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In conflict, sexual violence goes far beyond the battlefield

(AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli border police officers stand near Israeli activists with fake blood dripping down their legs and plastic bags over their heads during a protest against the alleged rape of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers, outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Last week, President Biden signed a memorandum that strengthened the U.S. response to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), placing it on par with other human rights abuses. The news was a boost to the sexual violence survivors and international women’s rights organizations that had gathered alongside government ministers from more than 50 countries in London to spur action against the issue.     

This is a welcome development for ongoing efforts to prevent sexual violence worldwide. It focuses attention on gender-based violence and places it high on the policy agenda. At the same time, conflict-related sexual violence is just one of many, compounding forms of violence that women and girls experience in times of conflict — all of which deserve this kind of robust attention and response.

After all, the battlefield is not the only place where conflict exacerbates sexual violence.

While we may typically associate sexual violence in conflict areas with soldiers, militants and other armed actors, it is often civilian enclaves in communities and homes where this trauma is most frequently experienced. Even in armed conflict, most sexual violence is perpetrated by women’s partners. In Somalia, for example, 25 percent of women experienced sexual violence from their partners, while 4 percent experienced non-partner sexual violence. And, studies show that non-partner sexual violence is primarily perpetrated by non-combatants.

In a study we did in South Sudan, we found that only 6 percent of perpetrators of non-partner sexual violence were armed actors. Another study conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that only 7 percent of reported non-partner sexual violence was militia-related. 

In essence, violence in conflict areas begets more violence. Intimate partner violence, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and other harmful practices such as child marriage are present and exacerbated in areas of conflict. This is not to diminish the importance of honing in on conflict-related sexual violence, but we must keep in mind that this is not the extent of violence. It is crucial that we focus our attention on all types of gender-based violence which disproportionately affects women and girls.

To this end, we not only need to see accountability for perpetrators and countries that protect them through sanctions and other punitive measures we also need more resources devoted to preventing all forms of violence against women and girls in all forms. Globally, the need to respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian crises is increasing yet services and measures to prevent this type of violence are chronically underfunded. Less than .002 percent of all development aid goes to the prevention of violence against women and girls each year. There is great potential for sexual violence prevention, but it needs the requisite resources.

At the same time, women and girls should not be treated as passive recipients of aid and instead play an active, participatory role in violence prevention and response in ways that lead to lasting change. That’s where greater coordination with grassroots women’s rights organizations and local civil society groups can and must play a bigger role. These groups know the context of their countries and are best placed to lead.

As ministers and advocates like us leave London and return to our respective home countries, it’s important for us to sustain a sense of urgency in addressing and combating gender-based violence in all its forms. It’s also important to maintain a sense of hope. 

We and many of our colleagues around the world are building evidence of what works to prevent violence against women and girls and using that to implement and scale effective interventions. What these interventions reveal is that this type of violence is not inevitable but, in fact, very much preventable. 

Mary Ellsberg directs The Global Women’s Institute (GWI) at George Washington University. Maureen Murphy is a research scientist with GWI. GWI leads the research consortium for the WhatWorks: Impact at Scale program, a seven-year initiative funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to improve prevention and response to violence against women and girls. 

Tags Biden Human rights abuses Memorandum on Promoting Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Politics of the United States Violence against women War crimes
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