Sexual Violence in Conflict

In pursuing a new resolution on sexual violence Security Council significantly undermines women’s reproductive rights

Louise Allen and Laura Shepherd explore the complex politics of Resolution 2467.

UN Security Council, 22 April 2019

Outside of a relatively specialised circle of policy experts and advocates, negotiations over UN Security Council resolutions don’t usually get a lot of coverage in social and mainstream media. Resolution 2467, adopted on 23 April 2019 to become the ninth resolution to be adopted under the title of ‘Women and peace and security’, was somewhat different in this regard. Discussions in news and social media began days before the resolution was due to be tabled (at the annual Security Council open debate on sexual violence in conflict). These focused on whether the language in the draft resolution about sexual and reproductive healthcare for survivors of wartime sexual violence could be protected,  while attempting to strengthen accountability for sexual violence in conflict,  in the face of serious opposition, primarily from the USA. As it turned out, it could not. Here, we argue that resolution 2467, and the circumstances of its adoption, gives all of us who are interested in the Women, Peace and Security agenda reason to be very concerned about the future of the agenda and the preservation of the small and hard-fought victories that it can reasonably claim.

This latest development, which few within the WPS community have rushed to applaud, also needs to be considered with the 20th anniversary of the agenda’s inception being now just over a year around the corner. With this comes the certain likelihood that another text will be considered at this milestone, as was the case in 2015 and in 2010. While resolution 1325 was the result of a groundswell of advocacy by women civil society around the world, today’s calls emanating from women’s organisations, especially those from conflict and post-conflict affected countries, are not for another Security Council resolution. Advocacy efforts are predominantly focusing on the implementation of and accountability for the commitments enshrined in the eight – now nine – already adopted.

It is frustrating that this relentless and uncompromising pushback by the US should have come as any surprise to the Security Council. In October last year it was revealed that the Trump administration was working to remove the word ‘gender’ from UN documents as part of its strategy to undermine the recognised human rights of transgender individuals. In March this year, the administration was accused of trying to further dilute international women’s rights standards as they relate to sexual and reproductive rights at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

This proved to be an unsurmountable challenge for Germany, representatives of which had been advocating for a resolution during its presidency since October 2018. While there was varying support among Council members for stronger accountability measures and a survivor-centred approach to sexual violence in conflict, the compromise necessary to achieve this related to the very issues the USA has increasingly been rallying against. In pursuing this resolution even after key components had already been reportedly taken out during the negotiations, Council members made a calculated decision that removing sexual and reproductive health for women who had been raped in conflict was justifiable. However, the very pursuit of the resolution came at significant costs for the same individuals who the resolution was intended to bring justice for as well as for the WPS agenda.

The resolution represents a compromise on language about women’s rights to sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH) that had already been negotiated and agreed upon by the Council. Inserted into the Preamble of resolution 1889, operative paragraph 19 of resolution 2106 (adopted in 2013) gives some substance to the Council’s provision in this sphere:

Recognizing the importance of providing timely assistance to survivors of sexual violence, urges United Nations entities and donors to provide non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence (S/RES/2106, 2013, para. 19).

It sets a dangerous precedent for the agenda that the Trump administration was essentially able to hold the resolution hostage through threat of veto until representatives could secure a commitment to a watered-down, reduced version of this language for resolution 2467. After several further last minute cuts requested by Washington DC, 2467 makes no direct reference to SRH. The only reference to previous resolutions is in the first preambular paragraph which lists all eight WPS resolutions, but these are not mentioned in the context of SRH.

This squabble over a few words might seem insignificant. But the words are not there, and the words matter, because the words of each resolution represent the negotiated and agreed upon commitments of the Council at the time. Further, the absence of SRH language must be read through the lens of the Trump administration’s continued war on women, which began early in the administration’s tenure with the reinstating of the Mexico City policy, better known as the ‘global gag rule’. Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum on the Mexico City policy a couple of months into his presidency, suggesting that it was a matter of some priority for his administration. The policy institutes a ban on federal funding flowing to international family planning institutions that offer, among other services, advice and counselling on abortion.

