For much of human history, conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) has been treated as an inevitable consequence of war. Each act of sexual violence has potentially inter-generational consequences for survivors, families and communities. It risks triggering acts of retaliation, vengeance and renewed violence.
Twenty years ago, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged the widespread occurrence of sexual violence in conflict. In the past decade it has specifically recognized it as a tactic of war and terror requiring dedicated attention and resources. CRSV is a peace and security, human rights, justice and accountability, and gender inequality issue. Its prevention, deterrence and response are fundamentally political issues.
The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) has prioritized CRSV prevention and response in a new women, peace and security policy. The aim is to ensure that CRSV considerations are integrated throughout all stages of the Department’s work: from raising red flags on early warning signs, such as escalating violent and misogynist rhetoric, to mainstreaming risks throughout our gender-sensitive conflict analysis; from using our good offices to advocate with political and military leaders to prohibit sexual violence acts, to safeguarding against efforts to grant amnesty for violations in ceasefire and peace agreements; and from strengthening deterrence by supporting transitional justice and accountability mechanisms, to ensuring our peacebuilding efforts engage and reach survivors and their families.
DPPA has deployed Senior Women Protection Advisors to Iraq and Somalia, to engage survivor and advocate groups, monitor and verify acts of sexual violence, analyze trends, advise leadership on prevention and response and ensure CRSV considerations are fully integrated into mission planning, analysis, and operational activities. On International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, marked annually on 19 June, we are taking a closer look at the issue, highlighting our work in Iraq. To help us do so, we spoke to Noel Kututwa, of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
Politically Speaking: How much of your work or the missions’ work concerns addressing CRSV? Where does that work fit in the broader peace and security agenda of the UN?
Noel Kututwa: As the Senior Women Protection Advisor, my work focuses solely on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). My job is to mainstream the work of conflict-related sexual violence within the mission, in my case the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). This means that the mission has to take CRSV issues into account in all its interventions. UNAMI’s role is to liaise with the government, to support the government on political issues and the work on legislative and policy issues. Our main function is to provide good offices and technical support to the government in order for the government to implement its CRSV mandate.
The UN country team, and specifically the agencies that have a mandate on supporting either women, girls, or children generally, their role is more programmatic. The agencies we work very closely with are the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Those are the four key agencies. And of course, UN Women has a mandate on issues that relate to women and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is coordinating all the humanitarian assistance.
In addition to mainstreaming CRSV work within the Mission, one of my roles is to lead the UNAMI’s work on supporting the Government of Iraq to implement the Joint Communique on the Response and Ending of Sexual Violence. On 23 September 2016, the United Nations signed a Joint Communiqué with the Government of Iraq to prevent and address conflict-related sexual violence covering among others: legislative and policy reform; accountability; services and reparations; and awareness-raising. The Joint Communique provided a basis for the development of an implementation plan which is being used to address key areas in the fight against CRSV.
Now, related to that is the issue of reparations. It’s important to support survivors by paying reparations. As we know, conflict breaks up the fabric of society. It breaks up families, it breaks up how things function normally. Reparations are one way of supporting those communities to recover. Reparations can be at individual level, where the survivors and the victims of CRSV are paid some form of reparations. Or it can be community-based, where whole communities are rehabilitated, taking into account the destruction that the conflict caused.
Another important piece is mental health and psychosocial support to address the trauma that conflicts create. ISIL was particularly brutal, not only related to CRSV, but also other human rights violations, public executions, which they would record, put on the internet and widely circulate. When it comes to survivors of sexual violence, most of them were abducted when they were still young girls. They are still young; some are still in their early 20s. They need a lot of support to overcome the trauma. There’s a lot of healing that needs to take place. So, psychosocial support is a key component that needs to be delivered.
All this is done in the context of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) framework, which looks at the need for women to participate in peace, mediation and political processes. It’s important that women and women’s voices are brought to the table in all of these negotiations. Now, women cannot participate fully without their physical security, without security of mind, to know they can freely express themselves. This is why CRSV is part of the WPS agenda. Some of these issues are exacerbated by cultural issues, which can make it very difficult for women to fully realize their potential, to fully participate, have their voices heard and sit around the table with all the other actors.
Another big area of work is reporting. This refers to monitoring any new incidents of CRSV that take place. We are looking specifically at sexual violence that is perpetrated by parties to the conflict. Now, because Iraq is currently in a post-conflict situation, we are no longer seeing the high numbers of CRSV crimes as we would see between 2014 and 2017, at the height of the conflict. What we see now is that some violence continues. It hasn’t been eradicated completely, especially in IDP camps where most of the survivors are. There are Iraqi security forces but also remnants of ISIL, who continue to perpetrate acts of sexual violence.
Has UNAMI conducted advocacy to change attitudes and strengthen support for preventing and responding to CRSV?
Of course, UNAMI does advocacy at various levels. There’s the advocacy that’s done by senior mission leadership: The Special Representative (SRSG), the Deputy Special Representative (DSRSG)/ Political, as well as the DSRSG/Humanitarian Coordinator. The Chief Human Rights Officer for UNAMI also plays a critical role when it comes to advocacy on CRSV matters. They each play a specific role when it comes to advocacy. There are certain issues, depending on the sensitivity and magnitude of the issue, where we require that they be raised with either the President or the Prime Minister. The senior UNAMI leadership are the ones who will deliver those messages on our behalf. And not just to country leadership, but also to religious leadership. For example, in April last year, the SRSG had a meeting with the spiritual leader of the Yazidis, the highest official of the Yazidi religion, to raise the issue of children born of rape, the issue of supporting these mothers, and to advocate for the Yazidis to accept those children into their communities.
