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


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


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

Demonstrators hold up green handkerchiefs, which symbolize the abortion rights movement, during a demonstration in favor of legalizing abortion outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, May 31, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
(Washington, DC, August 8, 2018) – The Argentine Senate, in a vote set for August 8, 2018, should approve a bill that would limit the country’s criminalization of abortion, which undermines the fundamental rights of women and girls, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill passed the House of Representatives in June.

“The Argentine Senate has a critically important opportunity to protect the rights of women and girls by ending the unfair and harmful status quo that puts their lives and health at risk,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Argentina should join the global trend toward expanding legal grounds guaranteeing access to abortion and affirming the rights and dignity of women and girls.”

Abortion is illegal in Argentina, except in cases of rape or when the life or health of the woman is at risk. The new legislative proposal would fully decriminalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. It would allow women and girls to end their pregnancy after that period if the pregnancy is the result of rape, the life and health of the women or girl is at risk, or the fetus suffers severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

In testimony before Congress on May 31, 2018, Vivanco said that the decriminalization of abortion is a public health and human rights imperative. He described a global trend toward expanding access to safe and legal abortion, recently with a landmark vote in Ireland to repeal the 35-year constitutional ban on abortion and to allow parliament to regulate access to abortion.

Under international human rights law, Argentina should decriminalize abortion and ensure safe, legal access to abortion, at a minimum, when the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk, when the fetus has a serious condition incompatible with life outside the womb, or when the pregnancy resulted from sexual violence. Authoritative interpretations of treaties ratified by Argentina have long established that highly restrictive or criminal abortion laws violate the human rights of women and girls, including their rights to life, health, and not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Unsafe abortions in situations in which women and girls do not have access to legal abortion pose a grave threat to the health of women and girls. According to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), 25 million unsafe abortions occurred every year between 2010 and 2014. In Argentina, according to the  Health Ministry’s official statistics, over 17 percent of the 245 recorded deaths of pregnant women and girls in 2016 were due to abortion, making it the top cause of maternal mortality in the country.

Decriminalizing abortion does not mean that more women will get abortions. In fact, abortion rates are slightly lower in countries where abortion is legal than in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws. A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute reported that in countries where abortion is prohibited or permitted only to save the life of a pregnant woman, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 women, while in countries where it is not restricted to particular situations, it is 34 per 1,000 women.

Worldwide, countries have progressively expanded legal grounds to allow abortions. The Guttmacher Institute found that since 2000, 28 countries have changed their abortion laws. All of them, except Nicaragua, expanded legal provisions to permit abortions to protect a woman’s health, for socioeconomic reasons, or for a specific time frame without conditions.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrators in Baghdad call International Women's Day a “day of mourning” in protest of Iraq's new draft Jaafari Personal Status Law, which would restrict women's rights in matters of inheritance, parental and other rights after divorce, make it easier for men to take multiple wives, and allow girls to be married from age 9. March 8, 2014. In March 2016, the Iraqi government told a UN treaty body that the draft Jaafari law “has been withdrawn and the Iraqi Government has no plans to resubmit it, let alone adopt it.”

© 2014 Iraqi al-Amal Association

The horrific case of an Iraqi woman apparently murdered at home should prompt Iraq’s new parliament, once formed, to finally pass a draft domestic violence law which has been pending since 2015.

According to Iraqi media and BBC Arabic, one day last week a bridegroom returned his bride to her parents the day after their wedding, complaining that she was not a virgin. Media reports claim that upon hearing the accusation, a family member beat her to death. Media reports say that police have arrested a male relative.

While the man will likely now face trial for murder, it is possible that he may benefit from a reduced sentence under a provision in Iraq’s penal code allowing for shorter sentences for violent acts – including murder – for so-called “honorable motives.” But there is no “honor” in such brutal and needless killing. Moreover, the murdered bride would be just one of hundreds of women and children who suffer violence at the hands of their families in Iraq each year.

If passed, Iraq’s new domestic violence law would oblige the government to protect domestic violence survivors, including with restraining orders and penalties for breaching them, and the creation of a cross-ministerial committee to combat domestic violence. It would also require the government to provide shelters so women at risk of violence have a safe place to go if they are forced to flee their home.