The impact of the revival of the global gag rule is devastating. One report by Human Rights Watch ‘found the policy has triggered reductions in key sexual and reproductive health services from well-established organizations that cannot easily be replaced’. In Kenya and Uganda, as a result of reduced funding, organisations are having to choose between providing vital medications to people living with HIV/AIDS or counselling and access to safe abortions in an environment in which such access is not assured and in which women and girls are dying from unsafe procedures.

The likelihood of the Trump administration holding women’s reproductive rights hostage in negotiations about a new WPS resolution was always high, given the administration’s track record in this area. The smart play might well have been to put the agenda into maintenance mode. As those closely involved with the agenda have noted, there are many commitments that are still yet to receive sufficient support and funding for implementation. This raises the question, then, of why a ninth resolution was sought at all and where does it leave a tenth?

Given the last few days, before even thinking of now a tenth resolution, careful consideration is needed to identity what progressive additions could feasibly be agreed to in this current climate, which genuinely reflect the identified needs and priorities of women living and working in conflict affected countries. It is also crucially important that states which call themselves friends of the agenda mount an iron-clad defence around the normative developments secured inch by inch over the last two decades and beyond.


About the authors

Louise AllenLouise Allen (@AllenLouiseA) is a Global Gender, Peace and Security Consultant and an experienced women’s rights and women, peace and security advocate. She has worked alongside women, Indigenous and refugee human rights defenders and civil society in Australia, in the Pacific and at the UN both in Geneva and New York. From 2014-September 2018, she was the Executive Director of the New York-based NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.

Laura ShepherdProfessor Laura J. Shepherd (@drljshepherd) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Much of Laura’s research focuses on the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and she has published widely on related topics, including violence prevention, civil society participation in peace and security governance, and militarism.

Preventing and punishing sexual violence in war post-Bemba

Following the acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo by the International Criminal Court, Louise Arimatsu reflects on what steps might be taken to more effectively address sexual violence in conflict. 

The International Criminal Court (

Preventing sexual violence in conflict has been a high priority for the international community for at least the last two decades exemplified by the myriad of policy, legal and institutional measures adopted by states at domestic and international levels.  While we might debate the extent to which prosecutions can deter sexual violence in armed conflict, they remain one, among many, preventative strategies and mechanisms that are at the disposal of states. Yet, given the prevalence of sexual violence in war and, notwithstanding significant advances in the field of international criminal law, the number of perpetrators who have been prosecuted for rape by courts and tribunals remains woefully low.

In a bid to remedy the poor record of the ICC the current Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has taken important strategic steps to surmount social, cultural and historical impediments and regularly reaffirms her commitment to addressing sexual and gender-based offences through her investigative and prosecutorial powers.  The conviction in 2016 of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity was seen as a milestone for the Court, albeit a limited one given the scale of the problem in most, if not all, conflicts. For the survivors of the atrocities the decision represented a long-awaited acknowledgement by the law of what they had individually and collectively endured during a four month period in 2002-2003 when Bemba’s forces had been deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR).

The fact that Bemba was held responsible as a commander for failing to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent and punish the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops under his effective control for the sexual violence perpetrated against the civilian population was to recognise the locus of power and authority and the responsibilities that attach to positions of privilege. As the Military Commission in the Yamashita case noted over seven decades ago, “clearly assignment to command military troops is accompanied by broad authority and heavy responsibility… [W]here murder and rape and vicious, revengeful actions are widespread offences, and there is no effective attempt by a commander to discover and control the criminal acts, such a commander may be held responsible, even criminally liable, for the lawless acts of his troops, depending upon their nature and the circumstances surrounding them.”

The decision in June 2018 by the Majority of the Appeals Chamber (3-2) to acquit Bemba has generated a significant amount of commentary among the legal community.  Concerns have rightly been expressed about the lack of clarity that comes with the release of multiple opinions while other criticisms have been directed at the standard of appellate review and the inter-related broader question as to the scope of judicial authority to depart from previous jurisprudence since it was only by doing so that the Majority was able to find that the conviction had exceeded the facts described in the charges, the first of the two grounds upon which Bemba was acquitted. The disturbing consequence of the Majority’s reasoning is that prosecutions of sexual violence crimes will be that much more difficult as elaborated by Susana SaCouto.

