1.1 Definition and Nature of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is a gross violation of fundamental human rights and, when committed in the context of armed conflict, a grave breach of humanitarian law.
Not[es] with grave concern the widespread occurrence of sexual violence in violation of the fundamental right to personal security as recognized in international human rights and humanitarian law, which inflicts serious harm and injury to the victims, their families and communities, and which has been a cause of coerced displacement including refugee movements in some areas of the world,...
Executive Committee Conclusion No. 73 (XLIV) (1993), Preamble
Refugee Protection and Sexual Violence
There are various forms of sexual violence, rape being the one most commonly referred to. The legal definition of rape varies from country to country. In many societies it is defined as sexual intercourse with another person without their consent. Rape is committed when the victim's resistance is overcome by force or fear or under other coercive conditions. In certain countries "statutory rape" exists as an offense. This is sexual intercourse with someone under a specified age, which is deemed to be unlawful. The victim is presumed by law to be unable to give consent by reason of his or her tender age.
However, many forms of sexual violence do not fall under the strict definition of rape, such as insertion of objects into genital openings, oral and anal coitus, attempted rape and the infliction of other sexually abusive acts. Sexual violence can also involve the use or threat of force in order to have sexual acts performed by third persons.
The term "sexual violence" is used in these Guidelines to cover all forms of sexual threat, assault, interference and exploitation, including "statutory rape" and molestation without physical harm or penetration.
Perpetrators of sexual violence are often motivated by a desire for power and domination. Given these motivating forces, rape is common in situations of armed conflict and internal strife. An act of forced sexual behaviour can be life-threatening. Like other forms of torture, it is often meant to hurt, control and humiliate, violating a person's innermost physical and mental integrity.
Perpetrators of sexual violence can include family members, for example where a parent is sexually abusing a child. Domestic violence often escalates in refugee situations due to the enormous pressures of refugee life, for example, having to live in closed camps.
1.2 Persons Most Vulnerable to Sexual Violence
Experience shows that unaccompanied women and lone female heads of household are at the greatest risk of being subjected to sexual violence. Children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse given their high level of trust. Unaccompanied children and children in foster families also are especially at risk. Furthermore, refugees of all ages and both genders face a significantly increased risk of sexual violence when in detention or detention-like situations. Refugee workers should be aware that the very old, the infirm, and the physically and mentally disabled may also be vulnerable to attack.
Refugees most at risk of being subjected to sexual violence:
* unaccompanied women
* lone female heads of household
* unaccompanied children
* children in foster care arrangements
* those in detention or detention-like situations.
1.3 Situations Where Sexual Violence May Occur
Not[es] also distressing reports that refugees and asylum-seekers, including children, in many instances have been subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence during their flight or following their arrival in countries where they sought asylum, including sexual extortion in connection with the granting of basic necessities, personal documentation or refugee status,...
Executive Committee Conclusion No. 73 (XLIV) (1993), Preamble
Refugee Protection and Sexual Violence
The following are some situations in which sexual violence against refugees has been known to occur:
a) Prior to flight
Men, women and children may be targeted for abuse by the police, the military or other officials in the country of origin. Individuals may be detained, which heightens the risk of sexual violence and torture. Sexual violence may also occur at the hands of irregular forces in situations of internal conflict. Sexual violence may even occur with the complicity of male leaders, in the form of bartering women or girls for arms and ammunition or other benefits.
b) During flight
Refugees may be sexually attacked by pirates, bandits, members of the security forces, smugglers or other refugees. Border guards may detain and abuse women and girls, sometimes for extended periods; pirates may capture women as they travel by boat and extort sex in exchange fol their safety and onward passage. Smugglers may assist female refugees across the border in exchange for sex and/or money and valuables.
c) In the country of asylum
The country of asylum does not necessarily provide sanctuary from sexual violence. Whether refugees live in camps or in urban situations, they may be subjected to sexual attacks by persons in authority or otherwise in a position to take advantage of their particularly vulnerable situation. In a variety of asylum situations, officials who determine the refugee status of the applicant may extort sex in exchange for a positive determination. Refugee women and girls may be approached for sexual favours in exchange for assistance, such as during food distribution. Unaccompanied children, in particular girls, placed in foster care may suffer sexual abuse by the foster family members.
Refugees may be sexually attacked by members of the local population, by officials, including those responsible for their protection such as border guards, police or military personnel, by international refugee workers, or by fellow refugees. Forms of domestic violence often escalate in direct proportion to the pressures of refugee life.
Sexual attacks may occur while women go about daily chores, particularly if these involve visiting isolated areas. Attacks can take place at night in the homes of victims and in front of family members or an individual may be abducted and sexually violated away from her home. Armed assailants may attack in groups, converging on a camp. In extreme situations, some refugees, who initially fled theircountry of origin due to internal conflict, have been known to return home in order to seek relief from the general insecurity existing in the country of asylum.