The draft law is not perfect. It contains several flaws, including a preference for families to address violence through “reconciliation committees” rather than prosecution, and could be improved. Iraqi authorities should also set clear penalties for the crime of domestic violence, and close the loophole that lets abusers receive reduced punishments for so-called “honor” crimes, both not addressed in the draft law.

If improved, this draft law is the best chance Iraq’s new parliament has to tackle the scourge of violence in the home, fulfill its international legal obligations on domestic violence, and save the lives of countless Iraqi women and children.

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

Activists demonstrate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 19, 2018 in favor of abortion legalization.

© 2018 Fabio Vieira/FotoRua/NurPhoto via Getty Images

(São Paulo) – A leading Brazilian reproductive rights activist, Debora Diniz, is facing death threats ahead of a Supreme Court hearing on access to abortion, Human Rights Watch said today. Brazilian authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the threats and make sure adequate steps are being taken to ensure Diniz’s safety. The authorities should also take urgent steps to protect freedom of expression for everyone participating in the hearing.

On August 3 and 6, 2018, the Brazilian Supreme Court will hold a public hearing in Brasilia, the capital, on a case challenging the criminalization of abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Under the criminal code, abortion is criminalized and prohibited in Brazil, except when the pregnancy resulted from rape or endangers the life of the woman, or when the fetus has anencephaly, a fatal brain disorder. The case before the court could dramatically expand women’s access to safe and legal abortion. In recent weeks, Diniz, a law professor and co-founder of Anis – Institute of Bioethics, a nongovernmental organization in Brasilia, has received death threats related to her work on access to abortion. She left her home and entered police protection in July.

“It is deeply disturbing that Debora Diniz is facing death threats and was forced to enter police protection because she is defending women’s rights to make fundamental decisions about their bodies and lives,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Brazil’s authorities should take immediate steps to ensure that all participants in the Supreme Court hearing can safely exercise their freedom of expression.”

Diniz, who appears in a Human Rights Watch video released on July 31, has said she will still participate in the hearing. Dozens of experts from all over the world, including Human Rights Watch, will testify before the court. Human Rights Watch will urge the court to consider Brazil’s obligations under international law in reaching its ruling.

“No one should have to fear for their personal safety or security because of their human rights activism,” Vivanco said. “People should not have to fear for their lives to testify before Brazil’s highest court.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Pakistan’s chief justice has nominated Justice Tahira Safdar as chief justice of the Balochistan High Court. If confirmed, she will become the first woman in Pakistan ever to hold this office.

Judge Tahira Safdar sits in court in Quetta, Pakistan, November 23, 2015.

© 2015 AP Photo/Arshad Butt

Pakistan remains the only country in South Asia to have never had a woman Supreme Court judge, a reflection of the country’s failure to address gender imbalance in the legal profession. Only 5 percent of Pakistan’s high court judges were women, according to a 2016 report by the independent, nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

While some women head district courts, none, as yet, have held top positions in the judiciary. And while Pakistan has produced women lawyers of international renown such as the late Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, the Pakistan Bar Council – which regulates lawyers – has never had a woman member. Jahangir remains the only woman lawyer to have been elected as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

There is a particular need in Pakistan for lawyers and judges sensitive to the hardships women endure. Pakistani women often face a hostile environment, whether at home or in society at large. Violence against women and girls – including rape, “honor” killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage – remains a serious problem.

Many factors explain the underrepresentation of women in the legal profession including harmful societal attitudes, harassment in the workplace, and structural barriers such as the opaque appointment process for judges.

Pakistan has an obligation to ensure equal participation of women under its constitution and international human rights treaties it has ratified, most notably the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  

Hopefully, Safdar’s appointment will be a first step toward rectifying gender disparity in the legal profession and recognition that the equal participation of women is crucial for Pakistan to become a modern, rights-respecting democracy.

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

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose with Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage Award during a ceremony at the US State Department in Washington, DC, on March 8, 2012. 

© 2012 Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have arrested the internationally recognized women’s rights activist Samar Badawi and an Eastern Province activist, Nassima al-Sadah, in the past two days, Human Rights Watch said today. Badawi and al-Sadah are the latest victims of an unprecedented government crackdown on the women’s rights movement that began on May 15, 2018 and has resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen activists.