If preventing sexual violence in conflict is a priority of states, it is the second ground upon which Bemba was acquitted that demands further reflection: namely, that Bemba had not failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent and punish crimes committed by MLC troops under his effective control.  As with their judicial predecessors, each of the appellate judges reflected, albeit to different degrees and with varying levels of comfort, on the doctrine of command responsibility. Despite being re-formulated in multiple texts, finessed by courts and dissected by academics over many decades, the underlying principles of the doctrine first set out in Yamashita remain unchanged and have subsequently been incorporated into military manuals across the world. In other words, although international criminal law has elaborated on the scope and content of command responsibility (most notably on the element of mens rea) the doctrine is one that is firmly grounded in the logic of the law of armed conflict, operational effectiveness, military ethos and the value of reciprocity. Importantly it is a doctrine that recognises the unique structure, distribution of power and chain of command system upon which military institutions rest and to that extent functions to set the minimum baseline expected of all commanders to maintain rule compliance.

While the Trial Chamber found that, all things considered, the measures taken by Bemba had been “grossly inadequate”, the Majority disagreed. This opens up the question as to what specific measures a commander must take to satisfy their legal obligation to prevent the commission of sexual violence whether as a war crime, crime against humanity or genocide and to punish those who have engaged in such criminality.  Is the geographical distance of the commander from the site of the alleged offence (especially if perpetrated in a foreign country) relevant to assessing the reasonableness of the measure taken, as suggested by the Majority?  Should the commander’s actions be assessed against the gravity of the offences alleged or is the number of offences alleged determinate?  Is a commander entitled to apply “a cost/benefit analysis” when deciding the measures to take in cases of sexual violence? Where the offence constitutes rape, has a commander discharged his responsibility simply by authorising an investigation without specifically insisting that the investigation should include an enquiry into the allegations of sexual violence?

Legal arguments aside, Bemba’s acquittal is nothing short of a failure on the part of the international community towards the victims and survivors of the atrocities perpetrated by MLC troops.  What steps can be taken to ensure against similar failings in the future?  One option is for states to agree to a set of guidelines including concrete measures that all commanders would be expected to take where sexual violence is alleged.  A far more radical and survivor centric measure would be for states to de-link reparations from convictions in a more comprehensive manner than is currently the case.  After all, if there was one issue upon which all the judges, appellate and trial, agreed, it was that sexual violence offences were perpetrated against women, children and men during the conflict in the CAR.

About the author

Dr Louise ArimatsuDr Louise Arimatsu (@larimatsu10) is Distinguished Policy Fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, where she works on the AHRC project ‘A Feminist International Law of Peace and Security’ and the ERC project ‘Gendered Peace’.




Male survivors are not ’emasculated’ but experience ‘displacement from gendered personhood’

Taking Northern Uganda as a case study, Philipp Schulz explores the intersecting harms experienced by male survivors of sexual violence, and argues that these harms can potentially be mitigated. He suggests that improved understanding – and language – can aid recovery.  

Memorial in Burcoco, Awach sub-county, Northern Uganda in memory of a 1991 massacre by the National Resistance Army (NRA).

The United Nations Security Council (UN SC) and the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda initially paid insufficient attention to sexual violence against men and boys. Since the passing of UNSC resolution 2106 in June 2013 and subsequent resolutions, however, there has been growing recognition of men and boys as victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the policy-arena and in scholarship. Even though women and girls remain disproportionally affected by gender-based violence, male sexual harms are now increasingly incorporated into conceptions of wartime sexual violence, and these crimes have been documented in over fifty contemporary armed conflicts globally.

Despite this growing awareness, however, the dynamics surrounding these crimes – and how sexual violence affects male survivors’ lives, relationships and gender identities – remains poorly understood. It is widely argued that male-directed sexual violence compromises male survivors’ masculine identities, in a process often termed as ’emasculation’ by way of ‘feminisation’ and /or ‘homo-sexualisation’. The vast majority of studies on sexual violence against men suggest that ’emasculating’ male survivors is at once a motivation for sexual violence against men to occur as well as its primary consequence. Yet, despite initial conceptual insights, how the compromising of survivors’ masculinities unfolds empirically, and what the effects of these crimes on male survivors are, remains insufficiently addressed.

