Under a huge baobab tree in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, I met Sebila, a 27-year-old mother of three. In March last year, her village had been attacked by Sudanese ground troops and bombed by government war planes. The assault forced Sebila and many other villagers to flee deeper into rebel-held territory.

She was just back in the village for the day with her children, two toddlers in tow and carrying a baby, to dig up sorghum she had buried. Sebila said food here is scarcer than it has been for years, because of poor rains and conflict fighting. “It’s exhausting, trying to feed them all [my family],” Sebila said of her children.

Aid obstruction in the rebel-held territories of Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile has been in force for nearly six years, and has had a devastating impact on the communities here. For Sebila – and all the women living across these territories – it has meant no access to contraception. “Every year, I give birth,” she told me. “It would be better if I could space it [out].” But Sebila cannot space her babies out, or have any control of her body. Like all women living in rebel-held territory here, she has zero access to contraception.

 In the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, access to family planning and maternal healthcare is severely limited by blocks on humanitarian supplies.

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

It has also meant a severe lack of maternal healthcare. There is no local midwife, and Sebila lives five hours’ drive from a hospital, in a region where cars are a rare luxury. Women told me of waiting hours for transport while in obstructed labour, or being held propped up, bleeding and falling in and out of consciousness, between two men on the back of a motorcycle to reach a hospital. Multiple and closely-spaced births can carry serious health risks for both mother and infant, and can be life-threatening without proper treatment.

Yet there is no coordinated international aid effort under way in the Nuba mountains. Funds are in place, but both the government and the rebel group are preventing supplies getting in. The conflict has left already-stretched health services in the region in a pitiful state. Most facilities are little more than a table with some basic medicines, and there are only five doctors and one blood bank for perhaps close to a million people.

Despite many rounds of peace talks since fighting began in 2011, the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North have failed to agree on how to allow aid – needs-based and impartially delivered – into the affected areas. Instead they are still arguing about whether aid can come through a third country, or, as the government insists, only from inside Sudan. Some aid groups have found ways to provide occasional help, unauthorised by the government but supported by the rebels, but this is no substitute for the large-scale effort needed. 

This has very serious consequences for reproductive health. None of the women I met in the Nuba mountains had any access to family planning. One clinic provides a three-month injectable contraception, but local rebel regulations require women to get their husband’s permission first. Despite evidence that gonorrhoea and syphilis are on the rise and hepatitis B common, condoms are scarce. Most of the women I met had never seen a condom, let alone any other form of contraception.

It is also feared that the number of women and girls dying in childbirth in the rebel-held areas of Southern Kordofan – already much higher than other states in Sudan – is rising yet further. And two major aid efforts, including a UN polio vaccination campaign for children, have failed.

Sudan has a long history of aid obstruction going back to the start of the conflict: denying travel permits; rejecting visas; blocking work permits; and expelling aid workers. Meanwhile, citing mistrust of the government, the rebels have still not agreed to an offer by the US to provide aid via Khartoum, and have instead called for yet more negotiations. 

Although aid saves lives, and warring parties in conflict have an obligation to allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians, preventing it from reaching people is rarely punished. The UN security council briefly threatened punitive action against Sudan in 2012, but never acted. The health crisis unfolding in the Nuba mountains should prompt a change of tack. The UN security council, the African Union and the EU should investigate and consider travel bans and asset freezes on rebel and government leaders found to have deliberately blocked such deliveries. 

International aid is often a lifeline to civilians trapped in conflict. And it would help women like Sebila to access contraception, avoid risky childbirth, and feed their children.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Sarah Jamal Ahmed, a 24-year-old sociologist who was one of the activists during the 2011 uprising in Sanaa, stands by posters of dead protesters posted in the streets.

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line and men were forced to accept us. But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.

—Salwa Bughaighis, lawyer and human rights activist, Benghazi, Libya, July 2012[i]

In 2011, women were at the forefront as the Arab Spring erupted in Libya, organizing and demanding their rights to have a voice in their country’s future. The ensuing civil war resulted in the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi being toppled.  In the transitional period following that armed conflict women organized as voters and candidates in preparation for elections, documented human rights abuses, and worked to ensure any new constitution would enshrine women’s rights.

The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line and men were forced to accept us. But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.

Salwa Bughaighis

Lawyer and human rights activist, Benghazi, Libya, July 2012

Iman and Salwa Bughaighis—sisters and human rights activists—were among the key organizers of the first demonstrations against Gaddafi in Benghazi in February 2011. “The revolution was an earthquake to the cultural status of women in Libya,” Iman told Human Rights Watch.

But the space for women’s political participation soon began to shrink. As the wrangling intensified over power and the future of Libya, women found themselves facing significant obstacles to their full participation in the country’s transitional processes, and even targeted for violence. On June 25, 2014, following threats, unidentified gunmen murdered Salwa Bughaighis in her home in Benghazi. One month later, on July 17, unidentified assailants shot dead Fariha al-Barkawi, a former lawmaker, in the eastern city of Derna.[ii] Both crimes are among hundreds of apparently politically motivated killings in post-Gaddafi Libya that remain uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

On the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, Haja Nowara held a vigil in the square outside the courthouse in Benghazi, where she had spent many evenings supporting the revolution since early 2011. “I have waited my whole life for tomorrow, which will be a new day for Libya,” said Nowara, who would be voting for the first time in her life. “We sacrificed a lot to get here.”

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

In its treatment of women and girls in wartime and in the post-war transition, Libya is sadly unexceptional.  Throughout history, women and girls have often been targeted in wartime for violence, especially sexual violence.  And they have also been denied the ability to participate in conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution efforts. Governments and non-state armed groups did not pay attention to the use of rape as a weapon of war, nor to the exclusion of women from crucial decision-making on conflict resolution and prevention, until women themselves mobilized for recognition and action.

This document sets out the commitments that the international community has since made to women and girls affected by armed conflict and outlines the major disappointments and gaps in implementation in three distinct but interconnected areas: participation; protection and assistance; and accountability. It also makes recommendations to governments, to all parties to armed conflicts, and to the UN on how to turn the promises made to women and girls in these three areas into reality.

Security Council Resolution 1325

After sustained advocacy efforts from women’s civil society organizations, the United Nations Security Council, in 2000, adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.[iii] It was the Security Council’s first dedicated resolution that recognized the specific risks to and experiences of women in armed conflict and women’s central role in maintaining international peace and security. Resolution 1325 elucidated states’ obligations to women and girls in situations of armed conflict, including ensuring that women are involved in all aspects of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict rebuilding. As broadly understood, the women, peace and security agenda acknowledges the linkages between participation, protection and assistance, and accountability, and the centrality of these issues to broader human rights concerns.

Angelina, 20, from Koch county, was spared in May when members of government aligned militia abducted three women and a teenage girl who she was hiding with. “When I fled [my village], I felt very tired and I sometimes would fall and have to use my arms to pull myself forward on the ground,” said the 20-year-old who has a physical disability. “I arrived [at the UNMI SS camp] three weeks after the attack. My whole body was swollen.” 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

This groundbreaking resolution and the subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security elaborate the responsibilities of all parties to ensure the meaningful “participation of women in all levels of decision-making” in institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of armed conflict, calling on all actors in peace talks to increase women’s participation in negotiations, and to ensure women’s rights are addressed in peace agreements.[iv] The resolutions remind all parties to armed conflicts of their obligations under international law, particularly civilian protection in armed conflicts, and call for states to end impunity for crimes of gender-based violence in armed conflicts. They urge the UN and governments to take steps to increase the number of women throughout the justice sector, and in armed forces. In these resolutions, the Security Council also states its intention to ensure it incorporates women, peace and security in its own work, including through consulting with civil society.

The resolution has given women around the world increased attention and legitimacy in their work in areas of armed conflict. Since the resolution’s adoption in 2000, many governments have begun to recognize that women’s roles in peace processes are not negotiable add-ons, but fundamental to sustainable and implementable peace accords. Security Council resolutions and commitments by UN member states have recognized conflict-related sexual violence as a tactic often ruthlessly deployed in war, and have expanded international prevention and response efforts. Governments and international bodies have introduced new policy frameworks, including additional Security Council resolutions, on women, peace and security at the national, regional, and multilateral levels. The UN is starting to collect data on a range of protection and participation aspects—from sexual violence in armed conflicts to women in peace talks—allowing policymakers and program implementers to begin to track where there has been success and where problems persist.

Much Work Remains

The remaining challenges are many. There is a lack of concerted, high-level leadership willing to spend political capital at key policy moments, such as in Security Council negotiations and in peace talks. There is insufficient and irregular funding, particularly for grassroots organizations working on women’s local-level peacebuilding and service provision.[v] Despite the improvement in data collection, there remains a lack of timely and disaggregated information for policymakers on women and girls in crisis situations, accompanied by a lack of analysis and recommendations for policymakers on appropriate action to take.[vi] Despite the heightened risk of violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and women with disabilities in situations of armed conflict, specific measures for them are rarely incorporated into policy and programming, often leaving these populations out of decision-making processes and unable to access services.

Sexual violence during Nepal’s 10 year conflict between Maoists and government forces has remained largely undisclosed. 