Badawi, a recipient of the United States’ 2012 International Women of Courage Award, is best known for challenging Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system. She was one of the first women to petition Saudi authorities to allow women the right to drive as well as the right to vote and run in municipal elections. Al-Sadah, from the coastal city of Qatif, has also long campaigned both for abolishing the guardianship system and lifting the driving ban. She was a candidate in the 2015 local elections, the first time women were allowed to run, but the authorities removed her name from the ballot, ultimately barring her from running.

“The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “After the recent arbitrary arrests of businesspeople, women’s rights activists, and reformist clerics, Saudi Arabia’s allies and partners should question what ‘reform’ really means in a country where the rule of law is disdainfully ignored.”

Saudi authorities, under the ultimate direction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, have stepped up arrests and prosecutions of dissidents and activists since early 2017. As the arrests escalated, Badawi and al-Sadah, like the other women’s rights activists recently arrested, had largely gone quiet in their social media and other public advocacy.

Saudi authorities have targeted and harassed Badawi for years. In addition to her advocacy for women’s equality, she has campaigned energetically for both her former husband and her brother to be released from prison. Waleed Abu al-Khair, her former husband,  is serving a 15-year sentence for his human rights work, and Raif Badawi, her brother, is a blogger serving a 10-year sentence for expressing controversial opinions online. In December 2014, Saudi authorities barred her from travelling abroad and in January 2016, they briefly detained her over her peaceful human rights advocacy.

On July 30, authorities also arrested Amal al-Harbi, wife of the leading Saudi activist Fowzan al-Harbi. He is serving a seven-year sentence for his work with the now-banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of the country’s first civic organizations. It is unclear why Saudi authorities have targeted Al-Harbi.

The recent crackdown on women's rights activists began just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated lifting of the driving ban on women on June 24, a cause for which many of the detained activists had campaigned. While some have been released, others remain detained without charge. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, and Hatoon al-Fassi, all women’s rights activists, as well as supporters of the movement, including Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, a lawyer; Abdulaziz Meshaal, a philanthropist; and Mohammed Rabea, a social activist.

Authorities accused several of those detained of serious crimes, including “suspicious contact with foreign parties” under thin legal pretenses. Government-aligned media outlets have carried out an alarming campaign against them, branding them “traitors.” The Saudi newspaper Okaz reported that nine of those detained will be referred for trial to the Specialized Criminal Court, originally established to try detainees held in connection with terrorism offenses. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison.

Dr. al-Fassi, a renowned scholar and associate professor of women’s history at King Saud University, was one of the first women to acquire a Saudi driver’s license. Saudi authorities arrested her just days before lifting the ban. Numerous other women’s rights activists have since been placed under travel bans.

Saudi women’s rights activists have not only petitioned successive government authorities to reform discriminatory laws and policies, but also sought to change societal attitudes. While the government has recently introduced limited reforms, including allowing women to enter some professions previously closed to them as well as lifting the driving ban, the male guardianship system, the main impediment to the realization of women’s rights, remains largely intact.

Under this system, women must obtain permission from a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – to travel abroad, obtain a passport, enroll in higher education, get a life-saving abortion, be released from a prison or shelter, or marry.

“Allies and partners considering opportunities for closer ties with Saudi Arabia during this period of ‘reform’ should speak out against Mohammad bin Salman’s ultimately self-defeating repression. Any economic vision that seeks to open up Saudi Arabia while throwing real reformers in jail may well end badly for everyone,” said Whitson.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A vendor sells #MeToo badges a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California U.S. November 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Among the over 50 million court verdicts from 2010 to 2017 available publicly, only 34 focused on sexual harassment, according to a June study by the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center. Among those 34 cases, only two were brought by victims suing alleged harassers, and both of those cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. In fact, the majority of the 34 cases were brought by alleged harassers themselves, claiming breach of contract after they were dismissed by employers for sexual harassment, or for defamation-related reasons after accusations were made public by victims or employers.

The microscopic number of sexual harassment lawsuits is no indication that harassment isn’t a problem in China. Nearly 40 percent of women in China said they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The absence of court cases indicates instead the difficulties women face seeking legal redress for abuse.

While few sexual harassment cases are brought in court, there are signs women may be more willing to speak out in China. This year several university professors were accused on Chinese social media of sexually harassing female students. And the #MeToo movement recently picked up momentum after a woman accused prominent anti-discrimination activist Lei Chuang of sexual assault. A slew of prominent journalists, intellectuals, and activists have since been accused on social media of sexual misconduct. Some have made public apologies.

