in Conflict-Affected & Post-Conflict Settings
The Secretary-General’s Report on Sexual Violence in Conflict primarily focuses on
19 country-specific situations, including 13 in-conflict states, 4 post-conflict states and 2 other situations of concern. For the purposes of these highlights, the following extracts pertain to WILPF’s focus countries.
Despite positive steps to consolidate peace in Colombia, sporadic violence continued to displace thousands of civilians in 2017. Sexual violence continued to be a driver of forced displacement. The report notes that 70% of women and children remain affected. Additionally, 73% of Afro-Colombians remain disproportionately affected. Despite of gender-sensitive provision of the peace agreement, the continuing proliferation of arms in the hands of groups other than FARC continue to exacerbate sexual violence and impact women. This proliferation of arms undermines the effectiveness of gender-responsive policies on disarmament and reintegration. Women’s rights defenders and women community leaders also continue to face threats, attacks and sexual assaults by members of armed groups. Although some progress has been made in the form of the gender-sensitive peace accord between the Colombian Government and FARC-EP, there remains a lack of implementation particularly for rural women. The report called for a further need to comprehensively integrate gender provisions in operations outlined by the peace agreement, including on disarmament. The UN Secretary-General also urged the Government to ensure services, justice and reparations for survivors of sexual violence, particularly Afro-Colombians, indigenous communities, LGBTI individuals, and female-headed households.
b. The Democratic Republic of the Congo
The UN Secretary-General recognised steps taken by the DRC government in prosecuting high-ranking officials for SVC crimes in North and South Kivu. He also highlighted progress in its advocacy, outreach, and awareness campaigns on sexual violence through radio, television and a nationwide helpline for victims. Nonetheless, the report called for greater justice and reparations to be made available to victims of sexual violence. I also noted that progress achieved in the DRC to address decades of widespread sexual violence used as a tactic of war, has been jeopardised in recent months by an unstable political environment. To address these challenges, the UN Secretary-General denounced repressions of civil society voices and lauded efforts to increase women’s participation in peace, security and development processes. Lastly, he requested the Government to scale-up services, including socioeconomic reintegration support, for displaced and returnee women.
Following the appointment of a senior women’s protection adviser in February 2017, monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on conflict-related sexual violence have been established to deepen the evidence-base for joint communique action in Iraq. Although, the government is working to ensure that a gender perspective informs its national counterterrorism strategy, challenges remain. Currently, trials are being conducted under anti-terrorism legislation, which does not explicitly include sexual violence as a crime, because international crimes and sexual violence are not recognised by Iraqi domestic law. Additionally, harmful gender norms prevent victims from reporting due to fear of retaliation and desecrating their “family honour”. To address these, the UN Secretary-General called for the recognition of sexual violence as a self-standing crime in Iraqi domestic law. He also stressed collaboration with women’s civil society groups in the provision of services and shelters. Lastly, he expressed hope that the Investigative Team, to be established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2379 (2017), would play an important role in supporting domestic efforts to hold ISIL accountable.
Internal sources of instability in Libya continue to be driven by arms proliferation, political fragmentation, and the global migration crisis. As a result, sexual violence remains rampant especially in detainment facilities against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. These documented patterns of sexual violence have been perpetrated not only by smugglers, traffickers, and criminal networks, but also in some cases by police and guards associated with the Ministry of Interior. Women’s rights defenders and women active in public life also continue to be targeted by non-State armed groups and subjected to sexual and other abuse, including by the Libyan National Army (LNA). The UN Secretary-General commended UNSMIL’s support for a women’s forum in 2017 on constitutional and legislative reform, which produced a draft law criminalising all forms of violence against women. Nonetheless, he further called for staffing women’s facilities and detention centres with female guards and allowing humanitarian access.He also called on Libyan authorities to cooperate with the ICC in sexual violence investigations, prosecute perpetrators and deliver reparations to victims.
e. The Syrian Arab Republic
As the conflict in Syria enters its seventh year, sexual violence continues to be used as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism. Continuing hostilities and access restrictions pose significant challenges for monitoring. The trauma and stigma associated with sexual violence, especially for minorities and detained individuals, further deter survivors from reporting cases and receiving justice. Owing to social norms and honor codes, while men tend to be celebrated by their communities after their release, women face shame, stigma and rejection by family members who assume they were raped while in custody. The UN Secretary-General lauded the addition of sexual violence expertise in the international, impartial and independent mechanism to support prosecution for the most serious crimes committed in Syria (A/71/248). He also highlighted cooperation between his Special Envoy and the Syrian women’s advisory board to establish a civil society support room as part of the Syrian-led peace process. This initiative involved more than 500 civil society organizations and 40% women’s participation. However, in spite of this progress, not a single perpetrator has faced prosecution either in Syria or abroad. The UN Secretary-General thus called for crimes of sexual violence to be greater addressed in women-inclusive ceasefire agreements, political negotiations, peace talks, and accountability initiatives.