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

The UN Security Council, despite six subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security, often fails to bring these issues into its work on crisis situations. Despite the Security Council members’ meeting with women civil society representatives on its 2013 visit to the Great Lakes region, the subsequent report on the mission contained no substantive analysis or recommendations on women’s rights and concerns.[vii] Briefings from senior UN officials often lack specific information on women’s rights violations, on the inclusion of women in peacemaking efforts, and on the levels of women’s participation in security reform. Use of sanctions and other tools at the Security Council’s disposal are similarly haphazardly applied with respect to women, peace and security.[viii]  The Security Council rarely takes advantage of information on perpetrators to hold them to account and prevent future violations. For example, despite evidence of widespread crimes of sexual violence committed by Sudanese forces in Tabit in Darfur in 2014, the Security Council has not adopted a strong response.[ix] 

With women’s rights high on their rhetorical agenda, practical support among donor countries lags. It is rare, for example, that donors make women’s rights and women’s participation in decision-making a priority in political engagement with conflict-affected countries. Too often, including in countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia, officials assert it is not the right time to push for women’s rights, that security is somehow a prerequisite for women’s rights rather than inextricably linked with them, or that they do not have the leverage to act.[x]

For women and girls living in situations of armed conflict, participation, protection and assistance, and accountability for gender-based crimes remain a distant promise. As detailed in the following sections, it will take strong action backed by persistent political will for the potential of the women, peace and security agenda to be realized.

Nigerian girls in a refugee camp near Lake Chad in Chad. 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Participation

When Afghan women were asked their definition of security, we used the word “amnyat wa masuniat,” by which we mean a comprehensive feeling of safety when engaged in daily public and social life. The success of peace agreements must be gauged by real, measurable security improvements for women and for all members of the community, not just that a peace agreement has been signed. Excellencies, peace is a process, not an event. We look to you as Member States, including members of the Security Council, to ensure that women are consistently appointed as mediators and negotiators, and that our rights are fundamental to peace processes and outcomes.

—Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat, Afghan civil society representative and women’s rights advocate, delivered in the UN Security Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, New York, October 28, 2011[xi]

Despite years of rhetoric on the importance of women’s participation in Afghanistan peace processes, no women have been included in over 20 known rounds of informal talks between the international community and the Taliban. In talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, women were present on two occasions.[xii] In most situations of armed conflict and post-conflict, women have few channels and face formidable obstacles to participating in conflict prevention, conflict-resolution, and political processes such as elections and constitutional reform.

The success of peace agreements must be gauged by real, measurable security improvements for women and for all members of the community, not just that a peace agreement has been signed. Excellencies, peace is a process, not an event. We look to you as Member States, including members of the Security Council, to ensure that women are consistently appointed as mediators and negotiators, and that our rights are fundamental to peace processes and outcomes.

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

Afghan civil society representative and women’s rights advocate, delivered in the UN Security Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, New York, October 28, 2011

Women have little representation in formal peace talks. Available UN and academic data show that women are rarely present in these negotiations, and specific rights and concerns of women and girls are rarely reflected in peace agreements. One study of peace processes from 1992-2011 shows that only 4 percent of signatories to peace agreements have been women, and only 18 out of 300 peace agreements signed between 1998 and 2008 addressed any aspect of women’s rights and concerns.[xiii] Women struggle to have their voices heard, but examples of greater women’s involvement are gradually increasing. In Colombia, for example, women are present as permanent members of the negotiation delegation, and a sub-committee on gender in the negotiations was established in 2014, and women’s rights are discussed in the substantive talks. This happened after concerted pressure from civil society organizations, supported by UN Women.[xiv] Despite these gains, however, women’s civil society organizations have not been afforded a formal role in the Colombia negotiations.

Those facilitating formal peace talks often fail to recognize women’s work in community-level peace efforts.  When the opportunity to engage in formal peace talks arose in the 2014 Geneva II talks, Syrian women mobilized. With support from international nongovernmental organizations, UN member states, and the UN, women met behind closed doors with the Security Council, held consultative meetings to draft consolidated demands, and worked with women peacemakers from Ireland, Guatemala, and Bosnia-Herzegovina on strategies for engaging in the peace process.[xv] But when they met with the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakdhar Brahimi, he did not stay to hear their concerns and recommendations. “Mr. Brahimi, we are already building peace in Syria,” the women said, although Brahimi, effectively the chief mediator of Syria’s peace process, had already left the meeting. “We can help you if you let us.”[xvi]  Brahimi’s successor, Staffan de Mistura, has consulted with Syrian women’s groups, despite the stalling of the formal peace process.

Two activists working with the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI), a German-Iraqi human rights group supporting Yezidi women and girls who escaped ISIS. WADI has three mobile units that visit women and girls in camps and settlements. It is seeking funds to build a center for training courses and social activities.

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Women should have seats at all decision-making tables, and women’s rights and concerns should be included in the outcomes of conflict negotiations. For example, women's rights should be reflected in humanitarian access agreements, human rights agreements, ceasefires, ceasefire monitoring, and in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts agreed to by parties to a conflict. They should also be integrated throughout security sector reforms, including the vetting of armed and security forces, justice, reparations, and in relief and recovery programs.[xvii] Women’s participation is also the key to ensuring their protection and minimizing risks in displacement settings. This includes in the design of refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps so that women and girls are not placed at further risk in those settings.[xviii] Targeted efforts need to be made to ensure that the diversity of women’s perspectives is reflected in all aspects of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. For example, women with disabilities face unique challenges and can share their problem-solving approaches in conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.

Women human rights defenders often face risks, particularly in times of armed conflict. Even when women can legally conduct their work, they may face physical assault, sexual violence, and threats far greater than their male counterparts. Human Rights Watch has documented physical attacks, death threats, threatening phone calls, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and threats against children of activists in armed conflicts, all of which can create a chilling environment in an effort to silence these women.[xix] In the 2015 Sudan elections, for example, National Intelligence and Security Service officers arrested Dr. Sandra Kadouda, a prominent political and human rights activist, on April 12 as she drove to an anti-elections event at the National Umma Party headquarters in Omdurman. The authorities held her for three days at an unknown location, and then freed her on April 15, visibly bruised and with injuries to her shoulder, credible sources reported.[xx]

Women should also have the opportunity to participate in security forces without facing discrimination or harassment.  Women often are subject to hostile work environments that dissuade them from staying in or even joining police and military services. In Afghanistan, for example, despite efforts to increase their numbers, women have remained about 1 percent of the Afghan police over the last several years.[xxi] In addition to a lack of the most basic toilet and changing room facilities, women in the Afghan police face abuse and sometimes assault, including sexual assault, by male colleagues. Despite multiple reports of such incidents, these crimes often go unpunished, and government officials, including the minister of interior, have denied that abuses against women officers are a problem.[xxii]

Recommendations to Governments, Parties to Armed Conflict, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Implement national-level policies, including National Action Plans, on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, to ensure the full and meaningful participation of women in all peace and security discussions, including in all peace processes and transitional justice mechanisms. All parties involved in peace negotiations, including mediators and facilitators, should act to ensure women’s rights and concerns are a priority in negotiations and are integrated throughout any agreement. All discussions should benefit from the full engagement of civil society organizations, including women’s rights groups, women from marginalized populations, such as ethnic and religious minorities, and women with disabilities.
     
  2. Safeguard women’s security and support women’s participation in post-conflict elections, referendums and constitutional drafting, and reform processes. This includes promotion and protection of women candidates, voters, election workers, and women’s human rights defenders.
     
  3. Protect women’s human rights defenders. Governments should monitor threats and attacks against women's human rights defenders and provide protection as requested in a manner that allows them to continue their work.
     
  4. Strengthen recruitment and retention strategies for women in the security sector, including by addressing cultural and practical barriers that women face, by providing specific training and facilities, and ensuring women have equal opportunities for responsibility and advancement.
  5. Ensure women’s leadership and protection in displacement settings. Encourage and facilitate women’s representation in the leadership of camps and centers for the internally displaced and refugees. UN agencies should consult with women and girls, including those with disabilities, to ensure camp designs are accessible, safe, disability-inclusive, and provide equal access to food distributions, sanitation facilities, health—as well as reproductive health—services, education, and vocational training for women and girls.

A female election worker helps an elderly voter at a polling station in Benghazi. The electoral law rightly allowed people with “special needs” to bring assistants. However, barriers remain to ensure the right to political participation for women and men with disabilities.

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

The government should give us proper shelter with a fence and an entrance. Police should secure the camp and manage who comes and goes. The worst thing is that the rapes push us into poverty because afterward we cannot do the same work or carry heavy loads. We need money for our kids to live. The government should do something or kids will die of hunger.

—Farxiyo, who was raped in an IDP camp, Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2013[xxiii]

No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counseling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.

—Narin (pseudonym), 20-year-old woman from Sinjar who escaped captivity and sexual abuse by ISIS fighters, Dohuk, Iraq, January 2015[xxiv]

In armed conflicts around the globe, combatants frequently target women and girls for abuse. National armies and non-state armed groups use sexual violence as a tactic in war in violation of international law.  Conflict-related sexual violence can include rape, abduction, forced prostitution, forced marriage, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy. 