In a recent article in International Affairs, I argue that the impact of conflict-related sexual violence against men is a dynamic process, perpetuated over time through social interactions, health implications and a lack of gender-sensitive medical provisions. In the context of hetero-patriarchal gender relations, physical acts of sexual violence – and in particular anal rape – subordinate male victims along gendered hierarchies. According to locally-specific constructions of gender and sexuality in Northern Uganda, if a man is raped, he involuntarily takes on a female sexual role and character, and is thereby made subordinate in the hierarchical gender order.

The gendered effects of sexual violence extend beyond the physical violations, and are compounded through different physical, psychological and physiological consequences, which in turn result in sexual and gendered harms. These intersecting harms signify male survivors’ inabilities to protect themselves as well as their families; to provide materially and economically as a result of physical injuries and long-lasting health implications; and to procreate because of physiologically conditioned inabilities or difficulties to achieve or sustain an erection. In combination, these intersecting experiences impact upon male survivors’ masculine identities in a myriad of ways, striking directly at multiple levels of what it means to be a man in Northern Uganda’s society.

In addition to this insight – that the impact of sexual violence on gender identities is a layered process, rather than a singular event – I argue that survivors’ lived realities are not necessarily static, but often dynamic and variable. Throughout the literature on sexual violence against men, however, processes of ’emasculation’ are often understood as the ultimate and definite loss of manhood, and survivors are seen as being completely and indefinitely stripped of their masculine identities. For instance, in his seminal article on the topic, Sivakumaran posits that sexual violence robs victims of their masculine status, suggesting non-reversible effects. In reality, however, there often is a gap between the language and idea of ’emasculation’, which appears static and unambiguous, and survivors’ experiences, which often are fluid and variable and can potentially change.

Deconstructing male survivors’ gendered harms reveals that the impact of sexual violence on gender identities can potentially be mitigated, of course not without leaving their physical and psychological marks. To illustrate, male survivors in Northern Uganda often expressed to have felt to be ‘less of a man‘ as a result of the sexual violations they had experienced. One survivor explained that after having been raped, he ‘started feeling useless and not man enough‘. For numerous survivors, however, these feelings and perceptions were able to change again over time, influenced by a range of factors, such as membership in survivors’ groups or access to physical and psychological rehabilitative support.

One survivor described that ‘before we came together [in a survivors’ group] we had a lot of feelings of being less of a man, but since being in a group, these feelings have reduced.’ Others who have received physical and psychological support, for instance by the Refugee Law Project, attested that ‘through the medical treatment, I was able to work again and provide for my family like a man.’ Such testimonies suggest that although the sexual violations clearly impacted upon their gender identities, these experiences can be mitigated and addressed over time.

In light of these findings, I argue that it might be more accurate and appropriate to speak of the effects of sexual violence on gender identities as ‘displacement from gendered personhood’, rather than as ’emasculation’ through ‘feminisation’ and/or ‘homo-sexualisation’. In many ways, these terminologies rely on misogyny, gender essentialism and homophobia – by assuming that being symbolically rendered feminine and/or homosexual automatically translates into degradation and humiliation and is necessarily and inherently negative. Ultimately, the assumptions of invulnerable masculinities in contrast to infantilised femininities that underpin the language of ‘feminisation’ (when employed for male sexual assault) risk reinforcing dominant and damaging ideas about masculinities and hetero-sexualities.

But the idea of ’emasculation’ also falls into a tendency of freezing dynamic experiences into time and space. As an alternative, using the framework of ‘displacement from gendered personhood’ – inspired by Edström, Dolan and colleagues – instead recognises that comparable to physical displacement, for instance into a refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, ‘displacement from gendered personhood’ can potentially be temporal and possibly be alleviated.

The conclusions to be drawn from this are that sexual violence can compromise male survivors’ masculinities in a dynamic way that is perpetuated over time; but that these experiences are not necessarily static and ultimate, and can potentially be mitigated through different factors. This is important for comprehending how these crimes are perceived and experienced in terms of their gendered damage, and also has implications for survivors’ contemporary quests for justice and assistance.


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund.