Conflict, militarisation and the ensuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen have had a devastating impact on the physical and financial security of women and girls. However, cases are chronically underreported due to stigma, fear of retaliation, inadequate justice mechanisms as well as a lack of quality services. The report noted the UN’s provision of multisectoral assistance to 10,700 SVC survivors, establishment of rehabilitated women’s safe houses, support for legal representation for survivors and training for health providers on the clinical management of rape. UN agencies have also worked with religious and tribal leaders to challenge harmful gender norms like victim-blaming and the social acceptance of violence. To further enhance the work, the UN Secretary-General urged Yemeni authorities to address sexual violence by providing services and material assistance to displaced households headed by women or girls. He also encouraged enhanced monitoring and reporting and requested donors to prioritise funding for the response.
g. Bosnia and Herzegovina
The passage of time since the end of the Bosnian conflict has compounded challenges and stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence. To date, the report noted that there is still no comprehensive compensation scheme, and survivors are only eligible for welfare disability pensions instead of actual reparations. New economic and social programmes have also confined women to the private domain in society, thus reinforcing harmful social norms. Since the implementation of the “Seeking Care, Support and Justice for Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence” joint programme between the UN and Bosnian Government, 116 cases of conflict-related sexual violence were adjudicated, 58 cases opened, and 128 investigated. Additionally, 21 additional survivors of conflict-related sexual violence were granted official status as “civilian victims of war”. In June 2017, religious leaders also came forth to issue an interfaith declaration denouncing the stigmatisation of sexual violence survivors and calling for enhanced efforts to elevate their social status. However, cases against men and boys continue to be treated as “inhumane treatment” rather than sexual violence, and in October 2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina became the first country to adopt a national stigma-alleviation plan. Following this, the UN Secretary-General invited Bosnian authorities to uphold the rights of survivors to reparations, including services, housing and education, and to strengthen safeguards for victims and witnesses participating in war crimes trials.
As Nigeria entered its 9th year in conflict, rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage by Boko Haram insurgents remained prevalent and worsened by steadfast stigma and a lack of justice mechanisms. The UN Secretary-General highlighted a 55% increase in reported sexual violence cases in Northeast Nigeria from 2016 to 2017. Ongoing dialogue between the UN and the Nigerian Government has also shed light on counter-terrorism measures that have infringed on women’s rights and freedoms, including practice of detaining girls released from Boko Haram captivity which leads to re-victimisation. Women and girls who remain in Boko Haram captivity have also been increasingly used as suicide bombers, and in the prevailing climate of economic desperation, many women and girls have been forced to exchange sex for food or freedom of movement in IDP camps. In 2017, the Special Representative participated in a high-level visit focusing on the empowerment and protection of women, accountability, oversight and training of the security forces; support for all survivors of abduction and abuse; early-warning mechanisms for child marriage and displacement-related sexual exploitation; and women’s political participation. To address challenges that remain, the report called for Nigerian authorities to ensure accountability for sexual violence crimes, improve service delivery, and enhance protection and preventive measures both in conflict-affected communities and displacement camps including socio-economic reintegration support.
Among other recommendations, the UN Secretary-General urged the UN Security Council to:
To employ all means at its disposal to influence State and non-State parties to conflict to comply with international law, including by referring to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court situations in which one or more crimes under the Rome Statute appear to have been committed. Referrals should apply to individuals who commit, command or condone (by failing to prevent or punish) sexual violence;
To give due consideration to the early-warning signs of sexual violence in its monitoring of conflict situations, especially in relation to periods of rising violent extremism, political instability, elections, and mass population movements, and to take appropriate action, including condemning any incitement to sexual violence;
To use its periodic field visits to focus attention on sexual violence concerns, soliciting the views of affected communities and survivors’ associations, and consider visiting proposed sites of IDP/refugee return to assess the safety conditions and availability of services;
To support the accelerated deployment of women’s protection advisers in order to facilitate implementation of resolutions on sexual violence in conflict, and to support the inclusion of these posts in regular budgets.
The UN Secretary-General further recommended that UN Member States:
To ensure that victims of sexual violence committed by armed and/or terrorist groups are recognised as legitimate victims of conflict and/or terrorism, in order to benefit from reparations and redress, including through the revision of national legal and policy frameworks, whenever necessary;
To put in place constitutional, legislative and institutional arrangements to comprehensively address conflict-related sexual violence and prevent its recurrence, paying particular attention to ethnic and religious minorities, women in rural or remote areas, displaced populations, those living with disabilities, male survivors, women and children associated with armed groups, women and children released from situations of abduction, forced marriage, sexual slavery and trafficking by armed groups, and LGBTI persons;
To support community mobilisation campaigns to help shift the stigma of sexual violence from the victims to the perpetrators, including by engaging with religious and traditional leaders, as well as local journalists and human rights defenders;
To address funding shortfalls for sexual and gender-based violence programming and sexual and reproductive healthcare in conflict-affected settings, and to draw upon the expertise of the United Nations on justice and rule of law, psychosocial and health services, and coordination, including by supporting UN Action and the Team of Experts and ensuring sustainable and regular funding for their work.
 In Guinea, the the United Nations Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict (Team of Experts) has supported improvements in victim and witness protection, as well as the design of a reparations strategy, sensitisation, outreach, and resource mobilisation.
 The United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict network (UN Action) and Multi-Partner Trust Fund supports the Gender-Based Violence Information Management System (GBVIMS) which enables humanitarian actors to safely collect, store, analyse and share data. The network has also funded the posts of senior women’s protection advisors in Iraq, and held joint technical support missions to Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, CAR, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to help improve the response to conflict-related sexual violence.
 In Bosnia, religious leaders participated in the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Bosnian Interreligious Council, issuing an interfaith declaration denouncing the stigmatisation of sexual violence survivors and calling for enhanced efforts to elevate their social status. Similarly in Iraq, religious leaders have made declarations to encourage solidarity with survivors of rape, and children born as a result, helping to oster family reunifications.