In addition, coercive prostitution, or the exploitation of the prostitution of women and girls by camp officials in collaboration with local prostitution rings may also occur.
d) During repatriation operations
Where large population movements may separate women and girls from their usual support systems, crowding and other changes may make normal control and protection measures difficult to implement. The same dangers found during flight and exile may be faced once again on the return journey or upon return in the country of origin.
e) During reintegration phases
Returned refugees may be targeted by the Government, military or others in retribution for having fled. Women in particular may be susceptible to sexual extortion in exchange for material assistance or for identification cards or other forms of documentation required by government officials.
1.4 Under-Reporting of Sexual Violence
The true scale of sexual violence against refugees is unknown because numerous incidents are never reported.
There is a risk that refugee workers and officials will deny the existence of sexual violence because incidents are not reported. It is essential to be aware that the problem may exist, and to adapt reporting and interviewing techniques to encourage people to report incidents. (More guidance on this is given below). Reporting and follow-up must be done in a highly sensitive and confidential manner, in order not to cause further suffering or further danger to lives.
Reasons for under-reporting may include the following:
Negative consequences of reporting
* In most cultures and communities, sexual attacks are perceived as shameful. and the victims are stigmatized. In some societies, the chastity and virginity of women reflect on the honour of the family.
* The experience of sexual violence in such a cultural context is therefore not only devastating physically, emotionally, intellectually, andpsychologically, but may lead to the woman û and her family û being ostracized by the community. She may be unable to marry or to stay married. In certain societies, a woman who has been raped may be perceived as the culprit, and consequently may be liable to punishment.
Where the negative consequences of reporting sexual violence can include ostracism the disintegration of a family, detention and trial, stigmatization, or further attacks by the perpetrators, there is a strong likelihood of under-reporting of sexual violence.
Male victims' reluctance to report
* When men or boys are victims of sexual violence, some of these problems can be compounded. While at least some legal and social networks, however rudimentary, often exist for women and girls who have been sexually attacked, there is rarely anything comparable for male victims.
* Men may experience profound humiliation, taking the assault as a slur on their virility or manhood.
* In many societies men are discouraged from talking about their emotions and may find it very difficult to acknowledge and describe what has happened to them.
For these reasons, it is suspected that the reported cases of sexual violence against males are a fraction of the true number of cases.
Personal discomfort of refugee workers or officials
* Refugee workers, community leaders or officials may avoid confronting, remedying and preventing acts of sexual violence because of their personal discomfort with the subject. They may also fear that raising the issue with the Government could damage relations or their own image. While it is hoped that these Guidelines and/or receiving training may help dispel the personal discomfort of refugee workers, sexual violence is an intrinsically disturbing subject which often provokes strong emotional responses. It is essential to overcome the resistance, whether of ourselves or our counterparts, to discuss the problem frankly and openly.
Dismissal by refugee workers or officials as a private matter
* The discomfort which refugee workers or officials may feel about sexual violence can be aggravated by a tendency to dismiss it as a purely private matter, or as an inevitable by-product of the situation. This shows a lackof awareness. It is important to understand that sexual violence is a serious violation of an individual's personal security and integrity. It is UNHCR's responsibility to ensure protection and assistance.
Additional reasons for non-reporting
* Reluctance of the authorities in many countries to identify and prosecute the assailants.
* Inability of the refugee to speak the local language, or to report to officers of the same gender.
* Fear of reprisals in circumstances when the violence was perpetrated by someone in authority, such as a camp guard; anonymity in refugee situations may, to some, offer greater protection.
1.5 Effects of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence can have serious physical, social, intellectual and psychological consequences. Professional medical, legal and psychosocial care is required. Reactions are likely to vary considerably depending on the victim's age, gender, personality, prior sexual experience, cultural background, and the availability of a support network.
* The physical consequences of sexual violence may include HIV infection, sexually transmitted diseases, mutilated genitalia, pregnancy, miscarriage of an existing foetus, abortion, menstrual disorder, severe abdominal pain and self-mutilation as a result of psychological trauma.
* Where women and girls have undergone extreme forms of female genital mutilation, they may suffer extensive injuries if their genitalia are reopened by a sharp instrument or by the force of penetration itself.
* Even if physical injury is minimal, all victims experience psychological trauma. They may feel paralyzed by terror, experience physical and emotional pain, intense self-disgust, powerlessness, worthlessness, apathy, denial and an inability to function in their daily lives. In the worst cases they may experience deep depression leading to chronic mental disorders, suicide, illegal termination of pregnancy, endangering their lives, or abandonment of their babies. Cases of infanticide of children born as a result of rape have also been reported.
For further discussion see 3.9 (a) Common Psychological Reactions.
* As noted in 1.4 above, the social consequences of sexual violence can range from rejection by the spouse and immediate family members, to stigmatization or ostracism by the community, further sexual exploitation, and/or severe punishment. They can also include deprivation of education, employment and other types of assistance and protection.
It is therefore extremely important to be aware of signs of sexual violence and to investigate discreetly if there is any suspicion that an individual may have been subjected to it. Such investigation must be done in a sensitive and sympathetic way with complete respect for confidentiality. See 3.3 Identifying Incidents of Sexual Violence.
