The impact of COVID-19 on survivors of conflict-related sexual violence

Jun 19, 2020

Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy
Photo: UN Peacekeeping/C. Silvestre

The UN Security Council has recognized that conflict-related sexual violence is a threat to security and an obstacle to the restoration of peace. Women, girls, men, boys and members of the LGBTQI community can all be victims of sexual violence in conflict-affected settings. However, this form of violence disproportionally affects women and girls.

Preventing and responding to such violence is an essential part of the Women, Peace and Security agenda as well as the UN’s Protection of Civilians mandate. Today, seven peacekeeping missions and special political missions have a Security Council mandate to prevent and address conflict-related sexual violence. Senior Women’s Protection Advisors have been deployed to these missions to guide the operationalization of the mandate, including monitoring, analysis and reporting, which provides a basis for remedial action.

The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June recognizes the impact of COVID-19 on survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and the implications for work in this field, as highlighted in the Policy Brief released by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict last month.

Unequal gender relations and patriarchal norms exacerbate crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated risks of violence against women and girls in conflict-affected regions of the world, including sexual violence. As the virus’ death toll has spread from country to country, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a global ceasefire to fight the pandemic, appealing to all warring parties to silence the guns.

Despite hundreds of organizations supporting and promoting the Secretary-General’s call, including local women’s networks, the UN and its partners continue to report acts of rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated by parties to ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and other areas of concern.

Already a chronically under-reported crime, conflict-related sexual violence has been further obscured by the COVID-19 pandemic. The imposition of quarantines, curfews, lock-downs and other restrictions on movement have hampered the possibility for survivors to report sexual violence, further heightening the existing structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers to seeking redress for such crimes.

The pandemic has also had a negative impact on the availability of immediate lifesaving assistance and multisectoral care accessible to survivors of sexual violence in many settings. Some shelters for gender-based violence survivors have been closed, mobile clinics and counselling services cancelled, and already-scarce resources diverted.

Combating impunity for sexual violence is a central aspect of deterring and preventing such crimes. It is also a central element in providing redress for victims. In this regard, COVID-19 has a significant and detrimental impact on all aspects of the rule of law response, including accountability for conflict-related sexual violence.

In addition to impeding the delivery of basic humanitarian services, the potential spread of COVID-19 in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons has also exacerbated already high risks of sexual violence, including increased intimate partner violence, trafficking, as well as forced prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Ahead of the International Day, the 15 members of UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict published a joint statement to join the Secretary-General’s call on all conflict parties to end acts of sexual violence. These entities reaffirmed their commitment to ending the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence as a critical step toward achieving sustainable and inclusive peace.

As civilian populations and survivors in conflict zones, displacement and detention settings face ever-greater risks, it is essential for sexual and gender-based violence prevention and response to be prioritized by the United Nations system, Member States and partners, as part of the global fight of the COVID-19 pandemic and to ‘building back better’ in its wake.

This article was written by UN Peacekeeping and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The impact of COVID-19 on survivors of conflict-related sexual violence was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.