Sexual violence should not be an inevitable consequence of armed conflict; yet, reports of sexual and gender-based violence (“SGBV”) are rampant in modern conflicts. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the UN documented over 3,600 incidents of sexual violence where rape was often used as a weapon during conflict. Girls who escaped from Boko Haram shared stories of forced marriage and rape. Islamic State (IS or ISIL or ISIS) even published its justification for the sexual slavery, forced marriage, and rape of Yazidi women.
Alarming reports on the prevalence of SGBV in Syria (and now Iraq as well) prompted the American Red Cross to host A Time to Act: Combating Sexual Violence in Syria and Iraq, an event dedicated to framing the issues, discussing current challenges, and enabling participants from different sectors to collaborate on how to address these challenges. A Time to Act brought together experts from the American University War Crimes Research Office, Amnesty International, the State Department, George Washington University, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Washington Working Group on the International Criminal Court for a panel and moderated lunch discussions on issues relating to SGBV in conflict situations.
One of the most fundamental takeaways from the panel was recognizing the many aspects of sexual violence: potential criminal actors, enabling environments, rates of prevalence, and others. Addressing SGBV requires adaptive practices in its prevention, while ensuring that adequate support exists to document and prosecute perpetrators and provide physical and social support to victims. Technically, addressing SGBV requires identifying when it occurs, where it occurs, and who is involved. Cultural and social stigma regarding victims of sexual violence results in concealed incidents, invisible perpetrators, and inadequate physical and psychosocial support for those affected. While the conversation touched several key developments in SGBV prevention and protection, addressing stigma was a key theme when considering the regional context of Syria and Iraq, available health services, the possibility of evidence collection, and prosecution.
The event also took the conversation beyond the theoretical sphere by exploring developments in prevention, protection, and prosecution, and connecting individuals and organizations committed to changing the conversation about SGBV in conflict. Over lunch, participants discussed ways of engaging men and peacekeepers in prevention efforts, using mobile technology to document SGBV instances, novel ways to collect and preserve evidence, and special protections for refugees and internally displaced persons.
A few highlighted ideas include:
- Advancing mobile apps and medical technology, like MediCapt, to help physicians store evidence and effectuate a chain of custody during armed conflict to aid in prosecution;
- Developing innovative justice mechanisms like the mobile courts used in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to improve access to justice for SGBV crimes;
- Changing the paradigm from “victim” to “survivor” through grassroots initiatives to reduce any social or cultural stigma that deters reporting of SGBV;
- Using social media to advocate against this type of violence both during conflict and in peacetime because, as the panelists noted, social norms in peacetime still affect behavior in conflict.
Join the conversation by contributing ideas on how to address some of the identified challenges, sharing experiences, and creating dialogue on how a multi-sectoral approach could resolve these issues through your comments below or via Twitter under #SGBVandconflict. Also, below you can find a recording of the event.