Setting the scene with Angelina Jolie
In her video address at the opening of a two-day international conference marking the ten-year anniversary of the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVCI), Angelina Jolie – Hollywood actor and special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – spoke eloquently, and graphically, of the need to end the use of sexual violence in conflict settings.
“[Sexual violence in conflict] increases the risk of domestic violence. It drives displacement. It stops girls going to school. It leaves scars of trauma and stigma that affect whole societies and cross generations.”Angelina Jolie, UNHCR special envoy
Sexual violence and child marriage both increase in conflict settings
Sexual violence in conflict is used by perpetrators as a weapon of war, and 97% of cases target girls and women. In such contexts, families may see child marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual violence. Child marriage is also used as a cover for human trafficking by armed groups, and for sexual abuse perpetrated by men in the community, often with impunity.
Far from declining, conflict-related sexual violence is on the rise around the world. The UN verified 3,293 cases in 2021 – almost 25% more than in 2020 – and estimates that up to 65,860 cases went unreported. Child marriage prevalence also increases during conflict, with a 20% rise reported in Yemen and South Sudan. The 10 countries with the highest child marriage prevalence are considered fragile or extremely fragile.
And as sexual and gender-based violence increase during conflicts, girls’ and women’s access to services and support networks are interrupted, with widespread and devastating consequences. From Mali to Rwanda, Syria to Uganda, and more recently from Ukraine, attendees at last week's PSVCI conference heard vivid stories of how conflict increases risks for girls, often resulting in pregnancies through rape, domestic violence, and child, early and forced marriage and unions.
What's being done to address sexual violence in conflict?
Despite well-intentioned governmental pledges, the adoption of the Murad Code and the establishment of the Global Survivors Fund, not enough has been done to date to support survivors and deter perpetrators of sexual violence. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, with conflict-related sexual violence reported in at least 18 countries in the past year alone. In 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that recognised the need to address child marriage in humanitarian contexts for the first time. But more needs to be done to achieve this widespread acknowledgement of – and response to – the issue.
Survivors and advocates have highlighted these linked issues for years, but progress in addressing them both has been woefully inadequate. If action is not forthcoming and properly financed, then a clear message is sent to potential perpetrators of these repellent crimes that they have the unvoiced permission to execute them.
As Nadia Murad, the Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who was kidnapped from her hometown and held by the Islamic State for three months, said, practical and decisive action is needed.
“It’s time to use every tool we have: sanctions, international trials, and universal jurisdiction to show that sexual violence in conflict will not be tolerated.”Nadia Murad, Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist
In this regard, it was welcoming to hear James Cleverly, the UK Foreign Secretary, launch a three-year, £12.5 million-funded strategy putting survivors at the centre of addressing this human rights violation. Around 40 countries also made national commitments outlining the steps they will take to address sexual violence in conflict.
That said, more funding is needed: only 0.12% of all humanitarian funding went to address gender-based violence from 2016-18. The historical shortfall is enormous, and budgets are shrinking as governments the world over face the economic fallout from climate change, COVID-19 and conflict.
My take-aways from what was an emotional meeting are clear. We must:
- Condemn these atrocities and bring the perpetrators to justice, and never use the experiences of survivors for political gain.
- Change the language we use; instead of talking about who was raped, or who was married as a child, we have to focus on who raped, and who married a child, focusing on the perpetrators – and their accountability irrespective of how powerful they are – and not the survivors.
- Invest in and strengthen long-term service provision for survivors of violence, including married girls and girls who are in a union, pregnant or mothers. Invest in prevention for those at greatest risk – girls and adolescents from the poorest, most marginalised households and communities.
- Support girls, adolescents and women in humanitarian responses – especially via women- and youth-led organisations – with gender-based violence programmes integrated in all humanitarian programmes and spaces, including peace keeping missions and camps for displaced persons.
- Remember the children and adolescents in conflict settings who experience sexual violence, with our responses provided through the lens of young people; children and adolescents are not mini adults and our work should be child specific and friendly.
Pain and suffering were on display at the conference, but so was a strong determination, a resolve that the time for warm words and empty phrases of support had long-since passed if things are to change. Commitments have to be transformed into actions. In short, we don’t want any more “calls for action” – we just need action! #forsurvisorswithsurvivors.
In the time it has taken to read this article 55 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
of Girls Not Brides
-  World Vision, 2013, Untying the knot: Exploring early marriage in fragile states.
-  Marsh, M., and Blake, M., 2019, Where is the Money?, IRC and VOICE.
-  Buchanan, E., 2019, “Born to be married – Addressing early and forced marriage in Nyal, South Sudan,” Oxfam.
-  Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Chad, Central African Republic, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Somalia and South Sudan are listed as fragile states as defined by OECD. OECD, 2018, States of fragility.
-  Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2022, Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the United Nations Secretary-General.