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The constant war against the bodies of women and girls in all conflicts

The world is experiencing the highest level of conflict since World War II, with a record 117 million people having been forced to flee their homes. Disregard for international law, the proliferation of weapons and increasing militarisation are exacerbating the use of sexual violence and posing a serious threat to the security of civilians, including vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) has long-term harmful effects on victims and is used as a tactic in war, torture and terrorism. This type of violence includes “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable severity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys and that is directly or indirectly linked (temporally, geographically or causally) to conflict.”

In 2024, the UN published a factsheet with data for 2023 that paints a deeply worrying picture of the severity of conflict-related sexual violence worldwide. It states:

  • CRSV was used in 21 situations: 15 in conflict situations, 3 in post-conflict situations and 3 in problem situations.
  • 3,688 UN-confirmed CRSV cases represent a 50% increase over the previous reporting cycle, with the highest numbers recorded in Ethiopia (835) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (733).
  • More than 3,522 (95%) of the reported cases were women and girls.
  • In 1,186 cases the victims were children, of which 1,157 (98%) were girls.
  • 21 cases of CRSV against LGBTQI persons have been registered.
  • The list of parties credibly suspected of having committed or being responsible for sexual violence includes 58 parties. As in previous years, the vast majority of the parties are non-state actors, including organizations classified as terrorist by the United Nations.

The data published by the UN only include confirmed cases. In addition, reported cases represent only a small percentage of all CRSV cases. The stigma associated with CRSV, often socially and culturally based on dominance and inequality, contributes to the silence of victims. Some also fear reprisals from their perpetrators. Pervasive impunity discourages reporting. In addition, certain areas are difficult to reach and/or suffer from internet and communication blockades.

CRSV has devastating effects on victims, both physically and sexually, reproductively and mentally. Most women and girls do not seek medical care due to fear, stigma or prevailing insecurity. The destruction of health facilities, the killing of health workers and restrictions on humanitarian access hamper life-saving assistance. CRSV also destroys the social fabric of families and communities. As Dr. Denis Mukwege, a world-renowned gynecologist who founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, and is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, explains: “Sexual violence in conflict causes enormous suffering and at the same time has other consequences: massive displacement, population decline, destruction of the social fabric and destruction of the economic capacity of the affected communities. He added: “Rape is very effective as a weapon of war. It destroys not only the victims but the entire community, destroys the family, destroys society.”

Over the years, the United Nations, other international and regional bodies, and States have called for an end to this practice, yet CRSV remains an epidemic that has not yet been addressed. In this spirit, in 2021, Dr. Denis Mukwege announced a new initiative, the Red Line Initiative, which aims to draw a red line through CRSV. The initiative seeks to create a legally binding international instrument to “provoke clear moral rejection and international outcry when sexual violence is used as a weapon of war; ensure a more robust and timely response by States in line with their international obligations; and establish clear legal obligations that increase the costs not only for individuals but also for governments if they fail to act.”

CRSV continues to be used in all conflicts and atrocity situations and will continue to be used because it is the most effective weapon of war. It will not stop unless States and international bodies act proactively and comprehensively. Combating and preventing CRSV requires renewed attention and the level of attention needed to bring about change has not yet been achieved.

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