Wartime sexual violence is one of history’s greatest silences. It results in devastating situations for individuals, families and communities who must cope with unwanted pregnancies and children, stigmatization and rejection, diseases and reproductive health issues, psychological trauma, and disintegration of the social fabric. It can hold communities hostage by preventing women from gathering water and wood or from participating in public life. It keeps girls away from school, and reinforces gender discrimination. These are but a few of the consequences of sexual violence.
The issue of sexual violence in wartime has gained attention in recent years, due significantly to the impact of armed conflicts on civilian populations since the 1990s. During the Rwandan genocide, between 250,000 and 500,000 women are believed to have been raped. At least 50,000 Sierra Leonean women are thought to have been victims of sexual violence. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000, and a similar number of Kosovar Albanian women were raped at the height of the conflict with Serbia. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is believed that around 200,000 women and girls have been raped since 1998.
In these and many other conflicts, the UN Security Council now recognizes that armed actors have used sexual violence systematically as a tactic of warfare. These acts and threats are used to shame, terrorize and control communities and, in some conflicts, to forcibly impregnate women as a means of altering the ethnic make-up of populations. And contributing to the devastation are acts of widespread opportunistic sexual violence, perpetrated by ordinary civilians and armed actors who exploit the chaos of conflict to attack women.
High rates of sexual and gender-based violence can also continue into post-conflict settings, before judicial and law enforcement systems are rebuilt, potentially compromising the establishment of the rule of law.
In June 2008, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1820, recognizing for the first time that these acts and their consequences pose a threat to international peace and security and require a security response from a broad range of actors. Just over a year later, the Security Council adopted resolution 1888, which mandates the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to lead system-wide action.
Addressing these issues requires a robust and comprehensive set of actions, including an effective security and legal response, as well as strategies aimed at breaking the silence on sexual violence, ensuring proper health services and psychosocial support to victims, and including women at all levels of decision-making. It also requires a great deal of political will and resources to counter the cultures of impunity that give rise to such violence, and to pursue preventative strategies.
Strengthening Policy: UNIFEM (now UN Women) played a critical part in the development of UN Security Council resolution 1820 and in advancing understanding on the role of different stakeholders in addressing sexual violence. UNIFEM (now UN Women) has organized two international conferences on sexual violence in conflict, the first on the topic Women Targeted or Affected by Armed Actors: What Role for Military Peacekeepers? and the second looking at Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Peace Negotiations: Implementing Resolution 1820. These conferences brought together high-level representatives from Member States, the United Nations and military establishments, mediators, thematic experts and other relevant actors, to encourage dialogue on effective security responses to sexual violence and address the gaps in existing policy frameworks.
Strengthening Advocacy: UN Women is one of 12 partners on UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, a concerted effort by the United Nations system to improve coordination and accountability, amplify programming and advocacy, support national efforts to prevent sexual violence and respond effectively to the needs of survivors. UN Action has developed the website Stop Rape Now.
Strengthening Local Capacity: UN Women has developed a multi-country programme on Supporting Women's Engagement in Peacebuilding and Preventing Sexual Violence: Community-Led Approaches, aiming to create enabling environments for women’s effective participation in peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery by engaging community decision-makers, local police and informal institutions. It further seeks to strengthen knowledge on effective prevention strategies and support services for survivors of sexual violence. In its first phase, the programme supported women’s community-level efforts to build peace and prevent sexual violence in six conflict-affected countries: Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda, Timor-Leste and Uganda.