These women’s courage is inspiring, but hopes for justice remain low. One journalist, Shangguan Luan, wrote “given the lack of systemic redress,” China’s #MeToo movement is more about “easing depression” than “seeking accountability.” In a telling case, a woman said on July 25 after she reported to the police that prominent TV host Zhu Jun had sexually harassed her, police forced her to withdraw the complaint, claiming that Zhu, as host of the annual Spring Festive gala at the state media, had “enormous ‘positive influence’ on the society.” Soon after the exposé, posts about the case began to be removed from Chinese social media.

Chinese law bans sexual harassment against women in the workplace, but the laws lack a clear definition of sexual harassment and provisions creating a specific cause of action for sexual harassment. This makes it difficult for victims to seek redress. But these #MeToo accusations may jumpstart a broader movement showing abusers that women are fed up with being silent victims, and the government that it needs to amend the laws to give victims justice.

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

Brazil’s abortion laws are incompatible with its human rights obligations. 

(São Paulo) – Brazil’s abortion laws are incompatible with its human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video about the issue. Human Rights Watch will speak at a public hearing on August 3 and 6, 2018, as part of a Supreme Court case challenging the criminalization of abortion in Brazil in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Human Rights Watch will urge the court to consider Brazil’s obligations under international law in reaching its ruling.

Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, when necessary to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus suffers from anencephaly – a fatal congenital brain disorder. Women and girls who terminate pregnancies under any other circumstances face up to three years in prison. Media reports suggest that more than 300 abortion-related criminal cases were registered against women by the courts in 2017, many reported by health professionals after the women went to medical facilities in need of post-abortion care. Human Rights Watch documented the consequences of Brazil’s restrictions on abortion in a July 2017 report on the impact of the Zika outbreak.

“No woman or girl should be forced to choose between continuing a pregnancy against her wishes and risking her health, life, and freedom to have a clandestine abortion,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The case now before the Supreme Court is a crucial opportunity to provide women and girls in Brazil with greater reproductive choice, in line with their rights under international human rights law.”

In March 2017, the Socialism and Freedom Party, with support from the nongovernmental group Anis – Institute of Bioethics, filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the criminalization of abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus brief, analyzing Brazil’s obligations under international human rights law. The public hearing on the case will be in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital.

Activists demonstrate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 19, 2018 in favor of abortion legalization.

© 2018 Fabio Vieira/FotoRua/NurPhoto via Getty Images
In the video, Human Rights Watch speaks with Rebeca Mendes Silva Leite, who petitioned Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2017 for permission to terminate her unplanned pregnancy safely. She said she feared a clandestine abortion: “I was afraid to take a pill [to induce abortion] and then have some complication at home and not be able to go to the hospital to talk about what’s happening and die in my house and leave my two children alone. I was afraid of going to the hospital and having to talk about what really happened and ending up in a police station and being indicted.” Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber dismissed her petition on procedural grounds but did not rule on its merits. She had an abortion abroad.

The video also features experts, advocates, and a doctor speaking about how women must resort to clandestine and dangerous methods to end pregnancies due to criminal penalties for abortion in Brazil. “I’ve seen women with extremely serious infections due to abortion,” said Dr. Leila Katz, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Recife, the largest city in Pernambuco state, in northeastern Brazil. “I had patients who had uterine lesions due to harmful manipulation, uterine ruptures and intra-abdominal infections. Some of them died. Some of them lived, but with very serious consequences.”

“The women most affected by the criminalization of abortion are the poorest ones, the most vulnerable,” said Debora Diniz, co-founder of Anis, who also appears in the video. “They are Black and indigenous women, they are the younger women.”

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have abortions in Brazil each year, most clandestinely. Estimates are that by age 40, approximately one in five Brazilian women has terminated a pregnancy. According to Health Ministry data published in Folha de São Paulo, more than 2 million women were hospitalized for complications from miscarriage or abortion from 2008 to 2017, three-quarters of them from induced abortions, and more than 4,400 women died between 2000 and 2016 from miscarriage and abortion-related causes.

United Nations bodies interpreting international human rights law have determined that denying women and girls access to abortion is a form of discrimination that jeopardizes a range of human rights, including the rights to life; health; freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; nondiscrimination and equality; privacy; information; and freedom to decide the number and spacing of children.

