They came together not to be silenced—gender-based violence in conflict & the role of women’s rights organisations

In this study, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation looks at gender-based violence in conflict-affected countries, the long-term consequences of this violence, the work of women’s rights organisations to address the needs of victims/survivors and prevent further violence, and the obstacles that stand in the way for victims/survivors to access support and justice.

We do so by exploring four case studies: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and Ukraine. While there are many differences between these contexts, there are also striking similarities between victims/survivors’ experiences and the obstacles women’s rights organisations and activists face.

Download the full report in English (pdf) or read the executive summary down below.

The role of women’s rights organisations

In all four case studies in this report, we identified high levels of conflict-related sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. States were more or less unprepared, unable and, in some cases, unwilling to provide victims/survivors with sufficient support. In three of the case-studies, there were no appropriate legal frameworks to address different forms of conflict-related sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence at the outbreak of war. None of the relevant peace agreements included provisions for the state to address this violence.

This has made it almost impossible for victims/survivors to get protection, support and legal aid. In some cases, it has resulted in near total impunity for perpetrators. One case study that stands out is Ukraine, that has been both swift in its acknowledgement of the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence and seemingly firm in its commitment to hold perpetrators to account.

Due to the lack of response by their governments and the absence of legal frameworks, local women’s rights organisations came to play an essential role. They not only offer victims/survivors protection, medical and psychosocial support and legal aid, but have also been instrumental in driving change.

Acknowledging other forms of gender-based violence

Focusing only on sexual violence in conflict risks neglecting other forms of gender-based violence. Domestic violence is one type of gender-based violence that increases in societies affected by war. This is due to stress, trauma, insecurity, the disruption of social and protective networks, increased economic hardship, and displacement, as well as then normalisation of violence which happens during conflict. As most conflict-affected countries lack comprehensive legal frameworks to address domestic violence, there is often little will and capacity to deal with domestic violence.

Sextortion is another type of gender-based violence that often increases during and after conflict. Sextortion is both a type of gender-based violence and a type of corruption, used against (mainly) women and girls by actors in positions of power. With sextortion, sexual favours are obtained through the coercive power of authority, rather than through physical violence or force. There have been many cases of sextortion being perpetrated by peacekeepers, by aid workers distributing food, medicine and other necessities, by armed groups operating checkpoints, and by employees of government authorities and institutions.

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Abuse is rarely reported

“Women do not dare to report rapes a lot of the time because of the stigma that will follow her and her family. This especially applies to the women in the rural areas, the traditions don’t allow her to disclose the rape due to the stigma and if she does the tribe will punish her and her family.

– Dr Asmaa Jameel, Professor at University of Baghdad, Iraq

Stigmatisation and discrimination as obstacles

In all four case studies, stigma has hindered victims/survivors from speaking up, seeking help and claiming justice. In some contexts, admitting to having been raped can even put one’s life at risk. This leaves many victims/survivors without any help and justice. Children born of wartime rape are commonly excluded, stigmatised, discriminated and left without support and legal recognition in most conflict-affected countries.

In Iraq, children whose mothers were raped by a member of ISIS risk not having their birth registered or issued with a civil document to establish their nationality, which deprives them of their basic rights and impedes their access to social services such as education and healthcare.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children born of wartime rape are often abandoned and end up on the streets. They are then vulnerable to exploitation, including recruitment by armed groups.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2022 marked the first time that children born of wartime rape were legally recognised as civilian victims of war in one part of the country, when a new law was adopted in the Brčko District. It took three decades for these children to receive recognition.

Reproductive pressure during and after conflict

In several conflict-affected countries, women and girls are pressured into bearing more children during and after a war, to make up for demographic losses (either in the entire population or among a specific ethnic group).

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, many women were under pressured to have more children to ‘rebuild the nation’, as many men had died during the conflict. In some parts of Ukraine, the pressure on women to give birth to more children has also increased since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

The idea that it is a woman’s duty to give birth to the next generation of the group, or to soldiers who can defend the land, is deeply rooted in some areas that have experienced protracted conflicts for generations. This desire for a high birth rate can pose a risk to women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, including their right to abortion. It can also negatively affect women’s active participation in their communities and societies.

Threatened to be raped

“One day, I was summoned by the rebel authorities, they were saying ‘it is this woman who says on the radio that we are raping [women]’. I was threatened to be raped, they asked me to give up, but I told them that I can’t give up, that if they do good things, I will report it and that if they continue to rape, I will report it. They were shocked by my courage.”

– Clotilde Bangwene Aziza, Founder of Association des Femmes des Médias du Sud-Kivu (AFEM), the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Working against gender-based violence puts women human rights defenders at risk

In countries where women have limited rights, working against conflict-related sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence is often dangerous. The work can constitute a direct threat to certain powerful men, who risk being prosecuted and sentenced to prison. In other cases it is a threat to traditional values and men’s right to exert power over their wives and families. As a result, women human rights defenders are often subjected to violence and/or threats of violence by both state and non-state actors.

