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Women As Weapons of War: The Role of International Mechanisms to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict

As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, warring parties must make it clear to all combatants that committing sexual violence is unacceptable and will result in serious consequences. 

In regions like Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine, sexual violence is wielded as a weapon of war, aiming to terrorize and destabilize regions and communities. 

Despite numerous international efforts, survivors continue to face significant challenges in seeking justice due to a breakdown in local implementation of international standards, barriers to accessing vulnerable communities, inadequate investigations, and lack of accountability mechanisms.

As international communities continue to explore possible legal avenues to support survivors and ensure accountability for perpetrators, both during and after times of war, Equality Now has interviewed several experts on sexual violence from regions with a history of armed conflict.

These countries and regions, each grappling with their own histories of conflict, provide unique perspectives on navigating complex legal landscapes in the pursuit of justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

We interviewed Jean-Paul Murunga, a Program Officer for the Ending Sexual Violence Campaign at Equality Now in Africa; he has over 16 years of experience in human rights, gender, and child protection advocacy and litigation on the African continent. 

Q: When it comes to sexual violence we have seen through Equality Now’s research that marginalized groups specifically, such as women and girls and ethnic minorities, are more gravely impacted. How would you say these groups are impacted in times of conflict? 

A: So for the countries we have reviewed, we have the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Ethiopia which have experienced conflict. In these areas we have noted that there is a breakdown in the rule of law, meaning that people can not easily access the courts due to the conflict and risk of being attacked. 

Although a lot of effort has been put into addressing the conflict itself, for women and girls specifically, who are living in these conflict areas, who are the most targeted, when they are violated they have no one to report to. 

In some cases, there are no institutions where they can report, but in cases where institutions do exist, they are far away, and access to these institutions is challenging. 

And because of the breakdown in the rule of law, despite the existence of national laws, there is no one there to report them to the governing authorities. 

It becomes increasingly difficult to gather these women together, get their testimony, get doctors to examine them, and use those findings as evidence in the process of accessing justice. 

Q: Are there any legal avenues that can be taken to either provide access to justice for survivors or establish institutions to support with reporting? 

At Equality Now, one of our key approaches is to take carefully selected cases and amplify them so that they get global attention so that global actors like the United Nations or the African Union and the regional economic blocs can see exactly what is happening so that they can intervene.

But unfortunately, even at those levels, we’re not seeing a lot being done.  

Q: In times of war and crisis are women expected to wait until the crisis has ended to seek justice? 

A: Personally, as a lawyer and a practitioner addressing sexual violence, I do think that there is the possibility of these mechanisms working even during conflict. 

We have existing international laws that govern both internal and external conflict. The Geneva Convention, for example, is a framework that guides what sort of conduct is off-limits during times of conflict. But what we’ve seen is that the enforcement of the convention is geared toward, and there are rules for, the protection of journalists and for protecting people who come to provide humanitarian support; but then the women and girls who suffer within that conflict, have not been actively treated or considered within that system and that sexual violence is not actively recognized in conflict as an off-limits offense. 

Women who don’t even participate in the conflict don’t understand why they are being raped in conflict.

Q: What is the role of the international community in addressing sexual violence in conflict on the African Continent? 

A: The international community needs to be intentional. In terms of the regional community, the African Union itself also needs to be intentional about the situation of any conflict of any country, in protecting women and girls, first and foremost. 

[Women] can not flee in most cases like men who have been taken into the militia. Most of them are left in the villages. Some of them are widows, some of them are left by their husbands who passed on during the conflict, some of them are pregnant… 

So there is a need for intentionality of the international community and also for them to create some sort of observatory where there is a team of experts, who can observe how the conflict is impacting women and girls because in most cases it is they who are most affected. Just as there are rules that they need to not destroy a religious site during conflict, or schools, or a hospital, there should be rules that are non-negotiable for rape: rape should not be a part of the conflict. 

Q: As a lawyer in Africa, what do you think are the next steps to end sexual violence in conflict? 

A: There is a need for the creation of committees at the regional level and national level to actively investigate cases of sexual violence because that is what will inform the need for interventions. 

A lot of times what will happen, because when we heard about the allegations in Ethiopia for example, of women being violated in Tigray, the statements were being issued from either Nairobi or New York, so there is no active engagement with the government to bring on board experts to go into those areas and assess the situation and collect information. 

There is much effort needed to ensure that even at the local level, committees are testing the abilities of whatever mechanisms are put in place so that local actors own a portion of the process. This includes supporting the development of local resources for survivors to actively report and providing communication pathways for this information to reach duty-bearers of those areas.

At Equality Now, although we don’t actively investigate sexual violence in conflict, these situations have caught our attention, due to our work on sexual violence. We hope that the international community has the same concerns that we have. 

While analyzing conflict areas around the world it is important to note that there are 56 active global conflicts. Globally, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been killed, violated, injured, and traumatized, in multi-country conflict. In such a dire situation, it is the rule of international law that represents our most powerful avenue for recourse – but, crucially, only if it is universally respected and enforced. 

We see a similar situation in Colombia, in a conflict that has since been deemed by national and international governments a nullified conflict since 2016. Though women and girls from rural areas, those who come from Indigenous communities and identify as persons with disabilities say otherwise.