For more than a decade, UN human rights bodies and experts have criticized Brazil for its punitive restrictions on abortion and urged the government to modify these laws. In 2015, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that Brazil should “[d]ecriminalize abortions in all circumstances and review its legislation with a view to ensuring access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services.” In 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said that Brazil should “[e]xpedite the review of its legislation criminalizing abortion in order to remove punitive provisions imposed on women.”

Research consistently shows that restrictive laws and criminal penalties do not reduce the rate or incidence of abortion. A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute found little difference in the estimated abortion rates in countries in which abortion is prohibited, or permitted only to save the life of a pregnant woman, and countries in which it is not restricted to particular situations. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 25 million unsafe abortions each year. Countries with restrictive abortion laws have a significantly higher proportion of unsafe abortions than those with less restrictive laws.

Historic votes in Ireland and in the lower house of Argentina’s Congress in 2018, and a landmark vote and subsequent Constitutional Court decision to decriminalize abortion in three circumstances in Chile in 2017 are just a few examples of a global trend toward expanding legal access to abortion. The Guttmacher Institute found that between 2000 and 2017, 27 countries changed their laws to expand access to abortion.

“The case before Brazil’s Supreme Court represents an opportunity to protect women’s rights and dignity by decriminalizing abortion,” Vivanco said. “Brazil’s women and girls should not have to wait any longer for their reproductive rights to be respected.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Brazil’s abortion laws are incompatible with its human rights obligations. Human Rights Watch will speak at a public hearing on August 3 and 6, 2018, as part of a Supreme Court case challenging the criminalization of abortion in Brazil in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Human Rights Watch will urge the court to consider Brazil’s obligations under international law in reaching its ruling. Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, when necessary to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus suffers from anencephaly – a fatal congenital brain disorder. Women and girls who terminate pregnancies under any other circumstances face up to three years in prison.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Shiori Ito, a journalist, who says was raped by an colleague in 2015, talks about her ordeal and the need for more support for the victims in Japan, during an interview in Tokyo.

© 2018 Mari Yamaguchi/ AP

Mika Kobayashi was on her way home one day when men forced her into a van and raped her. She went public about the sexual assault eight years later, in 2008, in a book that chronicled the incident, and the nightmare that followed.

Catherine Jane Fisher, an Australian, was raped in Japan in 2002 by a member of the US military. Dismayed by the police handling of the case, which she said made her feel like a criminal, Fisher took matters into her own hands by filing a lawsuit against the rapist and going public about what happened to her.

These are two brave women who broke Japan's silence on rape. More recently, another woman, 28-year-old Shiori Ito, did the same.

"Japan's Secret Shame", a documentary aired last month by the BBC, focuses on Ito's allegation that an acquaintance raped her in 2015. Although Kobayashi, Fisher and Ito's experiences span 15 years, their stories are alarmingly similar. All three describe abusive police investigation techniques, failure to take sexual violence seriously, lack of support for victims, and at times, society's unwillingness to understand their pain.

A particularly horrifying detail is that Japanese police, as part of their investigation, sometimes force victims to reenact the assault with a life-size doll, while being observed and questioned by officers. This "investigation technique" is abusive, unnecessary, and retraumatising for victims.


Over 95 percent of incidents of sexual violence in Japan are not reported to the police according to government figures, and for good reason. Discussing rape is perceived as "embarrassing" in Japan and public opinion often sways towards blaming the victim rather than the attacker.

Until last year's legal reforms, Japanese law defined rape solely as involving violent penetration of a woman's vagina by a man's penis. This prevented many female rape victims and all men and boys who had been raped from seeking justice.

In 2017, Japan's parliament passed reforms to the rape law, expanding the definition to include forced oral and anal penetration, lengthening sentences, and permitting prosecutions to move forward without the victim's consent. These were positive steps, but major problems remain, both with the law and with how it is carried out.

The Japanese government shouldn't wait for victims to come forth demanding change, but should move ahead now to reform what is still, despite the recent improvements, a hopelessly antiquated - and sexist - system for dealing with sexual violence.

