By Vanja Kovac, CIVIC’s Gender Advisor

The war in Ukraine and allegations of sexual violence by Russian troops have brought back to the forefront the issue of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). However, the history of CRSV is as old as war itself and attempts to stop and prevent it from happening have been mostly unsuccessful. As underscored recently by Pramila Patten, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “there is a stark discrepancy between that painful reality and the global community’s ambition to end the use of rape as a tactic of war.”

In conflict and post-conflict settings, sexual violence is used as a tactic of war, torture, terror, and political repression. While CRSV can affect any civilian caught in armed conflict, it affects disproportionately women and girls.

Below we shed some light on what constitutes CRSV and some of the ways in which countries, the UN and other organizations, can do to address it.

1. What is conflict-related sexual violence?

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is a form of sexual gender-based violence, which is a type of violence directed against an individual or a group based on their sex or gender. CRSV refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.

CRSV is brutal, deliberate and intended to punish and/or humiliate individuals and their communities. It is often perpetrated in the context of abuses against civilian populations who are likely to be targeted because of their perceived or actual membership to ethnic, religious minority group, political group, or based on their actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation.

CRSV is endemic in areas suffering from humanitarian crises and conflict such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria, Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Ukraine.

As they flee violence, displaced women are among those who are highly exposed to sexual violence. Credit: OCHA/Alioune Ndiaye

2. Who are victims/survivors of CRSV and what are the consequences and challenges they face?

Women and girls are disproportionately the targets of CRSV because of historical and structural inequalities. However, men and boys and members of sexual and gender minorities are also victims of CRSV. Some groups are also more vulnerable than others to sexual violence in conflict such as internally displaced persons, widows, migrants, female heads of household, detainees, people with disabilities, specific ethnic and minority groups.

CRSV can result in severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection, and in some cases, death. In addition to sustaining dangerous and long-term trauma and injuries, victims/survivors can experience stigmatization and/or rejection by their communities and families.

In some cases, sexual violence can result in unwanted pregnancies, and mothers of children born of wartime rape bear the burden of being excluded by their own families and communities. They can also face administrative challenges in registering births of their children, their legal names, or their rights to citizenship.

Men and boys face reporting barriers because of the stigma related to perceived emasculation, as well as physical and psychological consequences. Oftentimes there are no legal provisions regulating the rape of men.


3. Who are the perpetrators of CRVS?

Perpetrators of CRSV are usually affiliated with State or non-State armed groups. This can include national armed forces, police, and other security entities, terrorist entities or networks, local militias, and traffickers. CRSV is often used by parties to the conflict to terrorize local populations believed to be supporters of their enemies.

As they flee violence, displaced women are among those who are highly exposed to sexual violence. Credit: OCHA/Alioune Ndiaye

4. What can be done for victims/survivors of CRSV?

Efforts to address CRSV should employ a survivor-centered approach that promotes safety, confidentiality, informed consent, gender-sensitivity, non-discrimination, and respect for the choices of survivors/victims. This implies that victims/survivors should be at the center of all preventative efforts and responses, such as physical protection, monitoring and reporting, interventions related to access to justice, and referrals. This approach requires always respecting their rights, needs, and choices, as well as not exposing them to further physical and psychological harm and stigma.

Through a survivor-centered approach, access to key services such a medical care, psychosocial support, socio-economic and livelihood support, as well as legal accompaniment and counselling should be guaranteed to victims/survivors. States are responsible for providing these services.

Part of acknowledging the suffering of victims/survivors of CRSV requires also access to justice and accountability, including in the form of aid and reparation.

It’s also critical for countries in conflict and post-conflict to take measures to prevent and respond to CRSV while mitigating emerging risks.


5. Is CRSV considered a war crime?

The Statute of the International Criminal Court includes rape and some other types of sexual violence in the list of war crimes and in the list of acts that constitute crimes against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against civilian populations. Rape and other forms of sexual violence may also constitute other international crimes, such as crime against humanity, torture, and an act of genocide. Moreover, sexual violence in conflict is a serious violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Additionally, the Security Council Resolution 1820, adopted in 2008, asserts that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) were the first tribunals whose Statutes explicitly included CRSV crimes