About the author
Dr Philipp SchulzDr Philipp Schulz (@philipp_schulz1) is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. His research interests include gender, conflict and security, and his work has been published in International Affairs, the International Feminist Journal of Politics or the International Journal of Transitional Justice.

His recent article, ‘Displacement from gendered personhood: sexual violence and masculinities in northern Uganda’ was published in the September 2018 issue of International Affairs.

To address the plight of Yazidi women we must look beyond the notion of wartime ‘sex slaves’


In the first in a series exploring the continuum of gender violence across war and peace, Philippa Greer asks us to look beyond sexual violence in conflict by also considering the chronic inequalities of power experienced by Yazidi women before and after ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis. 

A Yazidi girl at a camp in Qadiya (Mauricio Lima/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine)


“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”
Nadia Murad, The Last Girl

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad has become a voice for Yazidi women. In the documentary ‘On her Shoulders’, she can be seen rehearsing the harrowing four minutes and 28 seconds of testimony before the UN Security Council that drew the world’s attention to the plight of the Yazidis.

The ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis is now well-known. After Mosul fell to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014, ISIS carried out attacks in the Sinjar region in August 2014, initially looking for unmarried Yazidi women and girls aged nine and above. Approximately 6,700 females were forced into domestic and sexual servitude across eastern Syria and western Iraq, while thousands of men and older women were executed. As of November 2017, it was estimated that almost 400,000 Yazidis remained displaced.

UN Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017) enables an independent team to collect and preserve evidence of potential international crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq. It is envisaged that such investigations will facilitate prosecutions, which could include holding ISIS accountable for genocide through international justice mechanisms. Yet the attention of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda should further extend to the rights of women pre and post-conflict.

ISIS has largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria. Most of the Yazidis who survived and escaped live in camps and temporary accommodation in Iraq’s Kurdish Region, while a small number have received asylum. Yazda Organization highlights that basic needs are not being met, and more than 70 percent of houses have been destroyed. A dire need for reconstruction remains, including infrastructure for potable water, healthcare and education, and for professional medical and psychological help for Yazidi survivors, including those with severe injuries from prolonged sexual violence.

Safe and legal abortion services are not available to those displaced in Iraq, as Iraqi law only permits abortion in cases of medical necessity and not rape. In addition to the provision of post-conflict assistance, including accessible reproductive health services, Yazidi women should be welcomed into the sphere of post-conflict recovery.

The efforts of Vian Dakhil, Iraq’s only Yazidi MP, to help the Yazidis, have made her ISIS’s assassination target. She is also an outlier – Yazidis have historically been under-represented in government positions in Iraq, with female Yazidis in particular typically being absent from public office roles.

Addressing the Yazidis’ lack of access to quality education could assist in promoting opportunities in the governance sphere, in particular for Yazidi women. When ISIS attacked Sinjar in 2014, in some villages it was still considered improper for girls to receive an education. Moreover, for over a year before ISIS invaded Sinjar, displaced Yazidis could not access schools due to conflict and displacement. It was dangerous for girls in particular to make the journey to school under such circumstances. Today, with Sinjar lying in rubble, many Yazidi youths are still denied access to education due to internal displacement.

The position of Yazidi women could further be improved by addressing the normalisation of domestic violence in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that Yazidi women have few protection mechanisms to shield them from domestic violence. Iraq’s penal code includes provisions on physical assault, yet lacks any explicit mention of domestic violence. While sexual assault is criminalised, Article 398 provides that such charges will be dropped if the assailant marries the victim.

A 2010 UN factsheet stated that one in five Iraqi women were subject to domestic violence, and a 2012 study found that at least 36% of married women have experienced some form of abuse at the hands of their husbands. Such realities should not be overlooked when addressing the sexual and gender based violence perpetrated by ISIS against Yazidi women.

Further, while there has been media attention on the Yazidi women and girls enslaved by ISIS, there has been little attempt to understand how ISIS’s crimes against women fit into wider attempts to destroy the Yazidi community as a religious minority. The Yazidi people record that since inception, their pre-Judaic group has been subjected to seventy-three genocides.

