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UN, ICRC Address Sexual, Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Situations

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech before the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Feb. 25, 2019, in Geneva.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech before the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Feb. 25, 2019, in Geneva.

Heads of the United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement are pledging more action to prevent and end sexual and gender-based violence during conflicts. In Geneva, two humanitarian groups announced they have launched an effort to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he has met many victims of rape and brutal sexual violence in war zones from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the former Yugoslavia. Guterres says he has heard firsthand accounts from Rohingya refugees who were gang-raped while trying to escape violence in Myanmar.

He says the place and circumstance of the abuse may differ, but the pain and trauma remain the same.

“Let me be clear. Sexual and gender-based violence in conflict is not only a horrendous and life-changing crime, most often perpetrated against women and girls," Guterres said. "It is also used as a tactic of war, to terrorize families, dehumanize communities and destabilize societies, so that they struggle to recover for years or even decades after the guns fall silent.”

Guterres says sexual and gender-based violence in conflict is now widely recognized as a war crime that is preventable and punishable.

Congolese human rights activist Julienne Lusenge is president of the group Sofepadi and the director of the Congolese Women’s Fund. For her, the suffering endured by women and young girls who have been violated by men at war is an every day personal matter.

“During this month of February, our medical center Karibuni Wa Mama a Bunia received in one week 28 children who were victims of serious sexual offenses, including a baby of two years," she said. "We continue to see women who have been captives held by various different armed groups in our regional offices.”

Not only are these women used as sex slaves, but she says they also are victims of forced marriages, forced labor, physical and psychological violence, and inhuman and degrading treatment.

Lusenge says her organization provides survivors of these atrocities medical, psychological and legal support. She says in the past 20 years her group has been organizing socio-economic rehabilitation for victims. She says the communities as a whole — traditional leaders, young people, and survivors themselves are involved in this struggle.

“Women come to us as victims, but they go home as agents of change," Lusenge said. "Once they have been instructed on their rights and on the laws, which punish sexual violence, they join the fight at our side.”

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, says sexual violence too often is accepted as an inevitable by-product of war. He says this must end. He says the law is clear that rape and other forms of sexual violence are a violation and those guilty of these crimes must be held accountable and punished.

Maurer says the ICRC will do more on behalf of victims.

“Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross is launching an appeal of $27 million to help us better respond to sexual violence in 14 key countries, including expanded services in Colombia, improved responses in Syria and new services in Central African Republic," he said. "For the first time, we will place dedicated specialists in six countries this year to increase the field coordination and response of the ICRC.”

Among its many recommendations, the U.N. and ICRC are urging governments to ensure survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict receive adequate protection. They are calling for measures to protect detainees from sexual abuse. They also say governments must provide training for police and armed forces to prevent these atrocities from occurring.

They agree with Julienne Lusenge, who says it is time to stop using women’s bodies as battlefields.