Preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence

Portrait of Minara Begum, an outreach worker for the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre in Balukhali camp for Rohingya refugees Portrait of Minara Begum, an outreach worker for the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre in Balukhali camp for Rohingya refugees © UN Women/Allison Joyce

This article is a presentation of the Handbook for United Nations Field Missions on preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence

The United Nations (UN) has developed the very first Handbook for UN Field Missions on preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence. As a follow-up to the new UN Policy published in January 2020 on the role of UN peacekeeping operations and political missions within the broader peace and security framework, the Handbook aims to serve as guidance for military, civilians and police personnel deployed to UN Field Missions.

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) as defined by the United Nations refers to incidents or patterns of sexual violence such as rape, forced prostitution, enforced sterilisation or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity against women, men, girls or boys, that occur in conflict or post-conflict settings, or other situations of political strife generally associated with State collapse. Acts of CRSV are deliberately intended to humiliate and/or punish individuals and their communities. As such, a link between CRSV and the conflict itself can usually be determined through a series of factors such as the profile of the perpetrator, often affiliated with State or non-State entities, and the profile of the victims/survivors, frequently individuals belonging to a persecuted political, ethnic or religious minority, and often targeted based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Preventing and responding to CRSV requires ongoing commitment from multiple actors. To facilitate this culture of cooperation and joint-action, best practices to encourage coordination among civilian, military and police components of Field Missions are among the key points emphasised throughout the Handbook. 

The guiding principles of the UN’s work on CRSV are centred on the fundamental obligation to “do no harm” and led by a framework known as the “survivor-centred approach”. This approach requires a thorough assessment of the protection risks, dynamics and social attitudes to inform any decision related to intervention, in order to preserve the safety of the victim and cause no further harm to them. 

Sexual violence is among the most underreported crimes, even in peacetime. On top of the psychological trauma associated with CRSV, social taboos, lack of protection for the victims and the low chances of the perpetrator being prosecuted mean that most crimes of this type simply go unreported. This situation, combined with the sensitivity of social rules in some of the settings characterised by a high prevalence of sexual violence, make it crucially important to implement adequate procedures for reporting cases of CRSV, and collecting and sharing CRSV-related information. The Handbook provides practical guidance in this area for Field Missions personnel and highlights the importance of using gender-sensitive language when reporting cases of sexual violence to ensure respect and objectivity, and to avoid perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes.

A further area of work identified in the document is the implementation of processes to ensure that any responsive action to CRSV is appropriate and founded on accurate assessment. To this end, a series of early-warning indicators for CRSV have been developed to properly assess the environment. These are aimed to serve as signals of potential, impending or ongoing sexual violence, prompting an analysis and appropriate response, proportionate to the risk level identified.

The Handbook highlights the short- and long-term harmful consequences of impunity for victims and survivors of CRSV and their communities, as well as for the achievement of sustainable peace. Through a series of case studies, the Handbook provides practical guidance for Field Mission personnel for applying a survivor-centred approach in the investigation of CRSV, enabling them to better fulfil their obligation to support judicial processes, promote access to justice and remedies for victims and survivors, and strengthen national capacities to effectively end the culture of impunity that often prevails in these settings.

But even after the perpetrator has been punished, victims of sexual violence in conflict settings are often left to deal with social stigma, abandonment and isolation from their community: legal justice alone is not enough. Sensitisation and advocacy activities must be conducted, targeting State and non-State leadership, as well as religious, traditional or community leaders. The Handbook unequivocally places this responsibility with the UN Field Missions, who are required to train, raise awareness and encourage ongoing dialogue at the community level, ultimately ensuring that the victims’ right to justice is wholeheartedly recognised.


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Author: Giulia Ferrara

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