The use of female voices on the international stage seeking prosecution for ISIS’s crimes is a powerful step forward, yet it is not enough. Prosecuting ISIS alone is similarly insufficient. Women will continue to be at risk while they are unrepresented, unprotected, denied full access to education and unable to meaningfully participate in the peace, security and governance arenas.

The lack of Yazidi representation in governance structures and the historical persecution of the Yazidis as a religious minority illustrates the chronic inequalities of power which persist for the Yazidi community during times of apparent normality.

The Yazidi women and girls held by ISIS are not ‘sex slaves’. They are survivors of a systematic attempt to eradicate an entire people. The incidence of continuing conflict and of violence against Yazidi women and girls, including routine instances of poverty, displacement, domestic violence and inequality must be addressed within the WPS agenda.

Following the capture of Afrin, Syria by the Turkish army and its Arab allies on 18 March 2018, and the resultant occupation of Yazidi villages, it is clear that ISIS’s genocide against the Yazidis forms part of not only a continuum of inequality faced by Yazidi women during times of “uneasy” peace and post-conflict, but also a continuum of persecution, involving the sustained political, economic and social marginalisation of the Yazidi community, as well as their repeated victimisation through consecutive campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

As Teju Cole wrote in 2015, “Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way.”


The author presented on this topic at a workshop hosted by the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE in May 2018. The workshop was part of the Strategic Network on Gender Violence Across War and Peace funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund. 

About the author 

Philippa Greer (@philippa_bear) is a Legal Officer working for the United Nations. Her research areas include international criminal justice, women, peace and security, penal reform, the death penalty and international law.


Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad


Commending the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, Inger Skjelsbæk reflects on the connections between the fight to end sexual violence in conflict and the #MeToo movement.

The choice to award the Nobel Peace Prize 2018 to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad is timely and wise. The two Nobel laureates embody different dimensions of conflict related sexual violence. Further, the prize comes at a time when we mark the one year anniversary of the #MeToo movement, when trust in international bodies and agreements are on the decline, and when violent extremism is on the rise.

While this Nobel Peace Prize is by no means a #MeToo prize there are features of the movement which are compatible with the fight against conflict related sexual violence. The #MeToo movement has moved the conversation about sexual abuse and harassment from a focus on how to improve protection and mitigate effects on victims, to a focus on the men, male cultures and organisations which enable sexual harassment and abuse. The efforts to move the stigma away from victims to the perpetrators has been epitomised by the image of filmmaker Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs on his way to trial, and the recent sentencing of Jean Claude Arnaud who caused a public scandal for the Swedish Academy which awards the Noble Prize for literature. In the efforts to combat conflict related sexual violence we have seen a similar movement; from focusing on the protection of victims to the prevention of people becoming perpetrators. Clearly, protecting victims is important, but the problem with conflict related sexual violence is, primarily, that people commit these crimes. It is therefore wrong to call this a women’s prize or claim that it is related to women’s issues. If anything, this is a man’s issue, without the perpetrators there would be no crime, and the perpetrators are far too often men. Denis Mukwege has articulated this problem and has called for stronger male engagement against conflict related sexual violence. Further, he is himself a symbol of male engagement against conflict related sexual violence by working as a gynaecologist at the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for decades. I have myself interviewed a number of women who were subject to conflict related sexual violence and in all their narratives about male sexual violence runs a parallel story of a male hero who may have protected, mitigated or helped a female victim out of an abusive situation. It is a call to these men, these counter voices and engagement against abusive male cultures, which has been part of Denis Mukwege’s recent public statements. In these efforts the Noble Peace Prize 2018 and the #MeToo movement has compatible aims.