This violence, which is sometimes deadly, is an effective way of silencing women human rights defenders and a serious threat to democracy and the fight for women’s rights. In the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, women journalists who report on conflict-related sexual violence received death threats from armed groups, while the government threatened to have their media outlets shut down.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, women’s rights organisations who exposed how local organised crime syndicates were engaging in and profiting from human trafficking where subjected to threats of violence, including break-ins at their offices, shelters, and homes. In Iraq, women human rights defenders have had to go underground to run safe-houses as life-saving mechanism after facing extreme security challenges.

To work against gender-based violence is to work for peace and security

Gender-based violence does not exist in isolation from violent conflict and peacebuilding process, both because gender-based violence is a driver of conflict and instability, and because gender equality is interconnected with higher levels of peace. That is why sexual violence is now considered a war crime, not ‘collateral damage of war’. It is also why the UN Security Council recognised conflict-related sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security 23 years ago.

These changes of international norms and international law have been achieved, partly due to the work of women’s rights organisations working on gender-based violence in conflict-affected countries, including some of the women interviewed in this study. In many contexts women’s rights organisations working against gender-based violence have also become important actors for peace, as they have built trust across borders or conflict divides and call for inclusive peace processes and peace agreements.

Still, few women’s rights organisations are ever invited to participate in formal peace processes, and peace agreements rarely reflect their priorities. This is a real missed opportunity for sustainable and lasting peace.

Recommendations

Take part of our main recommendations to the international community, donors and governments.

  • The role of women’s rights organisations

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must increase funding for local women’s rights organisations that provide services and engage in advocacy in conflict-affected areas. Today, women’s rights organisations and institutions in fragile contexts receive less than 0,5 percent of the global Official Development Assistance that is allocated to fragile contexts. Funding must be long-term, predictable, and flexible for organisations to be able to create sustainable change;

    – must insist on the use of a victim/survivor-centred approach in all interventions related to conflict-related sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence, and must, where possible, encourage multi-sector cooperation involving local women’s rights organisations, international organisations and government institutions; and

    – must support international networking and learning & exchanging opportunities for women’s rights organisations.

     

  • Acknowledging other forms of gender-based violence

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must work to ensure all countries have a legal framework on domestic violence and put domestic violence on the agenda in conflict-affected and post-conflict societies during peacebuilding, state building and reconstruction;

    – must offer psychosocial and rehabilitation support to returning soldiers to successfully reintegrate them into society and family life, and must ensure thorough disarmament to prevent small weapons from circulating in post-conflict societies; and

    – policymakers must acknowledge and address the widespread problem of sextortion and promote its inclusion in national anti-corruption and anti-gender-based violence legislation, including by setting up secure and confidential complaints mechanisms and reporting systems.

     

  • Stigmatisation and discrimination as obstacles

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must acknowledge women victims/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and children born of wartime rape as civilian victims of war who are entitled to reparations, and ensure that these children have access to their basic human rights;

    – must invest in the long-term work of organisations to change norms, raise awareness and advocate for the rights of victims/survivors and children born of rape in conflict-affected areas, as well as women’s and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in conflict affected areas;

    – must work with religious and/or traditional leaders to reduce the stigma faced by victims/survivors and children born of wartime rape, to help them reintegrate into their communities.

     

  • Reproductive pressure during and after conflict

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must make sure population-control policies in conflict-affected countries are not altered in a way that weakens women’s rights, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights and right to abortion;

    – must insist on and fund sufficient services for women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, including emergency abortions, in conflict-affected areas; and

    – must support the long-term work of local women’s rights organisations to improve and uphold women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights in conflict-affected and post-conflict societies.

     

  • Working against gender-based violence puts women human rights defenders at risk

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must publicly condemn and duly investigate smear campaigns and online harassment against women human rights activists. Those in power who advocate for or support violence against women in public life must be held accountable;

    – must be more flexible when supporting women human rights defenders, to meet the challenges of changing security situations. Long-term support and core funding should be prioritised, but emergency-response resources should be available too;

    – must make resources available to holistically bolster the security and resilience of women’s rights organisations that respond to gender-based violence. This includes stress-management, self-care and wellbeing practices; and

    – must work to bridge the digital divide and ensure women human rights defenders have affordable and secure access to the internet.

     

  • To work against gender-based violence is to work for peace and security

    The international community, donors and governments:

    – must insist on women’s participation in peace processes to ensure that their rights are accounted for and insist on specific provisions to guarantee their participation in post-conflict decision-making structures;

    – must include adequate and well-informed provisions in peace agreements that focus on women’s specific needs, including political rights and economic rights, and;

    – must facilitate forums that serve as safe spaces for women to share experiences and connect across borders.

     

Get in touch

Contact our advocacy advisor Jessica Poh-Janrell if you want to know more about the report.

E-mail: jessica.poh.janrell (at) kvinnatillkvinna.se

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