Women and girls face multiple abuses in war, in addition to conflict-related sexual violence, including: forced displacement; the targeting and punishment of women because of their own activism or activism by male relatives; the drive towards early, forced, and child marriages because of instability and a lack of security for girls and younger women; an increase in domestic violence and sexual violence committed by civilians; lack of access to food, shelter, and health care; the interruption of education; and sexual exploitation and trafficking, to name but a few.

The government should give us proper shelter with a fence and an entrance. Police should secure the camp and manage who comes and goes. The worst thing is that the rapes push us into poverty because afterward we cannot do the same work or carry heavy loads. We need money for our kids to live. The government should do something or kids will die of hunger.

Farxiyo, who was raped in an IDP camp, Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2013

For example, Human Rights Watch has documented the abuse faced by Syrian women activists and other civilians.[xxv] Some of these women have long histories of activism while others began participating politically only after the beginning of uprisings against the Syrian government. Some were targeted or arbitrarily detained for their work, such as Jelnar, who used her pharmaceutical credentials to smuggle medications between neighborhoods. Several of them experienced torture, sexual assault, physical abuse, or harassment as a direct result of their activism, like Layal, who was detained by government forces for assisting the internally displaced. Others became household heads following their husbands’ detention or death, such as Zeinab, who lost her husband and son in separate incidents at the hands of government forces.

In Sudan’s ongoing armed conflicts, Sudanese government forces and allied militias have committed rape and other sexual violence against women and girls on numerous instances. For example, Sudanese military forces engaged in the mass rape of more than 200 women and girls in the town of Tabit, Darfur, in late 2014, restricted access to the town for UN and international investigators, peacekeepers, and humanitarian agencies, and threatened residents with reprisals if they spoke about their ordeals. Government authorities fostered a climate of fear in Tabit that deterred many women and girls from seeking medical care at clinics and hospitals.[xxvi]  

Adequate protection measures are vital to ensuring the safety of women and girls, but when attacks do happen, service provision is vital for survivors. In Nigeria, numerous victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the lack of security force presence in areas particularly vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram, notably in towns and villages in Borno State. Victims, witnesses, community leaders, and analysts told Human Rights Watch that government security services could have done more to prevent attacks by ensuring the adequate presence and arming of military personnel, and by responding more quickly and effectively to reports of attacks once in progress. Survivors of Boko Haram attacks received virtually no necessary psychosocial and medical services, and none of the rape survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch had any information about how and where to access post-rape care.[xxvii]

Manal Ameer, 33, pictured here with her two daughters, was among the first to vote in Benghazi. She said she had learned about the election process through television advertising and had researched candidates via the Internet.

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

In northern Iraq, the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls since August 2014. Human Rights Watch documented a system of mass abduction, organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces.[xxviii] Many of the women and girls remain missing, but survivors who escaped to the Kurdish Region of Iraq need psychosocial support and basic humanitarian assistance. These survivors require specialized and expert psychosocial services in their present locations to aid their recovery and their reintegration into their communities. Few have received these.

Women and girls in displaced populations are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and of becoming victims of sex and labor trafficking.[xxix] Humanitarian crises often mean that women and girls are placed at greater risk of violence, with specific measures such as camp design and humanitarian relief necessary. Human Rights Watch research has found that women and girls with disabilities were frequently abandoned or left behind in crises, condemning them to face isolation, neglect, and abuse in post-conflict settings.[xxx] Despite commitments from governments and the UN, prevention efforts, access to services, and holding perpetrators accountable all remain extremely weak, and in some cases, non-existent.

Women displaced by armed conflict often find it difficult to access necessary long-term protection and humanitarian assistance. In Colombia, in an example that highlights the complexity of long-term access to assistance, Lucia fled her community in Antioquia with her husband and six children when an armed group threatened her son for refusing to join their ranks in 2010. Lucia’s husband had physically abused her and this became worse after the family fled to Medellín. Despite trying to access humanitarian assistance for herself and her children directly, the government agency never responded to her case. [xxxi]

No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counseling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.

Narin (pseudonym)

20-year-old woman from Sinjar who escaped captivity and sexual abuse by ISIS fighters, Dohuk, Iraq, January 2015

Women with disabilities in displacement settings also face discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, and poverty, and thus need particular measures to address protection concerns.[xxxii] Lack of mobility and communication barriers, for example, mean women with disabilities are at particular risk of sexual violence. This discrimination, as well as more general social stigma, prevents them from realizing their rights to accessible information, and accessing health care and other government services. In a displacement camp in Northern Uganda, Charity, a woman with a physical disability, recounted her experience: “People told me I should just die so others can eat the food: ‘You are useless. You are a waste of food.’”[xxxiii]

In line with their obligations under international humanitarian law—the laws of war—parties to armed conflicts should take all feasible measures to protect civilians under their control from attack, including protecting women and girls from sexual and other gender-based violence.[xxxiv]  International human rights law also applies during armed conflict, and provides protections to women and girls against sexual violence and other abuses, including domestic violence.[xxxv] States have obligations to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and other serious human rights abuses and prosecute those responsible.

International humanitarian and human rights law prohibit acts of sexual violence. International humanitarian law sets out protections for civilians and other non-combatants during both international and non-international armed conflicts.[xxxvi] It implicitly and explicitly prohibits both state armed forces and non-state armed groups from committing rape and other forms of sexual violence.[xxxvii]

International human rights law also contains protections from rape and other forms of sexual abuse through its prohibitions on torture and other ill-treatment, slavery, forced prostitution, and discrimination based on sex.[xxxviii]  The Convention on the Rights of the Child contains additional protections for children.[xxxix]

Recommendations to Governments, Parties to Armed Conflicts, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law prohibitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, cruel treatment, and other abuses. All parties to armed conflicts should issue clear, public orders to all forces under their control to end and appropriately punish all abuses, including crimes of sexual and gender-based violence.
     
  2. Governments providing military and other security assistance should ensure that such support does not encourage or facilitate abuses against women, and that it provides a basis for promoting greater respect for women’s rights.  Compliance with international human rights standards should be a factor in evaluating the continuation of such support. Governments should vet recipients of this assistance to exclude units or individuals when there is credible information they have been involved in serious violations of human rights.
     
  3. Ensure that survivors of sexual violence and other gender-based violence have access to essential medical and psychological care, as well as available economic and social support. Humanitarian aid should include access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services that respect the confidentiality and rights of survivors, including for pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, and injuries resulting from sexual violence, with specific measures taken to ensure these services are accessible for women with disabilities.
     
  4. Make women’s and girls’ protection and access to assistance a priority in displacement settings, including through consultation, promoting women’s leadership, camp and shelter design, registration and distribution systems, security measures, and recruitment and training of female security staff.
     
  5. Ensure all parties to armed conflicts grant UN agencies and independent humanitarian organizations unfettered access to civilians and communities in need of assistance. The media and human rights groups should also be provided access to conflict areas.
     
  6. Governments and the UN should highlight women’s participation, protection, and assistance concerns at the highest levels, including by conducting high-level visits to areas where serious abuses have been reported and raising the issues with senior government officials, donor governments, and regional and international bodies. Security Council members should press all parties to armed conflicts to meet all international law obligations.
     
  7. The UN Security Council and concerned governments should impose arms embargoes on state armed forces and non-state armed groups implicated in widespread or systematic serious human rights abuses, including those targeting women and girls. The Security Council should require states to suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to these abusive actors until meaningful steps are taken to end such violations and appropriately punish those responsible. Travel bans and asset freezes should also be imposed on individuals responsible for serious abuses, with appropriate due process protections.

“For three months, I had a feeling that one of us was going to die,” said Maha, 28 (left), of the young activists group in which she participated. In November, 2012, she and fellow members of the group had just finished a peaceful protest outside a mosque in Aleppo, when government shelling struck the site, killing her husband of only a few weeks. Her sister Nuha, 23 (right), also an activist, was kidnapped by pro-government militia while on her way to work in Damascus in August 2012 and held for 23 days. 

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Accountability

We want these people punished. We just don’t have the reach or the power. If I did, we would have dealt with it a long time ago. We need support.

—Husband of Nandita (pseudonym), who was raped in 2001 because her husband was a Maoist combatant, Nepal, April 2014[xl]

Perpetrators of abuses in armed conflicts rarely face justice and, by all accounts, are even less likely to when responsible for sexual violence against women and girls. In November 2012, in Minova, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congolese army soldiers raped at least 76 women and girls when nearby Goma fell to the M23 rebel group.[xli] The crimes created an outcry at the national and international level. Strong international pressure was brought on the Congolese authorities to pursue justice. The UN threatened to suspend support by the peacekeeping mission MONUSCO to the Congolese army unless those responsible were brought to justice. The UN Security Council and donor governments raised the need for accountability for the crimes in Minova in multiple statements and in meetings with Congolese authorities. High-profile visits to the area by the Congolese minister of justice, the wife of President Joseph Kabila, UK Foreign Minister William Hague, and UN refugee agency special envoy Angelina Jolie, raised attention to the issue.