The current international mood is one of increased distrust and disbelief in international commitments and organisations. This change in political rhetoric is a direct threat to the international engagement against conflict related sexual violence. One of the important achievements in combatting conflict related sexual violence has been in the fight against impunity. There has been a strong international consensus (with a few noteworthy exceptions) that conflict related sexual violence must have consequences for perpetrators and their leaders. International criminal prosecution of conflict related sexual violence has been part of several ad hoc tribunals and is part of the Rome Statues of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). But, as in times of peace and in national courts, sexual violence cases are hard to prove. In international courts the legal processes are long, often years, and very few are convicted. In the ad hoc international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for instance about half of the 161 indictments included charges of sexual violence but only 32 individuals have been convicted. Still, these are 32 people who would not have been convicted had impunity still been the norm. When South Africa was threatening to withdraw from the ICC in 2015 Denis Mukwege issued a statement about what this could entail and said that “to weaken the ICC is to vote in favour of impunity, opening the door to more violence.” In order for these criminal mechanisms to be effective in their efforts to combat impunity it is imperative that survivor victims testify and tell their stories. Nadia Murad is therefore a crucial voice, along with many others. By hearing the stories and knowing the details, guilt and responsibility can be established. Furthermore, by voicing these experiences conflict related sexual violence becomes part of new grand narratives of war; they are not relegated to side stories, private consequences or health issues. They become part of the political understanding of armed conflict.

In the latest report to the United Nations Security Council from 23 March 2018 on conflict related sexual violence the Secretary General expresses a renewed and deep concern over the use of sexual violence by violent extremist groups. The report documents that sexual violence is used as a recruitment strategy to extremist groups; it is used as a way to terrorize populations and making them flee; forced marriages, a euphemism for sexual violence, is used strategically against targeted individuals and groups for intelligence purposes. In addition, sexual violence is part of conservative sexual ideologies against women and sexual minorities, and it is directly ordered in military manuals to manifest these conservative aims. ISIL and Boko Haram’s use of sexual violence against young girls are examples of this new and intensified use of sexual violence. Nadia Murad and her experience as a sexual slave to ISIL demonstrate all too clearly that despite intensified efforts to combat conflict related sexual violence; there is still a long way to go. As now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, her voice will be even more important than it already was, and her voice will give courage to others who can come forward to tell and testify so that appropriate guilt and consequence can follow.

Conflict related sexual violence is a societal problem and a military weapon. Committing acts of sexual violence is cheap and has detrimental effects, short term and long term, for survivors and victims. But, sexual violence is not just violence, these are also reproductive acts, sometimes by accident and sometimes that is the goal. These children, conceived through violence, have been overlooked and understudied and are in dire need of our attention, care and engagement. Here is a challenge for the engaged international community combatting these crimes in the years to come.

The fight against conflict related sexual violence takes many forms and the Nobel Peace Prize laureates Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murat are exceptionally worthy of the prize for their courage and commitment in different ways. Let us hope that the acknowledgment of their work will increase the fight against this particular form of violence even further and create better grounds for peace in the future.

This post also appears on the blog of the Peace Research Institute Oslo


About the Author

Inger Skjelsbæk is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE. She is research professor at Peace Research Institute Oslo and associate professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo. She is also deputy member of the Nobel Committee in Norway and author of The Political Psychology of War Rape: Studies from Bosnia-Herzegovina. London: Routledge (2012).


By balancing Sharia law and the new Sexual Offences Bill, Somalia is legislating for the 21st century

In advance of a LSE WPS public event with Her Excellency Deqa Yasin, Minister for Women and Human Rights Development, Antonia Mulvey reflects on the development of the Somalia Sexual Offences Bill

Eid Al-Fitr Celebrations in Somalia, UN Photo/Tobin Jones

On 30 May 2018, the Cabinet of the Federal Government of Somalia unanimously accepted a Sexual Offences Bill. This landmark Bill marks the first time that a country adhering to Sharia Law has passed such progressive legislation. The fact that Somalia has taken this step whilst facing extremist terrorism and an ongoing food crises is all the more remarkable.

Sexual violence in Somalia is widespread, pervasive and carried out without almost total impunity. In 2012, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, stated that ‘that 70% of the gender-based violence taking place in IDP Camps is actually done by men in armed uniform.” A global survey released in 2011 rated Somalia as one of the top five worst places to be a woman. In 2013, this was demonstrated when two women were raped, then arrested for reporting the crime to a journalist. The perpetrators were not arrested.

In response to the dire situation facing women, girls and survivors of sexual violence, the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development and Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) commenced drafting the Somali Sexual Offences Bill. We met with a range of key government officials and civil society to gather broad-based support for the Bill. However, in 2013, it was not widely accepted by the Somali political elite, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and even members of the international community that sexual violence was a serious problem that needed to be prioritised. To quote one diplomat at the time, “Human rights does not even come in our top ten concerns.”

