Earlier this month the United Nations General Assembly declared June 19th the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. This new international commemoration will provide the international community an additional platform on which to stand in solidarity with the survivors and pay tribute to those working to end sexual violence in conflict.
And it couldn’t come at a more critical time. Sexual violence in conflict -- against women, girls, men and boys -- is a global scourge. Women and children are disproportionately affected by such violence and its use as a tactic of war often tears apart the social fabric that holds communities together.
We see this as in Syria, where the Syrian Armed Forces, intelligence services, and pro-government forces use sexual violence against people fleeing the conflict. Non-state actors also use conflict-related sexual violence not only to terrorize women and children, but to suppress opposition and punish people with different beliefs.
Boko Haram’s gross violence against women and girls -- abduction and rape often exercised under the cover of false terms like “marriage,” or the use of girls as suicide bombers -- reflects its toxic ideology.
And in Iraq, ISIL uses sexual slavery to further devastate members of minority communities.
As the UN’s Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict has noted repeatedly, sexual and gender-based violence has become an ingrained aspect of ISIL’s overall strategy to control territory, destroy the social fabric of communities, and recruit new fighters.
In the past few years, Special Representative Zainab Bangura has demonstrated global leadership and tackled this issue head-on. Her efforts have resulted in significant changes in the way we approach conflict-related sexual violence. She is charting new territory and testing new approaches for working with governments to cultivate the will necessary to stop sexual violence in its tracks -- and hold perpetrators accountable.
Over the last two decades, the international community has increasingly galvanized around this issue, denouncing the culture of impunity surrounding sexual violence and supporting the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, many of which have been a catalyst for judicial and legal reform, and for social policies that empower, rather than stigmatize, survivors. In the past year alone we have seen concrete action, especially in countries deeply affected by the specter of conflict-related sexual violence. For instance, the Presidents of Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kosovo all recently acknowledged that restoring the dignity of survivors must be at the heart of efforts to build, and sustain, peace. Yet while we have seen progress, there is much more that remains to be done.
Preventing sexual violence is about our common humanity. The international community must continue our work to protect all people from the crimes of sexual violence and improve measures to protect those most at risk. We must all stand united and take urgent action to combat this behavior.
The Obama Administration has made the protection and promotion of women’s rights fundamental to its foreign policy. The United States will continue to use any platform -- from UN international commemorations to other multilateral fora -- to draw much needed attention to and to encourage action. This day of commemoration is another way to do just this. We welcome it.
About the Authors: Stephenie Foster serves as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and Blake Peterson serves as a Policy Advisor on women, peace, and security in the Office of Global Women's Issues.
For more information:
- Learn how the Department is addressing violence against women and girls.
- Learn more about the work o the Department's Office of Global Women's Issues.
- Learn about USAID’s work to combat gender-based violence.
- Read the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.
- See how the UN is taking action against sexual violence in conflict.