Three years after the attacks, accountability, services, and security are still insufficient. Despite considerable efforts by Congolese authorities and international partners to ensure judicial proceedings in the case, including by providing for the participation of numerous victims and effective protection of victims and witnesses, the verdict did little to achieve justice. Out of 39 soldiers and officers brought to trial, only 2 rank-and-file soldiers were convicted of rape.  All mid-ranking officers present in Minova at the time of the crimes and brought to trial were completely acquitted. No high-level officers were even charged.[xlii] 

The Minova case illustrates the difficulties of ensuring accountability for conflict-related sexual violence. Congolese authorities and international partners have made considerable efforts to increase accountability for sexual violence in Congo over the past several years, resulting in a few trials involving charges of rape as a war crime or a crime against humanity, and dozens of proceedings and convictions for rape as an ordinary crime. Investigating and proving sexual violence in judicial proceedings remains a complex matter and further efforts are needed.

We want these people punished. We just don’t have the reach or the power. If I did, we would have dealt with it a long time ago. We need support.

Husband of Nandita (pseudonym), who was raped in 2001 because her husband was a Maoist combatant, Nepal, April 2014

Women and girls who suffer rights abuses in armed conflicts, including sexual violence, face tremendous barriers in obtaining redress. Regular police and court functions may be in disarray. They may not wish to seek avenues for justice out of fear of retaliation or marginalization in their communities and homes. They may lack the financial or logistical means to access courts and legal assistance. National judicial systems often lack expertise in handling vulnerable victims of sexual violence during investigations and prosecutions. Physical protection and psychological assistance may be lacking. There may be strong resistance to or lack of resources for reforming the security apparatus in the immediate and long-term aftermath of an armed conflict. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs often neglect to address female combatants and women euphemistically called “bush wives,” or women who are associated with armed groups, often forcibly. Women with disabilities have particular difficulty accessing redress or justice mechanisms, including physical barriers in entering police stations and courtrooms, communication barriers, or questioning of the credibility of their testimony if they have a psychosocial or intellectual disability.

Even when international peacekeeping forces are in place to bring stability to conflict-riven regions, they are sometimes perpetrators themselves. Although the UN has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, accountability for these crimes remains a concern.[xliii] For example, in the past decade, there have been allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, Haiti, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The persistent lack of transparency on these cases makes it very difficult to help victims seek justice. With the UN historically providing few specifics on allegations of abuse, and few countries that contribute troops and police to UN operations providing information on investigations and prosecutions, the scope of the problem is unclear. In one of the few cases in which public information is available on accountability for UN peacekeepers, a Pakistani peacekeeper charged with sexually assaulting a Haitian boy was convicted, and faced a one-year sentence upon conviction.[xliv]

A woman prisoner looks out a window in Parwan prison north of Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2011.The woman was convicted of moral crimes after a man from her neighborhood raped her. She later gave birth in prison.

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

When crimes of sexual violence are committed as part of armed conflict, they can be prosecuted as war crimes. States have an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes committed by members of the armed forces and other nationals, and prosecute those responsible.[xlv] Non-state armed groups also have an obligation to prevent war crimes and should investigate and appropriately punish perpetrators.[xlvi] Those acts of sexual violence committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) specifies that acts of rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity can constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.[xlvii]

Aside from their direct criminal responsibility for crimes committed, for instance, by issuing orders that subordinates carry out, commanders and other superiors may be criminally liable for failing to prevent or punish crimes committed by their subordinates.[xlviii]

International human rights law also enshrines the right to an effective remedy, which obligates the state to prevent, investigate, and punish serious human rights violations.[xlix] State should also provide reparations to victims of human rights violations, such as compensation for damages.[l] The UN has reaffirmed these principles specifically in relation to eliminating violence against women.[li]

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

  1. Ensure comprehensive, credible, and impartial investigations into sexual and gender-based violence and appropriately and fairly prosecute those responsible. This should include independent investigations into all allegations against members of armed forces, including peacekeepers, that respect the confidentiality and rights of survivors.
     
  2. Ensure accessible judicial processes that adhere to international fair trial standards for grave international crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence. This should include providing specialized training to investigators, prosecutors, and judges on the proper handling of such cases.  Adequate protection measures and psychological support should be available, before, during, and after trials, including, but not limited to, relocation measures for victims and their households. Judicial mechanisms should also be accessible for women with disabilities, including by facilitating access to police stations and courts, ensuring access to documentation, and relevant training for law enforcement and the judiciary.
     
  3. Strengthen independent institutions capable of responding to sexual and gender-based violence and supporting survivors. Governments should create accessible and safe channels to report rape, assault, and other abuses and issue clear, public orders to all security forces to end any harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of those who speak out or seek to enforce their rights. Reporting mechanisms should be fully inclusive and provide specific accommodations for women and girls with disabilities. Governments should ensure proper and timely investigations and prosecutions that respect the rights of the survivor.
     
  4. Enact security sector reform to provide vetting of police and other security personnel, ensure recruitment, hiring, and training of female security personnel, and provide training for prosecutors, as well as judges and defense lawyers, on respecting women’s rights in the justice system, including handling crimes of sexual violence. Identify and exclude individuals from the security forces who are under investigation, have charges pending against them, or have been subjected to disciplinary measures or criminal convictions for sexual violence or other serious abuses.
     
  5. Press for accountability and justice, including through the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council. When national level efforts fail or are inadequate, pursue alternative paths to justice, such as independent commissions of inquiry, the use of universal jurisdiction, and when applicable, referrals to the ICC. In accordance with the ICC prosecutor’s newly adopted Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, the ICC should continue to ensure that these crimes are the focus of special attention in ICC proceedings.[lii]
     
  6. Ensure reparations programs meet international standards and include specific consideration for women and girls. Consult with local women’s rights groups and women from communities affected by armed conflict in determining and distributing reparation packages.
     
  7. Protect women’s rights in national laws and ensure they meet international standards. This includes ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with no reservations, or removing any existing reservations to CEDAW. National laws should guarantee equality before the law, protection from violence, and freedom from discrimination, including on the basis of sex, gender, pregnancy, disability, and marital status. Consistent with international standards, sexual violence and other gender-based violence crimes should be included in the criminal code. Ensure accountability when these laws are violated.
     
  8. Institute measures to ensure accountability, including by raising public concern and urging relevant actors, including troop-contributing countries, to carry out immediate investigations when there are substantial grounds to believe that peacekeepers have committed serious human rights abuses or war crimes, including sexual exploitation and abuse.
 

[i] Human Rights Watch, A Revolution for All: Women’s Rights in the New Libya, May 2013,  https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/05/27/revolution-all/womens-rights-new-libya, p. 11.

[ii] “Libya: Extremists Terrorizing Derna Residents,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 27, 2014,  https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/27/libya-extremists-terrorizing-derna-residents.

[iii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), S/RES/1325 (2000) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1325(2000) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[iv] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (2008) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1820(2008) (accessed  July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1888 (2009), S/RES/1888 (2009) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1888(2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1889 (2009), S/RES/1889 (2009) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1889(2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1960 (2010), S/RES/1960 (2010) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1960(2010) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2106 (2013), S/RES/2106 (2013) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2106(2013) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2122 (2013), S/RES/2122 (2013) http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2122(2013) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[v] According to the 2014 Secretary-General’s report on women, peace and security, data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that “only 0.35 per cent of aid allocated to conflict, peace and security activities [was] marked as having a gender focus.” United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,  S/2014/693, September 2014, http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2014_693.pdf (accessed July 17, 2015).

[vi] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013,” December 2013, http://womenpeacesecurity.org/media/pdf-2012-13_MAP_Report.pdf  (accessed July 8, 2015); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch,” undated, http://www.peacewomen.org/security-council/report-watch (accessed July 8, 2015).

[vii] United Nations Security Council, Sixty-eighth year, 7045th meeting, October 21, 2013, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/PV.7045 (accessed July 8, 2015).

 [viii] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013”; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch”; and Security Council Report, “Cross Cutting Report: Women, Peace and Security,” April 2014,   http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/cross_cutting_report_2_women_peace_security_2014.pdf  (accessed July 8, 2015).

[ix] Human Rights Watch, Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit, February 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/02/11/mass-rape-north-darfur/sudanese-army-attacks-against-civilians-tabit.

[x] Heather Barr, “A seat at the table in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, May 1, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-seat-at-the-table-in-afghanistan/2015/05/01/fd930e26-ef41-11e4-8abc-d6aa3bad79dd_story.html (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xi] Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, October 28, 2011, http://womenpeacesecurity.org/media/pdf-Statement_OpenDebate_Oct2011.pdf (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xii] Oxfam “Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan’s future,” November 24, 2014, https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp200-behind-doors-afghan-women-rights-241114-en.pdf (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xiii] See UN Women, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations: Connections between Presence and Influence,”  October 2012, http://www.unwomen.org/~/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2012/10/wpssourcebook-03a-womenpeacenegotiations-en.pdf (accessed July 20, 2015); and United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on Women and Peace and Security, S/2011/598, September 29, 2011, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2011/598 (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2012/732, October 2, 2012, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2012/732 (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2013/525, September 4, 2013, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2013/525 (accessed July 27, 2015); and S/2014/693, September 23, 2014, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2014/693 (accessed July 27, 2015). See also, Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke, Women and Peace Agreements 1325 Dataset, Distributed by University of Ulster, Transitional Justice Institute, 2010 http://www.transitionaljustice.ulster.ac.uk/tji_database.html (accessed July 20, 2015).