However, in 2014 the tide started to turn. Human Rights Watch released two reports on rape in Somalia, and LAW released its own report on increasing access to justice for sexual violence. Key civil society leaders, including Deqa Yasin, who would subsequently become the current Minister of Women and Human Rights Development, advocated in Somalia and abroad for the Bill. Following a high-level panel chaired by LAW in 2015, the Ambassadors to the African Union and United Nations in Somalia issued the first joint public statement admitting sexual violence by peacekeepers and acknowledging that all efforts must be undertaken to address it.

What needed to change?

The criminal framework around sexual violence in Somalia is set out in the 1962 Penal Code, which is based on Italian colonial-era laws. It contains out-dated, piecemeal provisions that fail to adequately define sexual violence for a contemporary Somali context or provide sufficient protections to the survivors of such violence. Those reporting sexual violence are more likely to be arrested for the crime of ‘insult’ than the perpetrators of sexual violence crimes.

In 2015, the first comprehensive Sexual Offences Bill was produced. It was the result of two years of consultation and inclusive dialogue with a wide range of key stakeholders. The Bill was presented to the Somali Cabinet on 31 December 2015. The Bill remained ‘in limbo’ before Cabinet for the following two years.

Key figures in government worked behind the scenes to push forward the Bill. Minister Deqa Yasin worked tirelessly to have the Bill adopted by the Cabinet and she is not the only one. When Hassan Khaire, the Prime Minister of Somalia, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York in May 2017, the Bill was the only piece of legislation he mentioned by name as being a government priority. Last month, those efforts and that commitment paid off: on 30 May 2018, the Somali Cabinet unanimously adopted the Bill. But we are not there yet. The Bill must now be passed in the Lower House of the Parliament.

How will the Bill help survivors of sexual violence?

The Bill criminalises a wide range of sexual offences and set out clear duties for police, investigators and prosecutors. It sets out a number of guarantees for survivors including the right to free medical care, to privacy in court and to support in securing housing. The compliance of the Bill with Sharia Law has been confirmed on multiple occasions. LAW asked President Van Joenson of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda to assist with reviewing the Bill. He has called it “the most comprehensive Bill on sexual crimes [he had] seen anywhere.”

Efforts to address sexual violence and gender issues in Somalia remain difficult and at times divisive. In 2016, the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development released a national gender policy that called for, amongst other things, the implementation of a quota system in the upcoming elections. A group of Islamic sheikhs issued a fatwa on the policy stating that it was permissible to kill anyone who had been involved in its development. It was a stark reminder that work that challenges the strict gender norms, which prevail in Somali society, can be dangerous.

Locally and internationally, there is increasing recognition of the importance of the Bill. However greater support is needed to ensure the Bill is passed and effectively enforced. The international community should give greater support. The UK, which has emphasised its commitment to ending conflict-related sexual violence through it establishment of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative – should recognise the importance of the Bill and its place in the wider peace and security initiatives within the region, including the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. International support is urgently needed for the range of multi-disciplinary service providers, justice actors and institutions necessary for the effective implementation of the Bill.

The protection of Somalis from widespread sexual violence committed with impunity is not purely a “women’s issue.” It is a peace and security issue. It is a state-building issue. Somalia is at a moment in time where momentum is high, and where the Sexual Offences Bill seems poised to pass. Such opportunities are rare. We cannot let it pass us by.

On Tuesday 19 June 2018 6.30pm, marking International Day for the Elimination of Conflict- Related Sexual Violence, the Somali Minister for Women and Human Rights Development, Her Excellency Minister Deqa Yasin Hagi Yusuf, and Antonia Mulvey will reflect on the development of the Bill at a public event at LSE. The event is free to attend and open to all.

 About the author

Antonia Mulvey (@AntoniaMulvey) is the Founder and Executive Director of Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) and Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She is a British lawyer with 20 years of experience in international, human rights, refugee and criminal law. Mulvey has established access to justice programmes for the UN and INGOs in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Her experience ranges from advising governments on judicial and legislative reform, to founding of the first Women Lawyers Association in Somalia and establishing the first law faculty in Puntland, Somalia.