Ensuring That Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Are Not Left Behind in the Sustainable Development Agenda

Pramila Patten, addresses the Security Council’s open debate on women, peace and security on the topic: “Preventing sexual violence in conflict through empowerment, gender equality and access to justice”. April 2018. © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Consider the plight of a woman who has been raped, cast out of her home and community due to stigma, and forced to fend for herself and her dependent children in an environment of ongoing insecurity. This woman will confront greater threats and be forced to take greater risks because the basic needs of her family are not being met.

In an historic effort to reverse this vicious cycle of violence, exploitation and poverty, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. At the heart of this framework is a commitment to human rights, non-discrimination and a promise to leave no one behind. This Agenda, unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded it, includes a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (SDG 5), as well as gender equality targets pertinent to other goals. The inclusion of the goal on gender equality, particularly its target 5.2, gives renewed impetus to ending all forms of violence against women and girls “in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation”. This target reflects global recognition that eliminating violence against women and girls is key to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, which in turn are essential conditions for sustainable development.

With the advent of the 2030 Agenda, we are better poised than ever before to tackle the gender-based discrimination that is the root cause and invisible driver of sexual violence in times of war and peace. It is the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence that leaves women and girls furthest behind in terms of development, locking them in situations of poverty and vulnerability that persist across generations. If we are to achieve the SDGs and eliminate gender-based violence by 2030, it will be critical to economically empower women and foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

My work as United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has taken me to many war-torn corners of the globe, where I have met countless courageous and resilient women. In many of these contexts, especially in agricultural societies, women are the backbone of the informal economy. When war erupts, and the threat of rape at gunpoint becomes a pervasive terror, women are unable to safely access fields, marketplaces and water points. Girls are unable to safely attend school. To cite just one example, more than half of all sexual assaults documented in Darfur, Sudan, occur in the course of essential sustenance activities, such as when women are forced to venture out to remote areas to collect fuel and firewood. Moreover, the burden of care that war leaves behind in its wake, including care for the wounded, sick, traumatized and orphaned, is disproportionately borne by women.

Statistics reveal the devastating economic and health effects of war on women. Maternal mortality rates more than double in war-torn countries, the number of women holding legal title to land is almost halved and the net enrolment of girls in primary school drops dramatically, while early marriage spikes because families have no other means of providing for or safeguarding their daughters. Conflict diverts resources from essential public services to military spending, stunting growth on all human development indicators. In addition, in many settings, women themselves are reduced to commodities to be owned, trafficked and traded, as part of the political economy of conflict and terrorism, as the world so graphically witnessed during ISIL’s reign of terror in Iraq and Syria.

Armed, terrorist and transnational criminal groups directly profit from trafficking, with victims being either abducted or deceived by false promises of lucrative job offers. Their dreams of finding safety and opportunity become nightmares of sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Conflict thus compounds the pre-existing gender gap in access to land and other productive resources, and in some cases, reduces women to an expendable form of “currency”, through which armed and violent extremist groups consolidate their power. Although it is clear that, in the long-term, self-reliance, economic empowerment and political voice are the most effective forms of protection from sexual and gender-based violence, in times of war, desperate families increasingly resort to harmful and negative coping mechanisms, including the withdrawal of women and girls from educational and employment opportunities, forced early marriage and commercial sexual exploitation.

Both men and women suffer the pain of poverty and war, but structural bias means that women have far fewer resources with which to cope, including less access to food, health care, and paid employment; to information and technology; and to the corridors of power where decisions are made. Neither poverty nor war is gender-neutral, so our responses cannot be gender-blind. It is a product of gender discrimination that 60 per cent of those who go chronically hungry are women and girls; that, globally, women earn less than men; and that nearly two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. It is the product of biased social norms that, in the face of poverty and social upheaval, it is girls who are forced into child marriage, who are viewed by their family as a liability, and who forego food, healthcare and education. It is women and girls who die while giving life, with 99 per cent of all maternal deaths occurring in the developing world. It is women who are least likely to hold a bank account or other assets in their own name. Thus, it is women and girls who are first and worst affected by the collapse of health systems and of law and order institutions in times of war.

Among the resources women lack, perhaps the most precious is time. Shouldering the burden of unpaid labour—cooking, cleaning, and caring—keeps women impoverished, while men invest those hours in lucrative work, education, and political and civic engagement. In developing countries, three quarters of men’s work-time, but only one third of women’s, is spent on income-producing activities.

It is time to remove all impediments to women’s full and formal participation in political, economic and social life, and to make financial, justice and security sector institutions equally accessible and responsive to women. As women begin to hold title to land and other resources, they also gain greater bargaining power at home, a voice in decision-making, and enhanced resilience to economic and security shocks, which reduce their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence.

Conversely, widespread and systematic sexual violence hampers post-conflict recovery by inflicting lasting physical and psychological scars on survivors, marginalizing victims and excluding them from the workforce. Survivors also endure multiple, intersecting stigmas in the wake of sexual violence. Stigma and victim-blaming give the weapon of rape its uniquely destructive power, shredding the social fabric and turning victims into outcasts. The children whose existence emanates from this violence may be susceptible to recruitment, radicalization and trafficking, and struggle with issues of social identity and belonging in highly polarized, conflict-affected societies.

Gender-based violence was considered the “missing dimension” of the MDGs. Today, the SDGs provide a comprehensive blueprint for addressing violence against women and enhancing peace and shared prosperity. The international community has set its sights on the year 2030 as the expiry date for gender-based inequality and violence in all its forms. The survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, whose lives and livelihoods have been shattered by war, must not be left behind in these efforts. They have a right to justice, reparations and redress, including the restitution of any land or property that was forcibly misappropriated during war. Legislating gender equality in all fields is not just the right thing to do; it is also smart economics and a social justice imperative. In the immortal words of Nelson Mandela, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.”