[xiv] “Women take the reins to build peace in Colombia”, UN Women press release, May 28, 2015, http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2015/5/women-build-peace-in-colombia (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xv] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Innovative WILPF Conference Gathers Syrian And Bosnian Women’s Rights Activists,” February 21, 2014,  http://www.wilpfinternational.org/innovative-wilpf-conference-gathers-syrian-and-bosnian-womens-rights-activists-2/ (accessed July 16, 205); Cynthia Enloe, “Day I of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks,” Women’s Action for New Directions,  January 20, 2014, http://www.wandactioncenter.org/2014/01/30/guest-author-cynthia-enloes-report-from-the-syrian-peace-talks/ (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvi] “He Left Before Syria’s Women Could Speak,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 19, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/19/dispatches-he-left-syria-s-women-could-speak (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvii] UNSCR 1888, Operative Paragraph 17; UNSCR 1820, Operative Paragraph 10; United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Resource Centre (UNDDR), Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standard, “5:10, Women, Gender and DDR,” August 2006, http://unddr.org/uploads/documents/IDDRS%205.10%20Women,%20Gender%20and%20DDR.pdf (accessed 21 July 2015).

[xviii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325, Operative Paragraph 12.

[xix] “UN Human Rights Council: Call to Recognize the Status of Women's Human Rights Defenders,” Human Rights Watch Oral Statement during the Annual Day of Discussion on Women's Human Rights, June 26, 2012, https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/26/un-human-rights-council-call-recognize-status-womens-human-rights-defenders.

[xx] “Sudan: Surge in Detention, Beatings, Around Elections,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 28, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/28/sudan-surge-detention-beatings-around-elections.

[xxi] “Afghanistan: Urgent Need for Safe Facilities for Female Police,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/25/afghanistan-urgent-need-safe-facilities-female-police.

[xxii] “Afghanistan: Surge in Women Jailed for ‘Moral Crimes,’” Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/21/afghanistan-surge-women-jailed-moral-crimes.

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch, “Here, Rape is Normal”: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia, February 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/02/13/here-rape-normal/five-point-plan-curtail-sexual-violence-somalia.

[xxiv] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/14/iraq-isis-escapees-describe-systematic-rape.

[xxv] Human Rights Watch, “We are Still Here”: Women on the Front Lines of Syria's Conflict, July 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/07/02/we-are-still-here/women-front-lines-syrias-conflict.

[xxvi] “Sudan: Soldiers, Militias Killing, Raping Civilians,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 14, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/14/sudan-soldiers-militias-killing-raping-civilians; “Sudan: Mass Rape by Army in Darfur,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 11, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/11/sudan-mass-rape-army-darfur.

[xxvii] Human Rights Watch, “Those Terrible Weeks in their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria, October 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/10/27/those-terrible-weeks-their-camp/boko-haram-violence-against-women-and-girls.

[xxviii] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/14/iraq-isis-escapees-describe-systematic-rape.

29 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,  S/2014/693, p. 19.

[xxx] Human Rights Watch, “As if We Weren’t Human”: Discrimination and Violence against Women with Disabilities in Northern Uganda, August 2010, https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/08/26/if-we-werent-human/discrimination-and-violence-against-women-disabilities-northern.

[xxxi] Human Rights Watch, Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia, November 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/11/14/rights-out-reach/obstacles-health-justice-and-protection-displaced-victims-gender, p. 5.

[xxxii] World Bank and World Health Organization, “World Report on Disability,” 2011, http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2011/9789240685215_eng.pdf (accessed July 21, 2015), p. 8.

[xxxiii] Human Rights Watch, “As if We Weren’t Human.”

[xxxiv] See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), rule 22, citing Protocol I, art. 58(c) and rule 93 (prohibiting rape and other forms of sexual violence).

[xxxv] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (art. 7) and protects women’s right to be free from discrimination based on sex (arts. 2(1) and 26). ICCPR, adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, arts. 2 and 16; Rome Statute, arts. 7 and 8. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that governments violate their treaty obligations not only when state actors are responsible for the action, but also when the state fails to take necessary steps to prevent violations caused by private actors. The committee’s General Recommendation No. 31 to the ICCPR notes that governments must “take appropriate measures or … exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts by private persons or entities.” The Committee against Torture requires governments to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence and rape by exercising due diligence in investigating, prosecuting, and punishing perpetrators—even private actors—of rape and sexual assault.

[xxxvi] See four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Protocols Additional of 1977. Other sources of international humanitarian law are the 1907 Hague Convention and Regulations, decisions of international tribunals, and customary law.

[xxxvii] Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

[xxxviii] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted December 18, 1979, G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force September 3, 1981.

[xxxix] Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force Sept. 2, 1990, arts. 2, 34, 37, 43.

[xl] Human Rights Watch, Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence, September 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/09/23/silenced-and-forgotten/survivors-nepals-conflict-era-sexual-violence.

[xli] The United Nations has documented at least 135 victims in this case. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by Soldiers of the Congolese Armed Forces and Combatants of the M23 in Goma and Sake, North Kivu Province, and In and Around Minova, South Kivu Province, From 15 November to 2 December 2012,” May 2013, p. 4,  http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/UNJHROMay2013_en.pdf (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xlii] “DR Congo: War Crimes by M23, Congolese Army,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 5, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/05/dr-congo-war-crimes-m23-congolese-army; “Revealed: how the world turned its back on rape victims of Congo,” The Guardian, undated, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/13/rape-victims-congo-world-turned-away (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xliii] United Nations General Assembly, “Fifty-ninth session, Agenda item 77, Comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects,” March 24, 2005 http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/59/710 (accessed July 8, 2015); United Nations Secretariat, Secretary-General’s Bulletin, “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” October 9, 2003, https://cdu.unlb.org/Portals/0/PdfFiles/PolicyDocC.pdf (accessed July 8, 2015); Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), “Evaluation Report: Evaluation of the Enforcement and Remedial Assistance Efforts for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by the United Nations and Related Personnel in Peacekeeping Operations,” May 2015, https://oios.un.org/page?slug=evaluation-report (accessed July 23, 2015).

[xliv] Somini Sengupta, “Allegations Against French Peacekeepers Highlight Obstacles in Addressing Abuse,” New York Times, May 25, 2015, (accessed July 8, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/europe/allegations-against-french-peacekeepers-highlight-obstacles-in-addressing-abuse.html.

[xlv] The obligation of states to prosecute grave breaches of international humanitarian law is outlined in each of the Geneva Conventions.

[xlvi] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, pp. 591-93, 607-10.

[xlvii] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002. The Rome Statute is the treaty creating the ICC. Command responsibility is an established principle of customary international humanitarian law and has been incorporated into the Rome Statute.

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

[xlix] See UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31, Nature of the General Legal Obligation on States Parties to the Covenant, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (2004) , para. 15. See also, Updated Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity (“Impunity Principles”), U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2005/102/Add.1, February 8, 2005, adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Resolution E/CN.4/2005/81, April 15, 2005, principle I; Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, adopted December 16, 2005, G.A. res. 60/147, U.N. Doc. A/RES/60/147 (2005), principle 11.

[l] UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31, para. 16.

[li] UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, December 20, 1993, G.A. res. 48/104, 48 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 217, U.N. Doc. A/48/49 (1993).

[lii] International Criminal Court, Office of the Prosecutor, Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, June 2014, http://www.icc-cpi.int/iccdocs/otp/OTP-Policy-Paper-on-Sexual-and-Gender-Based-Crimes--June-2014.pdf (accessed July 8, 2015).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Liesl Gerntholtz is the executive director of the women's rights division. She is an expert on women's rights in Africa and has worked and written extensively on violence against women and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. Her work at Human Rights Watch has included documenting access to safe and legal abortion in Ireland and sexual and gender-based violence in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Liesl worked for some of the key constitutional institutions promoting human rights and democracy in a post-apartheid South Africa, including the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality.  A lawyer by training, she was involved in high-profile, strategic human rights litigation to promote women and children's rights, including a case that changed the definition of rape in South Africa.

NPR Interview - Women's Rights In The Age Of The Arab Spring

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Indonesia said it will stop administering “virginity tests” to female aspiring civil servants as part of its admission process. The country’s Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo announced this change—which will affect women working in government offices—on the heels of Human Rights Watch research that documented this degrading practice in the admission process for another branch of the Indonesian government, the National Police force.

Human Rights Watch found that the testing included the invasive “two-finger test” to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact. Minister Kumolo said that it was “illogical” to recruit a student based on her virginity and noted that a woman’s hymen could be torn due to sports, exercise, or other accidents. 

Rumors about these tests have circulated for decades, but Human Rights Watch brought the issue into the national spotlight by gathering concrete testimony from eight  current and former police women and applicants as well as police doctors, a police recruitment evaluator, a National Police Commission member, and several prominent women’s rights activists. The women we interviewed described the examination as frightening, humiliating, and extremely painful.  

