Recommitting to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict

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Afghan girls gather together.
Afghan girls gather together, in a refugee camp in Kabul.

Recommitting to Combat Sexual Violence in Conflict

Three years ago the international community marked the very first International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Sexual violence can be used as a weapon, wielded strategically to exploit and terrorize vulnerable populations -- particularly women and girls -- in a crisis.  It is currently a reality in conflict and displacement, including the well-publicized and not-so well-known places around the world.  ISIS has used sexual violence against minority communities in Iraq, with devastating consequences for the Yezidi population.  Sexual violence can be used to punish and terrorize women and girls, as well as entire populations, and destroys the very social fabric that holds communities together. It can set in motion cycles of shame and isolation, violence and retaliation, and foster distrust and hatred.  Sexual violence is used as a tool of terrorism to exert power, or to reward or even to build relationships among fighters.  The United States continues to recognize how it is used and make strides toward integrating sexual violence prevention and response at the outset of crises and as a key component in efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism.

The most vulnerable communities, including women and children displaced by conflict and famine, continue to be subjected to sexual violence and sexual exploitation by the very persons responsible for their safety and welfare.  The U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security fortifies U.S. efforts to protect women and children from harm, exploitation, discrimination, and abuse, including all forms of gender-based violence.  It seeks to provide comprehensive services and empower women with the tools they need to be equal partners in preventing conflict, improving resilience, and building peace.    

We also need to help ensure that crimes of sexual violence are prosecuted – whether in domestic courts or by international and mixed tribunals - with the same determination as other crimes.  This means in the first instance calling on countries to investigate and prosecute these crimes in their domestic jurisdictions, and, where needed and requested, finding ways to help build capacity in areas such as forensics, evidence collection, and case-building.  Holding those responsible accountable is a key component to helping to break cycles of violence and instability.  At the same time, accountability mechanisms must be implemented alongside humanitarian and development programs which include medical, psychosocial, and legal service provision.

Today, we renew our commitment to combat sexual violence in conflict, working with like-minded governments, civil society, and other partners internationally.  Environments where sexual violence can occur -- and can occur with impunity -- threaten global stability and detract from our own efforts to strengthen national security.  We must do better to provide women and girls the support that they need and deserve in the most difficult and dangerous conflicts around the world. 

About the Author: Betty Bernstein-Zabza serves as Senior Advisor and Director of Operations of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

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