19 June 2020 marked the sixth commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Speaking on the day the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten praised the day as:
“An opportunity not only to raise awareness of the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence, which continues to be used as a tactic of war, terror and political repression, but also to stand in solidarity with the survivors and those working to support them on the frontlines, often at great personal risk.”
The International Day was established in 2015, heavily influenced by the vision of Argentina, who sponsored the resolution. Ms. Pramila Patten said the day reminded us of the importance of a “survivor-centered, rights-based approach”. However, she caveated the praise by warning that, in practice:
“Time and time again in the field, appalling gaps remain in terms of services for those in need, and resources for the grassroots civil society groups that represent a lifeline in many remote, war-torn regions.”
Ms. Patten also warned the problem has been worsened in the face of “overlapping crises”. Many survivors now find themselves simultaneously grappling with conflict, displacement and a global pandemic, which has “both exposed and exacerbated gender inequality”.
It is now estimated that one in five internally displaced or refugee women has experienced sexual violence. However, less than one percent of global humanitarian aid is spent on gender-based violence prevention and response.
The impact of COVID-19 has resulted in “already-scarce resources being diverted”. Mobile clinics, counselling services and shelters have all been closed as the funding for them has been redirected elsewhere.
Speaking on the 23 June 2020 at a Children and Armed Conflict Virtual Open Debate, Ms. Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict spoke about how sexual violence in armed conflict is increasingly spreading to children, a phenomena that is vastly under reported.
Ms. Virginia Gamba highlighted that in 2019, despite warring parties committing to the highest number of commitments to protect children; more than 30 action plans, road maps, command orders and other measures, rape and other forms of sexual violence against children persisted at similar levels.
In 2019, of the 19 situations covered by Ms Gamba’s agenda, the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism verified 735 cases of sexual violence, including rape, against children. However, the true number is likely to be much higher, as Ms. Gamba explained:
“Sexual violence is the most underreported violation for reasons of stigma experienced by survivors, rejection by families and communities, lack of accountability for perpetrators, and lack of access to medical and other resources services. The actual number of survivors of sexual violence is staggering.”
What was of particular concern was the attribution of incidents involving sexual violence, was almost equal between governmental forces and armed groups.
The Special Representative added that COVID-19 can “amplify” the threat of sexual violence due to the increased presence of military and armed personnel in cities and villages as well as the “push and pull factors in the economic downturn created by the lockdown measures”.
The numbers of instances of sexual violence committed against children in conflict zones is not falling. Adding to Ms. Gamba’s observations, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund, Henrietta Fore highlighted the fact that over the last 15 years, the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism has verified 250,000 grave violations against children in armed conflict, including 15,000 incidents of rape and sexual violence against children.
Ms. Virginia Gamba also reiterated the calls for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19, saying:
“The COVID-19 pandemic presents the United Nations with new challenges on an unprecedented scale. On 23 March 2020, the (UN) Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire to refocus attention on the true fight: defeating the pandemic. Peace remains the best way to ensure that boys and girls are maximally protected from experiencing any of the six grave violations, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.”
In 1999, the first resolution on children and armed conflict adopted by the United Nations Security Council placed the issue of children affected by war on the Council’s agenda. The resolution identified six grave violations affecting children in times of war: Killing and maiming of children; Recruitment or use of children as soldiers; Sexual violence against children; Abduction of children; Attacks against schools or hospitals; and Denial of humanitarian access for children.