Somali women walking in central Mogadishu.

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should act to prevent and address sexual violence in armed conflict, including promoting greater participation of women in peacebuilding efforts, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 13, 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made public a report on conflict-related sexual violence in 19 countries during 2014 that described challenges due to poor monitoring, limited support services, and lack of accountability.

In the report, the secretary-general urged the Security Council to integrate attention to sexual violence into its monitoring and field visits to conflict-affected countries, and to take preventive steps and measures to ensure accountability, including sanctions and referrals to the International Criminal Court. The report recommends that governments support and protect independent voices, including women’s organizations, journalists, and human rights defenders, and improve delivery of comprehensive health, economic, legal, and reintegration services.

“In conflicts around the world, armies and armed groups use sexual violence as a devastating tactic of war,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council should not dodge its responsibilities to survivors and should take strong action to support survivors and sanction those responsible for sexual violence.”

The report sets the stage for the Security Council’s discussion of sexual violence in conflict expected on April 15, and includes a focus on countering violent extremism. The report asserts that conflict-related sexual violence is a core element of the ideology and operation of extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and recommends a stronger focus on this threat. The report underlines the importance of governments consulting with women to counter violent extremism and ensuring that these efforts “respect fundamental human rights.”

Human Rights Watch has documented how in Nigeria, Boko Haram abducted and raped women and girls and forced them into marriage, and how, after the women escaped, the Nigerian government provided inadequate protection and assistance. In Iraqi-Kurdistan, Human Rights Watch interviewed women and girls who had escaped ISIS captivity and who described how the extremist group systematically used sexual violence, including forced marriage and sexual slavery, against Yezidi women and girls.

Grossly inadequate access to victim services and to channels for redress is a theme across both conflict and post-conflict countries covered in the secretary-general’s report. National legal frameworks and social norms can exacerbate these problems, for example, in Afghanistan, where victims of sexual violence can be prosecuted for “moral crimes” and are at risk of murder through so-called honor killings.

“Governments have made concrete commitments to survivors of sexual violence in conflict, but they are overdue on fulfilling them,” Varia said. “Governments should improve access to the full range of reproductive health and psychosocial services, as well as redress and reparations in the courts.”

A consistent challenge is under-reporting of sexual violence in conflicts, including because of stigma, the risk of retaliation, lack of access for monitors, inadequate means for safe reporting, and weak government response, Human Rights Watch said. The secretary-general’s report cites 117 incidents of sexual violence in Sudan affecting 206 victims in 2014. However, Human Rights Watch research indicates the numbers are far higher and that the UN is not recording or officially acknowledging many cases. These include the Sudanese army attacks in Tabit, in which at least 221 women and girls were raped, as documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report. The Sudanese government has blocked a credible investigation and victims’ access to services, yet the Security Council has taken no action in response.

The report also gives inadequate attention to sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, Human Rights Watch said. For example, the report details widespread sexual violence and reports of forced marriage in Somalia, and cites cases involving the national army, allied militias, the police, and the armed group Al-Shabaab. However, the report does not list or make recommendations concerning African Union troops that Human Rights Watch found to be committing acts of sexual exploitation and abuse. The secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict should address this case and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers generally.

The report brings visibility to sexual violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people, including in Iraq and Syria. Humanitarian assistance providers and governments should adopt stronger measures for protection, including in displacement and resettlement settings, Human Rights Watch said.

The high levels of unpunished sexual violence in Nepal and Sri Lanka during their long internal conflicts demonstrate the long-lasting impact of conflict-related sexual violence, the need for credible investigations into allegations of such violence, and the need for reparations for victims.

The report emphasized the need for women’s meaningful participation in all peacebuilding efforts, including conflict resolution processes. Fifteen years have passed since the Security Council recognized women, peace, and security as central to its work, but in many countries women remain largely marginalized, for example, in planning for refugee camps and on negotiating teams.

The countries with current conflicts covered in the report include Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The post-conflict settings are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Côte D’Ivoire, Liberia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

“Prevention efforts, protection measures, and service provision will not succeed unless they are designed in consultation with the people they are meant to assist,” Varia said. “Women’s participation and leadership in programming and planning are essential ingredients.”