The last few weeks I’ve been talking about violence against women both in conflict and humanitarian settings and also in everyday life post-COVID. Actually, I’ve been talking about violence against women for over 30 years. And we’ve been dealing with it since the beginning of time.
I often wonder if this talking is actually doing anything. But then again, silence certainly isn’t an option. So here we go.
Sunday June 19 was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Why do we need a day for this?
There is a day for just about everything — including World Toilet Day. Yes, really.
International days or anniversaries are important times to raise awareness, reflect on progress, show solidarity, mobilize political will, and collectively howl into the void about how far we have yet to go.
Secretly, I hate these days. I wish we didn’t need to have them. And this day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict most of all.
The UN Security Council first recognized sexual violence as a weapon and tactic of war in 2008 with resolution 1820. In 2015 the UN officially declared June 19 as the day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict.
We all understand sexual violence (although I wish we didn’t have to!) — but why conflict? Because in conflict, a bad thing (sexual violence) becomes that much worse.
The definition of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) includes “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” and can be perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys — directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.
This gruesome form of violence usually targets civilians and inflicts lifelong trauma that rips at the social fabric of already precarious and fragile societies.
CRSV is rife in humanitarian settings given political disruption, the breakdown of law, unstable economic conditions, rising inequality, increased militarization, and the disintegration of social security nets.
In short — chaos.
It can happen to anyone — but women and girls are disproportionately affected. And women peacebuilders and human rights defenders are often specifically targeted because of their visibility — and their work.
Why does this happen?
Unfortunately, the reason is the same everywhere, all the time — whether in conflict or not. We live in societies that are overwhelmingly patriarchal, and where deeply-rooted gender discrimination and systemic inequality persist.
This isn’t just conflict — it’s everywhere. And it’s not just “over there” — it’s right here.
I say this time and again.
The global statistic 1 in 3 women and girls will experience some form of violence in their lifetime is not only true, it is likely underestimating the reality. And most of that violence is intimate partner violence.
It is an everyday experience for most women everywhere.
Conflict situations serve to compound existing forms of violence — especially sexual violence and harmful practices like girl-child marriage. But we can do better to prevent these things from happening — or at least to mitigate the risks faced by women and girls. And if we tackle this before conflict, we reduce the likelihood of its occurrence during and after conflict.
So… exactly how much progress have we made in eliminating sexual violence in conflict?
Crimes often go unreported due to fear and cultural stigma, lack of trust in authorities, or because of the disintegration of safety and services. It is estimated that for every rape reported in conflict, 10–20 go undocumented.
But we do know that it happens. And the list of places where sexual violence has been used as a tactic of war is LONG.
Given the prevalence of systematic sexual violence against women in ongoing conflicts — Tigray, Syria, Ukraine, and Myanmar to name but a few — it would seem we a) have learned nothing and b) are nowhere near its elimination.
Take Ukraine just as one example. According to a study, in Ukraine 62% of displaced women experienced intimate partner violence at home while 1 in 5 experienced violence at the hands of armed men.
The International Committee of the Red Cross maintains sexual violence in conflict is seldom an isolated issue. Sexual violence is part of a larger pattern of violence that can include torture, killing, looting, and child recruitment. It can also result in the emergence of new forms of violence, such as survival sex and trafficking.
Since February, over 5 million Ukrainians have fled — most of which are women and children. By March, there were reports of pimps waiting at borders in Poland, seeing this inflow of refugees as an ‘opportunity’ to exploit them in their time of crisis. In another example, the British government set up ‘Homes for Ukraine’ to house refugees, but this scheme became known as ‘Tinder for sex traffickers’ because men were offering their homes in exchange for sex. The problem was so pervasive that the UN formally requested the government to stop placing Ukrainian women in homes with single men.
We do a lot of talk about sexual violence in conflict. We read a lot of media reports gasping in horror — and often re-victimizing those they claim to be helping. We hear a lot of ‘condemnations’ through UN resolutions and reports. We see a lot of violent images. We know that such violence is punishable under various international laws.
So far very little of this has resulted in concrete change on the ground. I know this because I spent decades working in this field.
And so far, this crime continues to happen, very often with total impunity.
So, where does that leave us? Another international day and not a lot of progress. In the end, these international days come and go — and they are just one day, after all. But for women in conflict, sexual violence is not isolated to a day, or a tweet, or a UN condemnation or a petition to sign. It is a constant fear. A daily reality. A frightening byproduct of war — wars waged by men on the bodies of women.
It is not an International Day. It is every damn day.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to sit around waiting. We need action.
It’s so much bigger than me, I hear you say. Yes, it is. It is big.
There’s no way I can possibly help, I hear you say. Nope, that’s not true.
There is always something you can do. And — we all have to do something.
So, what can we do, like, really?!
Listen to women’s voices, because women’s voices in crisis are the global revolution we need. VOICE is great for amplifying women’s voices and Women’s Media Center amplifies the voices of women in media. Vital Voices reminds us that women leaders are changing the world.
Follow organizations organizing campaigns and actions on the ground. Women for Women International channels crucial support to women survivors of conflict.
And finally, support local feminist movements. This means listening to women who are on the frontlines, in the countries we’re talking about. They are the ones doing the work. They know what is happening. And they know what kind of help they need. We just need to do it.