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Supporting the Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict

by Tristan Bayly

Over the past decades, patterns of sexual violence in humanitarian settings have been influenced by a rise in conflict, mass displacement and disruption in the rule of law.

11 year-old Nora from Lahj governorate, Yemen

On the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we condemn the continued use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. We also call for all those affected by conflict-related sexual violence to have access to the full range of essential healthcare and support services they need.

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Women and girls are often the primary targets of sexual and gender-based violence, violating their human rights and increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Certain other groups also face increased risks of sexual violence in conflict, such as refugees and internally displaced people, human rights defenders, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTIQ+ people, and people with disabilities.

We recently conducted research with Save the Children International on sexual violence in Borno State, Nigeria, and the Aden and Lahj governorates of southern Yemen. The results show that conflict is linked to the increased incidence of some forms of violence, such as sexual exploitation, early and forced marriage, and marital rape.

“My father forced me to marry someone… My father said that I must marry that man. I told my father that I did not like that man but he said that if you did not marry him, there will be no you and no me…”
22-year-old woman, interviewed in a Gwoza IDP camp, Borno, Nigeria

Provision of Support and Services

As conflicts continue across the world, most recently in Ukraine, the devastating impact of conflict-related sexual violence is ever-present. Survivors of sexual violence are often ostracised and stigmatised by their families and communities. They can be subjected to harsh social and cultural norms which blame the victim, so for many, surviving sexual violence means keeping silent.

Our research revealed a large gap in access to resources, particularly around preventative healthcare treatment and psychosocial support, and highlighted gender disparities in reporting standards and the treatment of sexual violence survivors. Community and self-stigmatisation of survivors had implications for the uptake of services, and medical services were more widely available than legal services and assistance with food, shelter and livelihoods.

“What would encourage survivors to seek help is if a women leader or community leader knows about it and connects her to an organisation that helps her. It is easy to report to the bulama or woman leader as there is a woman assigned in the community that if sexual violence happens, we should report to her and she will take it to the bulama or woman leader.
25-year-old woman, interviewed in a Damboa IDP camp, Borno, Nigeria

All those needing sexual and reproductive health services, including survivors of sexual violence, should be provided with timely access to both services and support. Survivors must also have access to psychosocial care and justice.

Building Back Better

Action is vital to eliminate conflict-related sexual violence and to guarantee accountability and support for all survivors. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, building back better requires political resolve and enough resources to meet the scale of the challenge. A gender-responsive and inclusive global recovery must promote a new social contract in which no one is above the law, and everyone is afforded the protection and services they deserve.

Find out more about the research and watch our webinars here.