Women Peace and Security and Conflict-related Sexual Violence

February 11, 2023

With the creation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda in 2000, sexual violence was, and has since, repeatedly been identified as a threat to international peace and security, impeding the participation of women in essential peacekeeping, the security sector and decision-making roles. Despite the frequent recognition of the harmful consequences of sexual violence,the international community is guilty of perpetuating a cycle of women’s exclusion, by failing to take adequate steps to provide access to justice for those who are victim-survivors of sexual violence in conflict, and post-conflict societies. While in theory, steps are being taken to remedy this and to improve the gender-responsiveness of justice systems, these efforts often fall short due to a lack of financial and political commitment, and entrenched patriarchy, to make these systems more accessible and suitable for women’s participation as both victim-survivors of atrocities, and in frontline and decision-making roles.

Perhaps, the area in which the chasm between words and action is most evident, is in the post-conflict pursuit of justice for victim-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) at the International Criminal Court (ICC). While acts of sexual violence committed as part of a military campaign can be prosecuted within the court as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or as a constitutive act of genocide – an inclusion which was initially hailed as a transformative success – there has only been one successful conviction for acts of sexual violence in the twenty years since the court’s creation. In theory, the court has gendered concerns at its core, with procedural rules requiring gender-sensitive measures and protection for victims and survivors, as well as the appointment of a special advisor to the prosecutor on sexual violence. Yet, this is currently failing to be reflected in the court’s practice.

While various charges of sexual violence as war crimes orcrimes against humanity have been brought before the ICC, almost all are dropped due to a lack of sufficient evidence, or for failing to attach responsibility for the individual acts of soldiers in conflict to the senior official who appears before the judges. This undoubtedly, has damaging effects on the willingness of victim-survivors to interact with the court’s investigators or to report their crimes, with many instead choosing to avoid the often re-traumatising court processes which have not been shown to take their stories of atrocity seriously. Despite the proclaimed progressive nature of the court, there is clearly a reluctance to focus on fully investigating and prioritising the crimes of sexual violence in a way that does not alienate the women they interact with or include them as survivors on equal footing with those survivors of more ‘traditionally’ recognised crimes of war.

The failures evidenced by the ICC with regards to collecting suitable evidence highlight the importance of having gender parity within investigative teams, police units and justice officials. Victim-survivors of CRSV must be welcomed by personnel who are capable of obtaining evidence without re-traumatising, belittling or stereotyping them. While initiatives such as the Murad Code, aim to introduce guidelines on gender-responsive interviewing and information gathering for victims of CRSV, the extent to which this can be meaningfully realised in units which do not themselves stand for equal participation of women is unlikely. Given the average percentage of women in police services and military units is far from equal with men, it is unlikely that the teams investigating international crimes, made up of personnel from national police and military units, will currently be representative. Until the culture that has grown to exclude women is eroded from within, women are less likely to trust those who offer their only chance of accountability. The intrinsic link between female participation and successful access to justice is evident.

Efforts have, however, been made by the international community and the United Nations to improve women’s access to justice for conflict-related sexual violence through attempts to improve accountability and responsiveness of national justice systems in the conflict-affected society. Examples of this include the deployment of the UN Team of Special Experts on Rule of Law and Sexual Violence and Women Protection Advisors. While the Team of Special Experts focuses on dissipating harmful norms within institutions by conducting workshops, assisting police and armed forces with prevention and investigation of sexual violence and advocating for legislative reform, Women Protection Advisors oversee the monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements on CRSV and help to ensure that crimes can be reported in a way that is survivor focused, responsive to their needs and with the best chance of successful prosecution. With women making up 42% of justice and corrections personnel provided by states to the UN (ref: page 22, UN SG WPS Report 2022), UN assistance in peacekeeping missions works to encourage involvement of women in the journey to justice, and to create security sector institutions that will stand against and prosecute sexual violence.

More on the steps taken to increase accountability for CRSV can be found in the UN Secretary General’s 2022 Report on CRSV

However, both of these attempts to increase accountability in post-conflict settings are largely dependent on state financial and political commitment, something which continually fails to reach the level required. If accountability for conflict-related sexual violence is not prioritised by states, women will be excluded from participating not only as victim-survivors, but simultaneously as advocates, investigators, police, soldiers and judges. It is only through challenging the norms that lead to gender-based violence through improving participation of women, and ensuring that accountability is not the exception for victims of sexual violence, that truly inclusive justice systems can be moulded.

As reports of the extensive use of CRSV in Ukraine continue to emerge, the need for the international community to take immediate action to close the gap between aspirations of accountability within the WPS agenda and the reality of the situation for those in conflict zones has been called for by the UN Special Representative for CRSV, Pramilla Patten. In an attempt to do this, A Framework of Cooperation has been signed by the Ukrainian Government. This document is designed to ensure that successful prosecutions can take place through effective information gathering, comprehensive service provision for survivors, gender-responsive security sector reform and the prioritisation of creating a safe reporting environment amidst conflict zones. By advocating for cooperation between civil society organisations, medical facilities and state law enforcement, there is a focus on creating accurate records of the ongoing atrocities, while also enabling female-led civil society organisations to interact with victims to provide survivor-focused support and legal advice while they wait for accountability processes to begin. The important role of female participation in providing accessible and approachable avenues for women, is increasingly being recognised as crucial to the successful pursuit of accountability.

More on the situation in Ukraine and Role of Civil society organisations: Ukraine war: UN signs framework to assist survivors of sexual violence

Pushing forward: Ending conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine | UN Women

All acts of female participation work to reduce the stigma that surrounds acts of sexual violence, as well as erode the underlying gender inequality which inevitably leads to the normalisation of sexual violence. Promises are repeatedly made by the international community to put an end to impunity for acts of sexual violence, however, there is an urgent need for an immediate increase in commitment to the cause. Taking concrete steps to increase the participation of women throughout both conflict and post-conflict settings will inevitably increase the receptiveness of these settings to challenge sexual violence, prosecute those accountable and support victims throughout their journey to justice.

See the latest events

View events