1.6 Causes of Sexual Violence
Section 1.3 above describes situations in which incidents of sexual violence may occur. From this knowledge it is possible to extrapolate the following causes and/or circumstances which allow sexual attacks to take place.
a) Society (of refugees, and surroundings)
* Sexual violence in the country of origin may have a political motive, for example where mass rape of populations is used to dominate, control and/or uproot, or where sexual torture is used as a method of interrogation. Sometimes sexual violence is used as a weapon of warfare, to humiliate or cause the disintegration of another community, as a part of "ethnic cleansing".
* Attacks by neighbouring groups may occur in areas where refugees are considered materially privileged compared with the local population. Within camps, women who are economically successful have been targeted.
* Attacks by the local population because of the consequences flowing from refugee presence, such as fear of criminal activities, racism, xenophobia and other concerns including degradation of the environment and depletion of natural resources.
* Traditional tensions and feuds between various clans/groups may also give rise to sexual violence.
* The collapse of traditional societal support mechanisms (social sanctions, norms for proper behaviour, etc.) when refugees were forced to flee or to live in camp surroundings. In particular, the communal support systems for the protection of vulnerable individuals may no longer be present, for example, due to the absence of many male members from the community.
* Male attitudes of disrespect towards women may be instrumental in causing incidents of sexual violence. For example, camp guards and male refugees may look upon unaccompanied women and girls in refugee camps as common sexual property. Husbands or other male family members may also abuse a victim of a previous attack because they believe she is no longer "virtuous".
* Psychological strain on refugee men in not being able to assume normal cultural, social and economic roles, may cause aggressive behaviour towards women. Many other aspects of refugee life can aggravate this, including idleness, anger at loss of control and power, uncertainty about the future, and frustration with living conditions.
* Alcohol and drug abuse can result in violent behaviour within families and communities. Such abuse is often linked to boredom. depression and stress.
* Sexual violence during flight or in the country of asylum can occur because of the special vulnerability and powerlessness of refugees, including the need for "safe" passage. This is underlined by the common misconception held by people who come into contact with refugees, such as members of the military and police, that they are not legally protected outside their country of origin.
* Females who are on their own for whatever reason, whether they are single, widowed, abandoned, unaccompanied minors, lone heads of households, or women who have been separated from male family members by the chaos of flight or during voluntary repatriation, are all particularly at risk of sexual violence.
* Where foster care placement of children occurs without proper screening of families or monitoring of the child's welfare, the refugee child may be exposed to sexual abuse.
* Incarceration in closed detention facilities may compound the problems of sexual violence. In a number of countries, all individuals who enter illegally or without authorization are subject to detention regardless of age, sex, or their status as asylum-seekers. In some cases, asylum applicants are incarcerated with criminals, children with unrelated adults, females with males.
* Refugee women without proper personal documentation are susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse. In many refugee situations, women are not routinely provided with documents showing that they are legally in the country. The male family member may have been designated as the head of household and given the relevant documents; he may not be present to produce these documents before the authorities as and when required. Similarly, refugee women may not be given individual registration cards or documents with which they collect food rations, shelter material and qualify for other forms of assistance.
* Male responsibility for distribution of goods and necessities may expose women to sexual exploitation. In camps where male authorities or male refugees have this responsibility, women may be coerced into sexual acts. For example sexual favours may be demanded in exchange for food rations.
c) Camp design and location
* The geographical location of a refugee camp may increase the likelihood of sexual violence, if the camp is located in an area which has a serious crime problem for example, or is geographically isolated from the local population.
* The design and social structure in many refugee camps and settlements may contribute to the likelihood of protection problems. Camps are often overcrowded. Unrelated families may need to share communal living and sleeping space. In effect, such refugees are living among strangers. perhaps among persons who could be considered traditional enemies.
* Poor design of services and facilities may also contribute to security problems. Communal latrines and washing facilities may be at some distance from the living quarters, thereby increasing the potential for attacks. Many camps are not lit, or poorly lit, compounding these risks at night. Night patrols exist in some camps, but not in others. The distance refugees must travel to food, water and fuel distribution points or collection areas may also expose them to danger. Also, where refugees are housed in centres and camps, sleeping rooms and washing facilities usually cannot be locked.
* The lack of police protection and general lawlessness in some camps is also a factor. Police may accept bribes in exchange for not investigating complaints, or for releasing the alleged perpetrators from custody. Police officers, military personnel, camp administrators or other government officers may themselves be involved in acts of abuse or exploitation.
d) UNHCR/Other presence
* The lack of UNHCR or NGO access to, or presence in, camps, particularly at night can be a contributing factor. The absence of an independent presence in camps is thought likely to increase the risks of attacks on personal security, including sexual violence. At the same time, the security situation might not allow for this presence.
1.7 False Claims
One should not overlook the possibility, even though remote, that reports of sexual violence may be fabricated for a variety of reasons, for example, to bring undesirable repercussions to others in the course of domestic or inter-community disputes, for financial gain, or to advance resettlement prospects.