Virginity tests are a form of gender-based violence, cannot be administered to men, and are inherently degrading and discriminatory. Moreover, these tests have been widely discredited by the scientific community and the World Health Organization. For years, Human Rights Watch has been pushing for an end to this practice and documenting cases of abusive testing in Indonesia and several other countries including Egypt, India, and Afghanistan

Ending virginity tests for Institute of Public Administration applicants is an important step forward, but much remains to be done.  Recently, the municipal government of Indonesia’s city of Jember in east Java proposed forcing female high school students to pass a virginity test before they could receive their diploma. This time, however, officials quickly back-pedaled from the proposal.

Indonesia’s National Police and the Indonesian Armed Forces have yet to follow the Institute of Public Administration’s lead. Despite Human Rights Watch’s findings, police officials continue to deny administering virginity tests, claiming that the female recruits are simply undergoing a required “medical examination.” Human Rights Watch’s research has also revealed that the military—the air force, the army, and the navy—has for decades also extended the “virginity test” requirement to female recruits as well as the fiancées of military officers prior to marriage.

Indonesia's police and military need to abolish virginity testing and make sure their recruiting stations across the country stop using it as well.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

“Angela,” 20, walks with her son near her home after returning from school in Migori county, western Kenya. She is a Form 4 student at a girls-only school. Angela became pregnant when her trainee teacher offered to pay some of her primary school fees in return for sex. Her father tried to marry her off to suitors after she gave birth, but Angela’s mother fought against this and supported her return to school. She wants to go to college and study nursing.

© 2018 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

Representatives of the Catholic church in Eastern Africa will meet in Addis Ababa later this week to discuss “vibrant diversity, equal dignity, and peaceful unity” in the region.

A good place to start would be to change the way the Church treats pregnant teenagers.

Last year, in Tanzania, leaders of the Catholic church openly supported the government’s ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school. Archbishop Damian Denis Dally stated that allowing young mothers in school “is not part of African culture.”

In Zambia, Catholic schools – including those that are financially supported by the government – reject the government's school re-entry policy for young mothers and to allow pregnant girls to attend. They often force students who become teenage moms to transfer to other schools.

East African church leaders should take the opportunity this week to reaffirm their commitments under the African Union’s call to “Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development.” This should include a resounding commitment to abandon all policies or practices that discriminate against pregnant girls and young mothers.

These leaders should remember there are many complex reasons why teenage girls get pregnant – including a government’s failure to protect girls from sexual violence in and around schools. Pregnant girls often face discrimination, punishment, and exclusion. Pregnant students and teenage moms are often left behind when they most need support from their schools, families, and communities. Turning their backs on these girls will only worsen their situation.

In Burundi and Tanzania, governments have chosen to deny pregnant girls their right to education. But they are a minority. Ensuring teenage moms of school-going-age stay in school has broad support across Africa, including in Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. Our report, Leave No Girl Behind in Africa, shows that many countries have adopted policies or legislation to protect a girl’s right to education regardless of pregnancy, motherhood, or marriage status. In doing so, a large group of countries have demonstrated that keeping all girls in school is the right thing to do.

Catholic leaders in East Africa should not support policies or practices that leave the most vulnerable girls in East Africa behind. That’s what “equal dignity” means.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Indian government’s plan to develop a national registry of sexual offenders is raising a slew of concerns, from data breaches to violations of privacy protections, including for individuals who were never convicted of a sexual offense.

Schoolgirls participate in a protest rally against the rape of two teenage girls in Chatra and Pakur districts of Jharkhand state, in Ranchi, India May 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The proposed national database – the government issued a call for bids in May – will store the name, photo, fingerprints, and personal details of all arrested, charged, and convicted of sexual offenses, including children. The information on convicted offenders will be public while law enforcement agencies will have access to the rest. It will categorize the individuals as “low,” “moderate,” or “high risk.”

Whether a person gets added to the sex registry can depend on laws that are archaic and open to misuse to arbitrarily classify suspects.

Those deemed “low danger” and “not likely to engage in criminal sexual conduct” will include everyone arrested, charged, and convicted of “Technical Rape,” a term often used by law enforcement to describe consensual sexual activity involving a girl under 18 years old. This means a boy who has consensual sex could be recorded in the database if someone, including the parents of the girl, filed criminal charges. This tier would also include section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes adult consensual same-sex relations, whose constitutionality is currently before the Supreme Court.

The record on those deemed “a moderate danger” would include those arrested, charged, or convicted under sections 67 and 67A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalize the publication and distribution of obscene and sexually explicit material, vague legal provisions that are repeatedly misused by police.

If the rape or sexual assault victim is under 12 years of age, an arrested, charged, or convicted offender will be categorized as “serious danger” likely to continue to “engage in criminal sexual conduct.”

A data breach or even rumors of possible inclusion in the registry is especially dangerous at a time when vigilante violence is on the rise. At least 24 people have been killed across India over rumors of kidnapping children in the past six months, while several have been attacked for inter-religious or inter-caste consensual relationships. This has been a problem elsewhere: in the United States there have been several instances of vigilante violence, including killings, of sex offenders listed in public registries, and in the UK in 2001 when a newspaper published details of convicted sexual offenders.

There is no silver bullet that can fix the complex problem of sexual violence in India. But the government should focus on supporting sexual violence survivors to ensure they can report crimes and receive justice without being stigmatized and threatened, and ensuring a system that provides them protection, legal aid, and adequate medical care. A poorly designed registry with inadequate safeguards will do little to advance change.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man walks down a street at Codrington on the island of Barbuda, October 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
(Washington, DC) – A draft law before the Antigua and Barbuda Senate would deprive Barbudans of communal land where they have lived for generations, Human Rights Watch said today. The Antigua and Barbuda government should consult with the people of Barbuda to determine the impact of repealing communal land ownership on their human rights, and to reach an agreement that fully respects and safeguards those rights.

Since 1834, when the British emancipated their slaves, Barbudans as a community have owned all their island’s land. Barbuda, the smaller of the two biggest islands of Antigua and Barbuda, with a population of approximately 2,000, codified this long-existing communal ownership in 2007 in the Barbuda Land Act. The law states, “All land in Barbuda shall be owned in common by the people of Barbuda,” and, “No land in Barbuda shall be sold.”

“A change in land ownership in Barbuda could harm Barbuda’s most vulnerable people, including women, children, and the elderly,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to consult with Barbudans before any such drastic change to make sure that their rights are protected.”

Barbudans who oppose the change have for months been battling Prime Minister Gaston Browne, a businessman from Antigua, over communal ownership. Browne wants to repeal the Barbuda Land Act to open the palm-fringed island to foreign investment to ease post-Hurricane Irma recovery. With only one of 19 members of the House of Representatives representing Barbuda, the House passed the repeal bill on May 3, 2018. It is now before the Senate.

If the Senate passes it, Barbudans have retained a law firm to challenge it in court.

Browne has called the Barbuda Land Act unconstitutional – and denigrated Barbudans who defend it to the media as “deracinated Imbeciles, Ignorant [sic] elements.”

Lawmakers had already weakened the Land Act. In 2017, a set of amendments watering down protections related to communal ownership sped through both the House and the Senate. Barbudans who opposed the changes urgently sought the intervention of Antigua and Barbuda’s High Court and lost.

Proponents of those amendments – and this year’s repeal effort – assert that Barbudans do not actually own the land, that collective tenure is not viable, and that individual freehold – in which the individual will have rights only to the land they use and not common areas – is the only route to modernity. These arguments gathered force after Hurricane Irma devastated the island in September 2017. Repeal advocates contend that Barbudans need to own only the land on which their individual homes and businesses sit to get the loans needed to rebuild.

However, there is no evidence that Barbudans have been previously denied such help or would be unable to access necessary recovery financing from the World Bank as a community, in accordance with their communal ownership.

Opponents contend repealing communal ownership is unlawful and that the government should consult Barbudans on any changes to their communal land structure.

“The Barbuda and Antigua government should introduce safeguards to protect in full residents’ rights in the event of a repeal,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “If the Barbuda Land Act is to disappear, it cannot be arbitrary and needs to happen on Barbudans’ terms, with their rights guaranteed.”

Approximately half the world’s land mass is subject to some sort of communal ownership, and almost a third of the world’s population – some 2.5 billion people – live on such land. Fourteen countries in Africa enshrine community-owned land in their laws, and seven more are debating doing so. China has a million rural cooperatives that hold land in common for the use of the people who live on it.

Globally, investors frequently seek to wrest valuable pieces of community-owned land into private ownership to extract natural resources or develop the land for industry or tourism, although those who once held the land in common usually only get minimal benefits. Weak protections for customary and indigenous lands expose the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children, to human rights violations.

Research from Human Rights Watch in Zambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Mozambique has consistently shown that taking away land used by communities – without due process and without adequate compensation and rehabilitation – results in serious risks to people’s rights to food, water, housing, health, and education.

“Barbuda may be small, but the rights of its people are as important as anyone else’s,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “The government shouldn’t shortchange the people it is supposed to serve by snatching their land out from under them.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A demonstrator attends a rally outside the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, Belgium, October 5, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

A new policy in Afghanistan promises to bar government health workers from engaging in the abusive practice of forcing women and girls to undergo invasive and medically meaningless vaginal and anal exams to determine whether they are “virgins.” The policy was announced by the Ministry of Public Health in July.