I mentioned the Joint Communiqué earlier. My day to day work as the Senior Women Protection Adviser is to advocate and to reach out to my counterparts in the government. But in fact, advocacy on CRSV issues is everybody’s job, because CRSV is mainstreamed into all of UNAMI’s work.
The country team also has an important role to play, because they are the ones who provide the programmatic support to government counterparts and also work with civil society organizations. They also advocate with their government and civil society counterparts. But to ensure that all of that advocacy is coordinated and that we’re all communicating the same message, that is the role of UNAMI.
Where do you see the CRSV agenda heading in the next five to ten years?
The CRSV agenda has seen phenomenal growth. We just recently, in October 2019, celebrated its ten-year anniversary. In these short ten years, there are already seven Security Council resolutions on CRSV. Given the importance of CRSV, the acknowledgement by UN member states and the Security Council of the need to address CRSV and the unfortunate fact that CRSV continues to occur in situations of conflict, whether in full-blown conflict or in situations of civil unrest, I think the CRSV agenda will continue to grow. The latest Security Council resolution 2467 (2019) adopted on 29 April 2019, focuses on a survivor-centered approach to CRSV, calls for a more holistic understanding of justice and accountability which includes the provision of reparations for survivors as well as livelihood support to enable them to rebuild their lives and support their families, including the children born of sexual violence in conflict who are also stigmatized and suffer in silence and shame, often stateless, and acutely vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization by armed groups. So, I see the mandate becoming stronger and stronger. Using Iraq as an example, there’s this big problem of children born of war. Obviously, it’s not just in Iraq, it’s in many other countries as well, which have gone through conflict. These countries end up with a legacy of children born as a result of women and girls who were raped. What happens to those children? Mechanisms need to be put in place in order to avoid future conflict. There’s no point in ignoring the problem, because that problem will only resurface and create more problems in the future.
It is very important for the government to be committed to addressing CRSV, because ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government. As the UN, our role is to support the government to fulfill its international obligations to the population within its borders. CRSV issues must be prioritized, even as the country is addressing issues of post-conflict reconstruction. CRSV should not slip off the agenda during this difficult period, because addressing and resolving issues of vulnerable people means a more durable peace will be achieved. I commend the Government of Iraq for its commitment and the resources it has put towards the issue, but I would also make a clarion call that they should not deprioritize the work on CRSV. They should continue, and in fact, put more resources, to ensure that this issue is addressed once and for all.
As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, is there any good news to share? What are some of the interventions that have been particularly impactful?
CRSV is very slow work, it is difficult work. It’s also difficult to measure the progress, because it’s very incremental, but progress is there. The good news is that the survivors of CRSV are very resilient. They are very strong. I’ve met numerous women and girls, who were subjected to sexual violence during conflict, and I’m always inspired by their strength, their resilience, their ability to recover, the ability to even forgive the past, their willingness to help others, their compassion, and their willingness to move on with their lives. I’ve met young Yazidi women in Iraq who were so full of life, who accept that the past is the past. They don’t harbor any ill feelings. They don’t harbor any bitterness. They accept that what happened, happened, and they are looking forward. All that is partly possible because of the recognition that they receive. The world now accepts that CRSV is wrong and needs to be stopped. People accept that it was not the women’s fault; they didn’t ask for it. The world supports and understands them and there’s compassion.
There are now many organizations that work with survivors of sexual violence, who provide for their needs on a day to day basis, and who are able to provide particularly the psychosocial support, enabling them to recover. It’s a testament to the human spirit, being able to recover and to overcome very difficult circumstances. So, there are some good news stories. Most of them are human stories, where people have overcome some of the most horrendous, horrific crimes, but they still live with dignity, able to move on with their lives without any bitterness, pick up whatever pieces they’re able to and reconstruct their lives.
Another good news, of course, is the fact that member states themselves, acknowledge that CRSV is a big problem and that all peacekeeping operations and special political missions have CRSV mandates. And in countries where there’s no peace operation, the UN country team takes care of CRSV issues.
Another thing that I want to mention is the role of men. Men are the ones who perpetrate most of these atrocities in the context of war, but when it comes to addressing and supporting survivors and victims, men have an important role to play. They are the religious and traditional leaders, they are fathers and brothers, and even the political leaders are mostly men. So it’s important that they also acknowledge and speak out against conflict-related sexual violence, create room for survivors and for victims to be able to openly speak about their experiences, to acknowledge that these things should not have happened, and even to apologize on behalf of fellow men. In my work, I’ve come across women who’ve said that the fact that there are men who work in the area of CRSV, who are sympathetic and empathetic to survivors has helped them.
What is the impact of COVID-19 on your work?
COVID-19 has had a very severe impact. In Iraq, we support the survivors of CRSV. Most of those survivors are internally displaced and live in IDP camps. They are already the most vulnerable people. The closure of businesses, the closure of normal life has meant for day laborers, which most internally displaced persons are, a loss of income and very limited safety nets. If they don’t work, they don’t earn. And if you don’t earn, you don’t eat.
The second thing that COVID-19 has done, is to highlight even further that those who are more vulnerable, are even more vulnerable to things such as a pandemic. They not only lost their income, but women and girls who go to a health center to access their usual medication and psychosocial services, are not able to access those services anymore due to movement restrictions.
A third problem is domestic violence - being locked up for long periods of time with a person who is the perpetrator of domestic violence in a confined space. What we saw was a spike in domestic violence cases, including for survivors. But, again, because services were closed, they were not able to report to the police, they were not able to access women’s shelters, they were not able to access medical care.
It still remains to be seen what the full impact of COVID-19 is going to be. But one thing that’s for sure is that there will be less jobs after COVID-19, income is likely to be reduced and because of the recession, it also means prices will go up. It will deepen poverty, which places an additional burden on the states. I think it’s difficult to fully try and anticipate what will happen, but from what we’ve seen already, it is quite devastating.