The law still permits rape charges to be raised only when "violence or intimidation" was used, except in cases of guardians abusing children. This requirement ignores the fact that rape often occurs without the use of obvious force or threat - for example, when someone is too afraid or shocked to resist, is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, or there is a lopsided power dynamic. Requiring proof of "violence or intimidation" excludes many cases that should be treated as rape and forces prosecutors to prove an element that should not be required and is more difficult to prove than lack of consent.

Countries around the world, prompted by evolving societal perceptions of sexual violence, are changing legal definitions to reflect an understanding of rape that is based on lack of consent, not the use of force.

The Japanese government should also remove this requirement and take further measures to train police officers and prosecutors to handle rape cases in appropriate and humane ways, including ending all use of re-enactments involving the victim.

The government should also guarantee all victims have access to 24-hour hotlines and one-stop-centresacross Japan and ensure immediate and compassionate collection of forensic evidence based on professional standards and procedures. The government also needs to ensure all victims have access to female police officers with special training to deal with sexual violence who work in partnership with social workers.

The government should also continue to improve its victim assistance services such as screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, HIV prevention medications, pregnancy testing, and abortion services. Victims also need legal assistance and longer-term access to counselling and peer support.

These are neither big nor new demands.

Some have been made for years by the United Nations expert committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty Japan ratified in 1985. Some have been recommended by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Some have even been raised by the research committee of the Japanese government's Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office.

The Japanese government should show these brave women, and the world, that their voices won't go unheard.

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

Migrants that crossed the land border between Greece and Turkey are seen at the Pre-Removal Detention Center in the village of Fylakio, Northern Greece, February 24, 2017.

© 2017 Alexandros Avramidis /Reuters

(Athens) – Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in northern Greece have been subject to appalling reception and detention conditions, with at-risk groups lacking necessary protection, Human Rights Watch said today. Greece has failed to ensure minimum standards for pregnant women, new mothers, and others arriving via the land-border with Turkey in the Evros region, many of whom are fleeing violence or repression in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

During visits to three government-run centers holding asylum-seekers and migrants in May 2018, Human Rights Watch found living conditions that do not meet international standards. All three facilities lacked adequate access to health care, including mental health care, and support for at-risk people, including women traveling alone, pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual violence. The lack of interpreters hindered essential communication. Asylum seekers and migrants said they did not know why they were being held. Interviewees reported verbal abuse by police, and two said they witnessed police physically abusing others.

“People told us they were being treated so poorly in these facilities that they felt less than human,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has a responsibility to uphold basic standards of care for everyone in its custody, regardless of their immigration status.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 asylum seekers and migrants in the three facilities, as well as Greek authorities and facility personnel. Conditions were especially poor at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, where Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed asylum seekers being held in dark, dank cells, with overpowering odors in the corridors. Female asylum seekers and migrants were being held with unrelated males at both the pre-removal center and the reception and identification center at

Fylakio, where housing failed to meet such basic standards as having toilets and locking doors. People working at both centers in Fylakio confirmed in late July conditions remain the same. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit to the Diavata open camp, asylum seekers and migrant families were housed together in crowded rooms, and some in tents, including pregnant women and new mothers.

A surge in arrivals over Greece’s northern land border with Turkey in the spring of 2018, peaking in April, slowed reception and identification procedures, leading to overcrowding and lengthier stays in detention facilities. However, this does not absolve the Greek government of obligations to uphold the rights of all asylum seekers and migrants, including by providing decent living standards and health care.

Pending completion of reception and identification procedures, Greek authorities hold newly arrived irregular migrants and those seeking international protection in northern Greece in one or more of the following facilities: border police stations in the Evros region; the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, run by the Hellenic Police; and the Fylakio reception and identification center, run by the Ministry for Migration Policy. Some are then transferred to open camps, including the Diavata camp in Thessaloniki, run by the Migration Policy Ministry, and others to accommodations supported by the UN refugee agency. Some remain in detention pending examination of asylum claims, deportation, or voluntary return.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Hellenic Police and the Migration Policy Ministry in June to seek comment on the findings. The head of the Hellenic Police replied on July 4 acknowledging increased arrivals had put pressure on facilities, but said conditions were improving. The Migration Ministry had not responded at time of writing.

Government reception and identification procedures are supposed to include medical checks and screening for vulnerable people including pregnant women and new mothers, people with medical or mental health conditions, people with disabilities, and unaccompanied or separated children. However, Human Rights Watch found these procedures are not conducted systematically. Most asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they had not been screened by medical personnel or asked about vulnerabilities, including pregnancy or health conditions.