“Virginity examinations” are a routine part of criminal proceedings in Afghanistan. When women or girls are accused of “moral crimes” such as sex outside of marriage, police, prosecutors, and judges regularly send them to government doctors. After examining them, the doctors submit reports reaching conclusions about whether they are “virgins,” also often drawing more detailed – and often damning – conclusions about their sexual histories. These reports are used in court as evidence and have led to long prison terms for many women.

These examinations are invasive, humiliating, conducted without meaningful – or sometimes any – consent, and can constitute sexual assault. There is also another problem: they are scientifically invalid.

Many people mistakenly believe that virginity can be determined because the hymen is broken when a woman or girl has sexual intercourse for the first time. This is simply not true. Some girls are born without a hymen. Hymens often break during daily non-sexual activities, and some hymens remain intact after sexual intercourse. The World Health Organization has said virginity exams have no scientific validity and that health workers should never conduct them.

Ending “virginity exams” in Afghanistan will take genuine political will by the Afghan government – something too often absent in the past. An earlier order by President Ashraf Ghani to cease the exams was widely ignored. For change to happen, health workers need to be obligated to comply, and police, prosecutors, and judges will have to accept that exams will not be conducted and the reports will not be available as evidence.

Ending “virginity exams” should be part of broader reform regarding the treatment of women in the justice system. The government should decriminalize consensual sex between adults and ensure that the justice system distinguishes between consensual sex and rape. Too often in Afghanistan, rape victims are treated as criminals. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was designed to protect women, but has largely been a broken promise.

Wholesale reform is needed. But ending “virginity exams” would be a good start.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Madam Chair. For this statement, I speak on behalf of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling and Human Rights Watch. Palestine acceded to CEDAW without any reservations, but the current personal status laws that apply to both Muslims and Christians in the West Bank and Gaza include de-facto and de-jure discrimination against women in marriage, divorce, child custody and guardianship, child marriage, women’s financial rights after divorce, and inheritance.

For instance, under Islamic personal status laws, polygamy for men is permitted, while women cannot marry without a male guardian’s permission. Women are also required to obey their husbands in return for maintenance and accommodation. Men have a unilateral right to divorce, while women must either abandon their financial rights or apply to the courts for divorce on specific stipulated grounds. Women have no right to property accumulated during marriage and their financial rights after divorce are minimal, limited to maintenance during several months of the waiting period. For Christian women, divorce under various Christian family laws is often impossible, expensive, and takes several years.

Furthermore, fathers under current Islamic Personal Status laws solely retain all guardianship rights even when the child is officially living with the mother. A woman is not allowed to manage her child’s inheritance if her husband dies. Instead, a male relative from the deceased husband’s family will take over the management of the child’s inheritance which can impact child maintenance. Despite a recent government decision that allowed women to open bank accounts for their children, transfer them to different schools or apply for their passports, women are still not allowed to travel abroad with their children without the father’s permission.

Child marriage is still a significant problem. In the West Bank, the minimum age of marriage is set at 14.5 years old for girls and at 15.5 for boys. In Gaza, it is set at 17 for females and 18 for males. Sharia court judges have the discretion to allow younger children to marry if they believe it is in their best interest. It has to be a priority for the State of Palestine to set the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 for both girls and boys.

We encourage the Committee to recommend that the State of Palestine amend personal status laws to ensure compliance with article (16) of CEDAW and calls on CEDAW Committee to conduct an exceptional review after two years in order to monitor whether the amendments to the current personal status Laws are in compliance with CEDAW.

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters for and against abortion rights huddle under umbrellas as they rally in groups outside while the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the abortion case National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

President Donald Trump has said he plans to announce his nominee for the US Supreme Court by July 9, not two weeks after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. This will be the second nominee Trump will put forward. During his campaign, he promised that if he were able to change the composition of the court, it would “automatically” lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the seminal case recognizing the constitutional right to abortion.

Following Kennedy’s announcement, Trump acknowledged again that after a new justice is seated, a woman’s right to access an abortion could fall to states to determine. In many states, that would mean abortion would become a criminal act. Dozens of states could criminalize abortion in short order should Roe fall – four states already have “trigger laws” on the books that automatically outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned, and dozens of others have laws that put access to abortion at “high risk.”

Kennedy’s imminent retirement ramps up the significance of what, until two weeks ago, had been a largely symbolic ballot initiative in Alabama. In November, voters will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at precluding arguments for access to abortion under the state constitution, should the Supreme Court ever send the question of abortion back to the states. The amendment would protect “the rights of the unborn child in all manners and measures lawful and appropriate,” and would pave the way to restricting abortion if the Supreme Court does send the question back to states.

Alabama is a state that uses jail to punish pregnant women for possible drug use, has high rates of preventable gynecological cancer deaths, and at least once, used the courts to stop a woman from having an abortion. Given the uncertain fate of Roe, the constitutional change would pose a dire risk to women.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

“Jina,” a 22-year-old transgender woman, sports a tattoo of a butterfly—a transgender symbol signifying transformation: “There’s a lot of politicization of the LGBT community at the moment, to distract the public from more important issues.”

© 2014 Javad Tizmaghz for Human Rights Watch

When the news broke last week that a 41-year-old man from Kelantan had married an 11-year-old girl, alarm bells went off in Malaysia’s newly elected government as well as among nongovernmental groups. The Kelantan state police started an investigation, and activists stepped up calls to legislate a minimum marriage age of 18, with no exceptions.  

But some politicians saw the issue differently. Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the deputy head of government in Kelantan state, which is ruled by the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said child marriage should not be “sensationalized” and does not violate religious principles. “The issue of zina [sex outside marriage], children born out of wedlock, gays and lesbians, are bigger issues for the country,” he said.  

Bigger issues for whom? Human Rights Watch has thoroughly documented the impacts of child marriage on girls around the world: married girls are more likely to drop out of school, live in poverty, and to be victims of domestic violence, compared to women who marry after age 18. Child marriages often result in early pregnancy, which carries serious health risks - including death - for both girls and their babies.  

Not only do Mohd Amar’s comments belittle girls’ rights, they also reinforce homophobic views. The recently ousted Barisan Nasional government enforced discriminatory laws and promoted hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak described LGBT people as “against Islam”; his deputy prime minister equated LGBT people with “negative values”; and the Health Ministry organized a competition according to which adolescents were to submit videos on how to “prevent” LGBT identities

Law enforcement officials from state religious departments regularly arrest transgender women, subjecting many to degrading treatment. During a visit to Malaysia in April I interviewed LGBT people who described experiencing depression and even attempting suicide because of feeling that they don’t belong in their country.   

The newly elected government, under Mahathir Mohamed, has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to remedy the entrenchment of state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia that started during Mahathir’s previous stint as prime minister. It can do so by publicly condemning discriminatory comments like Mohd Amar’s and making clear that LGBT people are not an “issue” to contend with, but a group of people whose rights are entitled to be respected. The government should reject the Najib government’s practice of demonizing LGBT people to distract attention from governance failures, begin discussion of overturning federal and state anti-LGBT laws, and focus on fighting the real scourges in Malaysian society, such as child marriage. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In a recent survey of experts, countries were ranked according to how safe they are for women. India came out as the most dangerous, followed by Afghanistan and Syria. Leaving aside the survey’s obvious challenges – including its attempt to use six measures to compare 10 very different countries – it paints a dire picture for women’s safety in the world. One area in which women everywhere face discrimination, inequality, harassment or violence in their everyday lives is in their workplace. Governments and corporations must contend with how to keep women safe when they are working.

Globally, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have forced many companies to revisit their gender pay gap and anti-harassment policies. The momentum has spurred discussions for a new international labor standard that squarely addresses violence and harassment in the workplace.

As in the apparel industry, for example, where women make up much of the global workforce. Apparel companies should do more to create work spaces free of violence and harassment, including sexual harassment. This is not just for the benefit of their own employees, but also for the customers and clients walking into their stores; the models who are the face of their clothes; and the workers producing their clothes and shoes in factories around the world.

In May, when I was speaking to garment workers about the conditions in factories, I met Roja R., a married woman in her 30s who worked in a factory in the Indian city of Mysore making clothing for international brands. She told me the cutting section supervisor had been stalking her, asking for sexual favors. She said he misused his access to her cell number, calling her after work hours to harass her. He promised that if she submitted to his demands, he would give her a more manageable workload and assured her that he would quickly approve requests for time off work.

A garment worker sews clothing in a building near the site of the Rana Plaza building collapse. 

© 2014 G.M.B. Akash/Panos
Roja resisted. She complained to the factory administration. But the person she spoke with laughed and told her: “This is normal practice and you need to adjust.” Nobody in the factory’s management took the steps that Indian law requires to stop harassment. That includes setting up an internal complaints committee and disseminating and publicly displaying the names and contact information of committee members. Companies are also supposed to develop a policy against harassment and widely publicize it through harassment-prevention training programs.

The harassment went on for months, Roja said. She was losing sleep. Coming from a conservative family, she worried that her husband would find out, blame her and stop her from going to work. By the time I met her, the problems still hadn’t been resolved. Another of her co-workers also told me she was sexually harassed in a different part of the same factory.