We interviewed Equality Now expert Sandra Ramirez, Advocacy Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, an International Human Rights Lawyer who has extensive experience conducting research, providing legal advisory services, and designing and facilitating training programs focused on addressing sexual violence against girls, adolescents, and women, specifically in afro descendent women and those affected by conflict. 

Q: What is the situation of conflict in Colombia? Have you witnessed any specific impact on women and girls? 

A: The Colombian conflict, which has persisted for over five decades, is rooted in issues of land inequality, political exclusion, and social injustice, which has resulted in widespread violence and human rights abuses. In 2016, the Colombian government and (Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia) FARC-EP signed a peace accord, aiming to end the protracted conflict and address its underlying causes. However, despite this significant step towards peace, the legacy of violence, particularly gender-based violence, continues to impact many communities. It’s crucial to note that the signing of the Peace Accord has not stopped Sexual and Gender-based violence in Colombia.

Q: How have women and girls from marginalized groups been impacted by sexual violence due to the conflict?

A: The conflict has significantly intensified sexual violence against women and girls, particularly those from marginalized groups. 

The dynamics of the Colombian conflict have not only mirrored but also exacerbated the structural discriminations historically faced by women, girls, and individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. These pre-existing inequalities have been weaponized, making sexual violence a strategic tool of control and intimidation.

Marginalized groups have been disproportionately affected. Although 78 percent of the records lack specific ethnic data, significant violence has been committed against Black, Afro-descendant, Raizal or Palenquero, Indigenous, and Romani people. These communities face compounded vulnerabilities due to their intersecting identities.

The Recognition Chamber’s findings highlight distinct patterns of violence that warrant focused investigation. These patterns differ from those addressed in other macro-cases, emphasizing the unique nature of gender-based violence in the Colombian conflict, driven by the motives and logic of armed groups, often using such violence to exert power and control.

Q: Traditionally, when marginalized groups experience sexual violence, what state-level support services exist for them? How simply can one impacted by sexual violence effectively navigate the criminal justice system in Colombia as a person from a marginalized group or with a disability? How does this change when in a situation of conflict?

A: Traditionally, marginalized groups in Colombia, including women, adolescents, and girls, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals, encounter substantial obstacles in accessing state-level support services following experiences of sexual violence. 

This difficulty is further exacerbated in situations of armed conflict. 

In conflict settings, such as areas heavily affected by armed conflict like Cauca, the risk of sexual violence is heightened due to militaristic culture and patriarchal attitudes of armed actors. Indigenous women, for instance, face unique challenges stemming from the lack of state presence in rural areas, structural inequality, and militarization of territories. Despite international treaties binding the Colombian state to address these issues with due diligence, marginalized groups, particularly in conflict situations, continue to confront significant barriers to justice and adequate support services. 

Therefore, addressing these challenges necessitates a concerted effort to incorporate gender perspectives into justice systems and ensure comprehensive, culturally sensitive support for all victims and survivors.

Q: As a legal expert in the field of sexual violence, what possible legal avenues exist to mitigate the level of sexual violence in conflict? 

A: The Colombian State is mandated to uphold due diligence in preventing, investigating, punishing, and repairing human rights violations, including providing protection and necessary services for victims of sexual violence, as outlined by international standards such as the CEDAW and the Convention of Belém do Pará.

To mitigate sexual violence in conflict, it is crucial to integrate a gender perspective into transitional justice mechanisms. 

Traditional human rights frameworks have proven insufficient in addressing the unique vulnerabilities of women, girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals in armed conflicts. Therefore, it is necessary to adopt comprehensive measures that include the rigorous application of women’s human rights standards, the creation of specialized institutional structures, and the allocation of adequate resources. 

Additionally, developing gender-sensitive investigative methodologies, binding protocols, and specific procedural rules are essential in ensuring justice for survivors. Colombia’s current transitional justice model has incorporated some of these elements, but their effective implementation remains insufficient.

To truly deliver justice, it is imperative for justice operators to act decisively and ensure that the gender perspective is implemented in all relevant cases before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was designed as part of the peace agreement to deliver justice to victims of the conflict in Colombia, thereby fulfilling the regulatory framework’s promises of differential protection for these vulnerable groups.

Q: Who are the necessary actors who should be involved in implementing the legal avenues you previously mentioned? Is there a call for the international community?

To effectively implement the legal avenues for mitigating sexual violence in conflict and ensuring justice for survivors, it is essential to involve a diverse range of actors. 

National governments must take the lead in enacting and enforcing laws that incorporate a gender perspective in transitional justice, with the judiciary, law enforcement, and relevant ministries playing crucial roles. Transitional justice bodies, such as Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), need to be fully equipped to handle cases of sexual violence. 

Civil society organizations, including women’s rights groups and LGBTQ advocacy organizations, are vital for supporting survivors and advocating for their rights. Direct engagement with survivors and victims’ groups ensures that their needs and voices are central to justice efforts. Additionally, legal and medical professionals require specialized training to handle these cases with sensitivity and expertise.

Despite the great impunity that still reigns over gender abuses related to global conflicts, it is time for the world to listen to the voices of women who have been ignored for far too long, and acknowledge their experiences, be intentional, and integrate a gender perspective within the systems meant to protect them. 

On this International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we reaffirm our dedication to advocating for good sexual violence laws, good implementation of those laws, through an intersectional approach, while upholding the critical role of international legal instruments in providing justice for survivors and preventing future atrocities. We hope that the international community will stand with us.

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