Four pregnant women said they had not been able to get adequate prenatal care even after requesting it. A 31-year-old woman from Iraq who was four months pregnant said she had not been screened in the four days since she had arrived at the reception center.

“I am very afraid because I don’t feel the baby moving,” she said, adding that she had severe leg pain. Her husband, 40, said he had explained his wife’s situation to staff and requested a doctor. “But there’s no doctor here,” he said. “They said we can see a doctor when we go to Thessaloniki after release from the reception center.”

Asylum seekers and migrants said lack of medical personnel, poor treatment by available personnel, long waits, and lack of interpreters hindered access to physical and mental health care. The lack of female doctors and interpreters creates additional barriers for women and girls.

Ten people said police verbally abused or otherwise mistreated them in the Fylakio centers. Three said police refer to them as “malaka,” a Greek insult meaning cowardly, worthless, or stupid. Two said they saw police hit other asylum seekers with plastic batons. Human Rights Watch researchers heard police at both facilities make derogatory comments about asylum seekers and migrants and address them aggressively.   

National and European law and international standards require treating asylum seekers and migrants with dignity and providing them with decent living conditions, including timely access to health care. Greek authorities should take immediate steps to ensure migrant reception and detention facilities comply with international and national law.

“A decent standard of living and humane treatment for asylum seekers and migrants are not optional extras,” Margolis said. “Regardless of the number of arrivals, the Greek government can’t shirk its legal obligation to prevent abusive conditions and help those most at-risk.”

Please note, all names of migrants and asylum seekers have been changed to protect their privacy.

Accounts by Asylum Seekers, Migrants

Living Conditions

Human Rights Watch found substandard conditions at all three facilities: the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, the Fylakio reception and identification center, and the Diavata open camp in Thessaloniki. Conditions at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The surge of arrivals over northern Greece’s land border with Turkey strained reception and identification processing in the Evros region, but when Human Rights Watch visited in late May, authorities said both centers in Fylakio were under capacity. On May 19, authorities at the pre-removal detention center, with a capacity of 374, said it was housing 172 people. On May 21, authorities at the reception and identification center, which has a capacity of 240, said it was housing 196. Diavata camp was housing over 1,000 people with an official capacity of around 900.

Nadir, 21, from Syria, said he and his 6-year-old niece were held at the pre-removal center for four days in a cell with about 40 young men. “The toilet had no light and no running water,” he said. “I was afraid for my family. There were people from other nationalities [in the cell] – they were strangers…. We didn’t have any bedsheets or pillows. There was a bed and a sponge mattress but no covers.… [W]e didn’t shower for four days, and we used the sink to drink water…. The toilets had no locks; even the walls between the toilets were not totally closed off.”

Muhammed, 18, from Afghanistan, said police had not allowed him outside for two days, although international standards require daily time outdoors. “Sometimes [the police] let us out in the morning and in the afternoon, but sometimes we might not go out at all for two to three days,” Muhammed said. “Last time I went out was two days ago, and today they let us out only for five minutes in the corridor.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 asylum seekers in Diavata open camp, including three pregnant women. Four Afghan and four Syrian families were housed on a building’s second floor in a large room with broken windows, accessed via another room housing at least 10 additional families. People slept on blankets on the floor, and the rooms were extremely hot.

Others were housed in tents in open areas, which authorities said was due to overcrowding following increased arrivals. Some, including pregnant women and mothers with infants, said they had been living in tents for up to 20 days. According to the latest available site management report, the population of Diavata reached nearly 1,500 in June, with 500 people accommodated in tents.

At all three facilities, women and girls said they felt unsafe using toilets and showers, which are difficult to reach and lack privacy. “There are four showers for all the women in this camp,” said Farida, from Afghanistan, in Diavata. “If you go to take a shower at 9 a.m., your turn may come at 1 p.m. They’re far away and if you want to go there at night, you can’t. For a woman to feel safe, a man needs to accompany her.”

Halah, 27, from Syria and seven months pregnant, said distances to toilets posed particular difficulties for pregnant women. The June site management report states the number of separate toilets and showers for women are “insufficient.”

