Sexual violence, the weapon of war that has ceased to die

This week, we are seeing global leaders come together with the aim of ending one of the biggest atrocities against humanity, sexual violence in conflict.

Sexual violence is used in conflicts across the world to humiliate children and women, destroy communities and exacerbate the already devastating impact of war. It tears apart lives and futures of its individual victims. It engrains itself into society, so that when war is over it continues alone, deeming itself a part of daily life in some communities.

Rape and sexual abuse is currently being used as ammunition in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to name a few. But this weapon of war is not a new development, nor is it something that has ceased over time.

In the early 90s, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina; during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women survived rape; and in post-conflict Liberia, estimates suggest a staggering 87% of children have experienced some form of sexual violence, with 65% of rape survivors aged below 15 years.

Children in conflict-affected countries are the most vulnerable to sexual violence, and with more than 150 million young girls and 73 million boys experiencing these atrocities every year, we have to make a global stand to help end this brutal cycle.

In two of UNICEF’s major programmes designed to respond to sexual violence in conflict-affected contexts, DRC and Somalia, the percentage of child survivors is truly horrific. In DRC, where we work together with partners on the ground to reach between 12,000 and 20,000 survivors annually, between 30- 50% of these are children, primarily girls. In Somalia, 34% of all the rape cases in 2013 were children below 12 years of age.

A child who is surviving war is likely to have lost family members and friends; she is likely to be scared, lonely and removed from her daily routine; she is likely to be hungry; most of all, she is at risk of rape and sexual abuse. When a child has experienced sexual violence, their primary need is for care and support services that, firstly, make and keep her safe and, secondly, help to repair both her body and mind. We have to turn political commitments to these services into concrete action to restore the lives of children in conflict.

Services must be age-appropriate, gender sensitive, and conscious of the particular needs of children with different ethnic identities, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities. All of these factors influence a child’s risk and needs, and service providers must be trained to respond accordingly, rather than treating children as one broad category. When we focus on strengthening and integrating these systems, we lay the foundation for justice systems to address impunity post-conflict.

As well as response, prevention is essential.

A critical component in addressing sexual violence is to build a protective environment to prevent children and women for being exposed to violence. In the midst of crises, even the most basic risk-mitigation efforts that can be life-saving are often deemed non-essential and overlooked. Locks on latrines, targeted food distributions, or strategies for monitoring and preventing sexual violence all have the capacity to be life-saving during times of conflict. Even before a conflict has erupted, preventing sexual violence has to be part of the immediate emergency response package. We need to end violence against children in all contexts.

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has the opportunity to focus on prevention, push for care and support for survivors, and to help end the culture of impunity surrounding such crimes by galvanising international action. We have to see global commitment to turning the headline of this summit into reality for the millions of children and women at risk of rape and sexual abuse.


Susan Bissell is Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF NYHQ and Anita Tiessen is UNICEF UK Deputy Executive Director.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post UK.

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