Even in their desperation for some respite from the harassment, they had one plea: They wanted the clothing brands they work for to help fix the problem, but not by cutting ties with the factory. If the factory lost business, these women could lose their jobs. They feared not just for their own livelihoods, but also for those of their colleagues.

The factory’s management exploited this fear. The women say supervisors had threatened them, telling them that any mention of harassment or other complaints to the monitors who inspect factories for labor compliance would cause problems. The women were told: “You will take away food from many mouths. Do you want everyone to eat mud?”

Brands need to be held accountable for monitoring and remediating labor conditions in factories they source from, rather than being allowed to conveniently distance themselves from labor abuses.

No doubt a brand should be able to cut ties with a factory that is a repeat offender, one that shows zero willingness to put in place legal protections and to abide by international human rights standards. But before taking that step, companies need to find ways to help factories improve and ensure that workers can safely raise their issues.

Investing in the underlying infrastructure that translates paper codes of conduct into actual practice is key to any meaningful effort. Brands should take steps toward this goal.

First, they should publish information about the factories that supply their products, which makes it easier for workers to find out which brands buy from that factory and whom to contact when problems occur. Many apparel companies have been leaders on transparency, but many others have yet to follow good industry practices for making details about their business easily available.

Second, brands should recognize the limits of social and labor compliance checks (known as “social audits” in industry parlance), in which it may not be possible to address issues like sexual harassment effectively. Monitors are expected to document “evidence” or sufficiently corroborate complaints they get from workers before they can report it. Studies by CARE and other organizations show how often workers themselves under-report and sometimes do not even recognize sexual harassment.

Third, merely having monitors check periodically whether or not a workplace has a complaint system is not good enough. The absence of well-trained, independent and gender-sensitive committees to look into complaints, coupled with a lack of strong anti-retaliation procedures, risk stripping these systems of any credibility. In numerous cases from South Asia, I have found that women workers who dared to speak up about sexual harassment had experienced retaliation. That included factory management not allowing the complainant to work, suddenly finding fault with her productivity and quality of work, or warning that she was a troublemaker.

Another problem is that often brands do their own training and monitoring. In fact, it may be more effective for multiple brands buying garments from the same factory to pool their resources to create a single, comprehensive and effective system for that factory.

They could ensure that there are effective and accessible grievance-redress systems for workers if their problems are not resolved at the factory level. Instead of requiring workers to find and use a different complaints procedure for each brand, which is time-consuming and difficult for workers, there should be a simple and effective process for them to lodge complaints. And the process should result in clear outcomes when problems are found. Without effective grievance redress that leads to binding outcomes, brands should know that their talk of protecting workers’ rights is pure rhetoric.

In late May and early June, governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations concluded the first round of negotiations for a binding International Labor Organization (ILO) standard to address violence and harassment in the workplace supplemented by a non-binding recommendation. Another round of discussions will follow next year.

Apparel and footwear companies should call on employers’ organizations and governments to unequivocally support a binding standard in next year’s negotiations. That would be a major step toward helping make the world a safer place for women. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
© 2012 Human Rights Watch

Want to fight for the rights of sex workers? Hang on—in the United States it could now land you in jail or subject you to serious damages.

A vaguely defined US law – the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) – raises the possibility that if you advocate online for the rights of sex workers or defend their most basic freedoms, you might be prosecuted by federal or state government, or sued by private parties.

That’s why we at Human Rights Watch filed the first lawsuit against FOSTA this week, along with the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, an activist for sex workers’ rights, and a licensed massage therapist. We are proud to be represented in this effort by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Sex work is based on adult consensual agreement. Sex trafficking is a horrific crime (as we’ve also documented). If you understand the difference between choosing and being forced, you can grasp the distinction.

But fuzzy laws spread fuzzy fear. FOSTA says third parties can’t post content that promotes or facilitates prostitution but doesn’t define what it means by “promote” or “facilitate.” Fear of prosecution may prompt websites not to share our research findings, or individuals not to share our advocacy on social media. That gets in the way of our work, and the work of all who try to defend the rights of sex workers.

As we have documented in the U.S. in China, Tanzania and South Africa, criminalization leads to horrible abuses including police rape, police corruption and women being unable to report crimes – including sex trafficking – because they fear arrest. Criminalization also obstructs access to healthcare. In South Africa, healthcare access for sex workers has improved, thanks to determined efforts by many advocates and well-funded programs to end the HIV/AIDs pandemic, even while arrests of sex workers continue. but it’s taken action, training, and lots of communication and campaigns. This is all the kind of work that needs a free space for facts and advocacy, including on the Internet.

FOSTA restricts sex workers’ freedom of expression and endangers them. It should be scrapped for several good reasons. But one is that it might stop you from doing something you might believe you have the constitutional right to do: help protect the rights of some of the most marginalized people on our planet.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This submission focuses on the topic of girls’ rights to access safe abortion and the protection of students, teachers, and schools during time of armed conflict. It proposes issues and questions that Committee members may wish to raise with the government. 

Access to Abortion (Articles 2, 6, 14, 16, 24, 37)

El Salvador is one of six countries in Latin American and the Caribbean with a total ban on abortion in all circumstances, meaning that abortion is criminalized even when the life or health of the pregnant woman or girl is in danger, when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or when the fetus will not survive outside the womb.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the impacts of the criminalization of abortion on adolescent girls in El Salvador. Under restrictive criminal laws, girls facing unplanned, unwanted, or crisis pregnancies are forced to risk their health and lives, and possible criminal prosecution, to seek clandestine abortions, or continue with unwanted pregnancies against their wishes.

Under the criminal code, women and girls who have abortions, and the medical providers who assist them, can face severe prison sentences. Salvadoran authorities have harshly punished some women who have suffered stillbirths or miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies in the later stages of their pregnancies, charging them with aggravated homicide and sentencing them to 30 years or more in prison.

In his November 2017 statement to El Salvador, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recommended to President Sánchez Cerén that El Salvador “should comply with its international human rights obligations and lift the absolute prohibition on abortion.”[i]

In late April, however, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly did not consider proposals to ease the total abortion ban. Human Rights Watch was disappointed that Salvadoran authorities failed to decriminalize abortion in the last legislative cycle, and the country continues to operate with a criminal code that violates women’s human rights and contributes to public health crises.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask El Salvador to:

  • Provide data on abortion-related morbidity and mortality among women and girls, including deaths from induced abortion, and hospitalizations for abortion-related complications; as well as data on arrests and prosecutions for abortion-related charges, and the details of those cases;
  • Provide data or information from public health officials about maternal deaths or morbidity resulting from the denial of abortion services to women or girls whose life or health were endangered, and the details of those cases;
  • Pardon and release all women who remain in prison for abortion-related offenses or for obstetric emergencies that led to fetal or infant death;
  • Decriminalize abortion in all circumstances and take all necessary steps, both immediate and incremental, to ensure that girls have informed and free access to safe and legal abortion services, and post-abortion care, as an element of the exercise of their reproductive and other human rights.

Protecting Students, Teachers, and Schools During Armed Conflict (Articles 28, 38, 39)

In November 2017, El Salvador became the 71st country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and thereby commit to using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict as a practical tool to guide their behavior during military operations.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee:

  • Commend El Salvador for its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict;
  • Encourage El Salvador to continue to develop and share examples of its implementation of the Declaration’s commitments with other countries that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration and with the Committee as examples of good practice in protecting students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict. 

[i] UNHCR, “Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the end of his mission to El Salvador,” November 2017, https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22412&... (accessed June 29, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Women in the David L. Moss Correctional Center attend a parenting class, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2017.

© Family & Children’s Services

In the past few weeks, public outrage has erupted in response to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Yet in the US, family separations are not new.

Nearly 6 million children have parents who are or have been imprisoned in the US. Incarcerated mothers are more likely to be the sole or primary caretaker of their children, and their children are five times as likely as children with an incarcerated father to end up in the foster care system. Also, most people in jails, as opposed to prisons, have not been convicted of a crime, yet they are punished nonetheless. The children of detained parents are effectively being punished too.

Human Rights Watch, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, is documenting the impact of being jailed on Oklahoma mothers. Tanisha’s (not her real name) story, which we shared for mother’s day, is typical. She was arrested and jailed for a month because she could not afford cash bail. One year later, Tanisha is still fighting to regain custody of her three young children.

To get their children back, mothers must satisfy certain conditions that they cannot meet while in jail. It’s required that they see their children, but most Oklahoma jails either bar children from visiting or have eliminated in-person visitation altogether. Mothers who are in jail rarely have access to required parenting classes. They also are not receiving treatment for drug dependence, if that is mandated. Once released, many have felony convictions that bar them from employment, some housing, and public benefits they need to create a stable home for their children.

Additionally, mothers face barriers to participating in custody decisions and may leave jail only to learn they have lost custody of their children. The hardship of being separated from children, and the risks of losing custody, led many to choose not to fight the charges against them, instead pleading guilty in order to return home sooner.

The plight of these families and their struggles to reunite with their children are largely ignored, but it does not have to be. We should interrogate all policies that separate families and do much more to develop alternatives to incarceration that are both just and fair to parents and their children.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am