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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sexual Violence: A Global Human Rights Violation

The following post is the third in a series examining the causes and consequences of sexual violence in past and present conflicts throughout the world, as well as widespread sexual violence committed and/or sanctioned by governments through a lack of attention to the issue and a failure to punish perpetrators.

Sexual violence is pervasive throughout the world…Each year, hundreds of thousands of women are forced into prostitution, and thousands of young girls are genitally mutilated. In armed conflicts, countless women and girls are raped and sexually abused by security forces and opposition groups as an act of war, and often face additional violence in refugee camps. Government sponsored violence also exists in peacetime, with women assaulted while in police custody, in prison, and at the hands of any number of state actors.[1]

It is important to stress that sexual violence does not exist in isolation. It is part of a larger issue of discrimination against women and the acceptance of the violent use of women’s bodies for sexual gratification or to achieve political purposes.[2] In addition to rape, sexual violence encompasses actions including forced marriage, kidnapping and keeping women in sexual slavery, female genital mutilation, forced abortions, the trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and forced prostitution.[3] Further, women may be at increased risk for sexual violence based on additional factors including race, ethnicity, religion, class, caste, age, and socioeconomic status.[4] Women who live in conflict situations, female refugees, and women in police custody are often also at increased risk of sexual violence.[5]

In “Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence: Findings from the World Report on Violence and Health,” authors gathered research from over 160 experts from approximately 70 countries, as well as from published literature on violence. Consequently, this report discusses biological, social, cultural, economic, and political factors that influence the occurrence and prevalence of sexual violence in societies throughout the world.[6]

It is important to stress that despite the prevalence of sexual violence, it does not have to be an inevitable occurrence.[7] However, in light of the large number of women and girls who experience sexual violence every year, it is imperative that advocates and policy makers all over the world work together to develop solutions to eradicate this crime.[8]

War adds to the urgency. It not only ravages our world, people, and economies; war increases the risk of sexual violence. The needs and experiences of refugees and those that are trafficked illustrate the importance of building relationships and resources within a global community context.[9]

In order to eliminate sexual violence, it is important to first identify and address the individual and societal risk factors that increase the chance that men will commit acts of sexual violence.

Some of these risk factors include:[10]
  • Using alcohol and drugs;
  • Attitudes and beliefs that support sexual violence and are hostile towards women;
  • Hanging out with other men who are sexually aggressive;
  • Experiences of sexual abuse as a child;
  • Strict and traditional gender roles where males are considered superior, thereby creating a situation of gender-based inequality;
  • Environments where sexual violence is not recognized or punished due to absent or weak sanctions and/or social services;
  • Societies where “concepts of male honor and entitlement are accepted;” and
  • Violent conflict or war.

Due to the fact these factors have been identified as increasing the risk that men and boys will engage in acts of sexual violence, it is imperative that advocates, researchers, educators, medical personnel, the judiciary, and policy-makers work together to:[11]

  • Research the causes, consequences, and ways to prevent sexual violence;
  • Promote gender and social equality and equity in order to prevent violence;
  • Increase the capacity to collect data on violence;
  • Strengthen support services for sexual violence survivors; and
  • Develop a national plan of action to work towards the elimination of this form of violence against women.

These steps are especially urgent considering the fact that hundreds of thousands of women in countries throughout the world, such as Rwanda, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Timor Leste, Uganda, Afghanistan, Burundi, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chad, Peru, Chechnya, Somalia, Cyprus, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have experienced rape as a weapon of war in conflicts throughout the 20th century.[12]

Immediate action is also needed in light of the numerous physical, sexual, and psychological consequences of sexual violence. Physical injuries may include fractures, chronic pain, and cuts and bruises. Sexual and reproductive consequences may include unwanted pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, gynecological disorders, unsafe abortions, complications with pregnancy and delivery, miscarriages, and sexually transmitted diseases and infections including HIV/AIDS. Women who are subjected to sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) may also experience psychological consequences including depression and anxiety, eating and sleep disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, and poor self-esteem. Finally, suicide, AIDS-related death, and death during pregnancy or delivery may occur after a woman has experienced sexual violence.[13] In this way, the prevalence of sexual violence throughout the world and the consequences associated with this form of violence necessitate a thorough examination of this phenomenon, as well as coordinated efforts to develop policies and initiatives that get to the root causes of sexual violence throughout the world.

[1] “A Fact Sheet on Sexual Violence: A Human Rights Violation.” Amnesty International.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. AND “Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence: Findings from the World Report on Violence and Health.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2004): 5.
[4] “A Fact Sheet on Sexual Violence: A Human Rights Violation.” Amnesty International.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Global Perspectives on Sexual Violence: Findings from the World Report on Violence and Health.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2004) : 1.
[7] Ibid., 3.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 7-9.
[11] Ibid., 14-15
[12] Jeanne Ward, “Broken Bodies-Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed,” OCHA/IRIN (November 2005): 177-189. AND UNIFEM, “Facts and Figures on VAW,” (accessed January 20, 2010). AND “Civilians in War Zones: Women and Children Worst," The Economist vol. 390 (February 21, 2009): 61. AND “Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War,” The State of the World’s Children 1996 – UNICEF, (accessed February 10, 2010).
[13] “Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Africa: Literature Review.” Population Council (February 2008): 7-8.

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