Rising rates of rape and sexual violence in conflict should be an alarm bell

Posted June 15, 2022
UNDP Iraq

Captain Ruaa Nasaif Jasem, a trainer at the UNDP-supported Police Female Training Center in Baghdad, says empowering women to speak out against violence is key to breaking down negative social norms.

UNDP Iraq

UNDP observes International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June.

For every woman who comes forward to report sexual violence in the midst of a conflict, it is estimated that a further 10 to 20 cases go undocumented and unaddressed. That means that, as a conservative estimate, for the 3,293 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence in 2021, an increase of 800 from the previous year, an additional 32,930 to 65,860 went unreported.

Reporting sexual violence is a significant challenge in conflict contexts, where rule of law is often weak, and perpetrators are emboldened by environments of impunity. The stigma that survivors often face is also a deterrent. These confronting numbers are a powerful reminder of the extreme discrimination and violence experienced by women and girls living through conflict, and an alarm bell that much more needs to be done to prevent such acts from occurring in the first place. At the same time, greater efforts must be made to empower survivors, address trauma, strengthen accountability and avenues for justice, and fight against impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence.

Recognizing this, UNDP works in conflict settings to reduce the risk of sexual violence, as well as supporting women who have been assaulted as they seek justice. Through its Rule of Law and Human Rights Global Programme and though country-led initiatives, this includes strengthening national systems to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence and empowering survivors to access justice; and opening up referral pathways to medical, psycho-social and livelihood services. UNDP also works within the wider UN system as part of the United Nations Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict.

In Sudan, UNDP is working to reduce the risk of sexual violence against women in communities where tensions that are already high due to the recent conflict and which has been compounded by drought, deforestation and other factors. Due to the risk of assault that women face in having to go and collect firewood alone in forests to fuel traditional stoves, UNDP supports women to build and use solar powered cookstoves. This removes a significant risk factor for sexual violence, while also creating economic opportunities and preventing deforestation.

In South Sudan, Mary (not her real name), a medical clinic employee in the Gumbo-Sherikat neighbourhood of Juba, provided psychosocial support and medical assistance to the community and supported a patient who had been gang raped by six men and consequently passed away. Shortly after seeing this patient, an armed man climbed through Mary’s thatched roof and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. Determined to show other survivors that justice was possible, Mary reported her case to the police.

“I had to do it. I had to stop this. If more women know that you can take this case to court and get a sentence, and other remedies such as compensation, maybe more will come forward,” she said.

Through the newly established Gender-Based Violence Court, the perpetrator was sentenced to prison for 14 years. The courts were established with the help of UNDP’s Access to Justice, Security, and Human Rights programme, which strengthens the criminal justice system’s capacity to provide inclusive, effective, and equitable services.

Since the start of Yemen’s war in 2015, violence against women and girls has increased by 63 percent. In 2021, supported by the Government of Japan, UNDP launched a mobile application that maps protection and aid services for gender-based violence survivors. The application can be refined by geographic area and divides services into several categories including livelihoods, education, psycho-social support, legal services, food, and healthcare. This programme provides survivors with essential services and encourages the advancement of gender equality.

In Iraq, conflict and instability are among the main drivers of gender-based violence, alongside deep-rooted harmful social norms and gender inequalities. A key barrier to women reporting sexual violence is stigma.

Captain Ruaa Nasaif Jasem, a trainer at the UNDP-supported Police Female Training Center in Baghdad, says empowering women to speak out against violence is key to breaking down these negative social norms.

“In many cases of gender-based violence, there is a fear of stigma when a woman comes forward to speak up or report. While sometimes, there is a lack of basic awareness about their rights and the laws that protect them from violence. As a trainer, I spend a lot of time building awareness around gender-based violence,” she says.

“It’s time to make rape history.”

In her address to the United Nations General Assembly last year, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten called on member states to “make rape history”.

“We have not yet broken the vicious cycle of violence, impunity and revenge that perpetuates these crimes. It is time to push back, and convert this into a virtuous cycle of recognition, reporting and redress, which must include accountability and reparations as a form of deterrence,” she urged.

The International Day of Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict serves as an important reminder that gender-based violence, especially in conflict, remains unacceptably prevalent.

UNDP remains committed, through its work on the ground in conflict-affected countries, to minimize the risk of sexual violence to women, and to provide appropriate channels of reparation and justice to survivors.