Rasha, 15, from Syria, had been in the Fylakio reception and identification center with her 18-year-old sister for three weeks, living in a pre-fabricated container in a fenced-in, enclosed section with unrelated men and boys. “Our container is the only one with no toilet,” she said. “We have to go inside a container with people I don’t know, so I worry that someone can come inside and see me. There is no lock in the bathroom. I don’t feel very safe here because many people come and go and there are many boys.”

Human Rights Watch also documented inadequate toilet and bathing facilities for women in cells with unrelated men at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, and women said they had been harassed while using the facilities.

In the letter to Human Rights Watch, Hellenic Police Director Georgios Kossioris said, due to strain on the reception and identification center following the surge in asylum seekers and migrants arriving over the Greece-Turkey border, authorities held some people at the pre-removal center before completing reception and identification proceedings. He said this was to meet basic needs for food, health care, housing, and sanitation, even if gaps remained in meeting these needs. He also said living conditions at the center had improved following a reduction in arrivals and “measures taken,” but did not specify these measures.

Regardless of the number of arrivals, the Greek government has a responsibility to comply with international, national and European law, and international standards for treatment and detention of asylum seekers and migrants. They require a decent standard of living and necessary physical and mental health care during completion of procedures. Authorities have an obligation to inform those held in reception and identification facilities about their status and circumstances in a language they understand.

The authorities are also obligated to protect women and children and to identify and support people with “vulnerabilities,” including pregnant women, new mothers, and sexual violence survivors. The European Union should support Greece’s government in ensuring humane treatment for all arrivals.

Identifying At-Risk People

Under Greek law, third country nationals or stateless people who arrive irregularly should undergo procedures in a reception and identification center, including medical screening and identification of at-risk (“vulnerable”) people. This includes pregnant women and new mothers, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, people with disabilities, and victims of torture, rape, or other significant physical, psychological, or sexual violence. Reception and identification center staff should, by law, refer those identified as vulnerable to services and prioritize them for asylum processes. Those needing medical care should be referred for treatment.

When Human Rights Watch visited, no doctor was on staff at the Fylakio reception center. Authorities there said nurses screen new arrivals and border police often signal known vulnerabilities to staff, but there appeared to be no systematic process for identifying vulnerabilities. Many of the asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they had not seen medical personnel or been asked about potential vulnerabilities. The nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) is reportedly considering providing some services provision at the reception and identification center but would not be authorized to screen for vulnerability. Greek policy requires screening by government agencies.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women with recognizable vulnerabilities – including some who were obviously pregnant or mothers of infants – who said they had not received any assistance. People with hidden vulnerabilities, such as mental health conditions, psychosocial disabilities, or who have experienced sexual violence are less likely to be identified or assisted. The Ministry of Migration did not respond to a request for information about vulnerability screening at the Fylakio reception and identification center.

Staff at all stages – including in border police stations and pre-removal centers – have a duty under Greek law to ensure appropriate care for people with identifiable vulnerabilities, as well as access to essential physical and mental health care and decent living conditions. The deputy commander at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center said staff give vulnerable people priority for transfer to the reception and identification center, but both he and the doctor acknowledged not all arrivals see medical staff or the psychologist.  

Access to Medical Care

Asylum seekers and migrants at all three facilities said they had difficulty getting medical and mental health care, citing long waits, poor or no response by personnel, and a lack of interpreters.

Nurses are at the reception and identification center daily from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., but, the deputy commander and a nurse said, they cannot examine patients or provide medication and must transfer people to facilities 30 to 45 minutes away for treatment. They said the lack of an on-site doctor was a critical gap. “I can’t do anything,” the nurse said. “I can’t give any medicine. People have to suffer and wait.”

Maysa, 18, from Iraq, who had been at the reception center with her husband and in-laws for close to three weeks, said she sought medical care for her 8-month-old daughter. “Her mouth has looked like it’s rotten and white for a week now,” she said. “Nobody took us to the doctor. I asked, but the nurse brought cotton and chamomile tea to clean the baby’s mouth – that’s the medicine she gave us.”

A male doctor is on-site weekdays at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center. “Ideally, everyone should be examined,” he said of new arrivals. However, he said he medically screens “most” new arrivals and tries to identify serious cases for transfer to a hospital. The doctor said he lacks necessary equipment and services, including medications and interpreters.

Nurses are on-site daily at the Fylakio pre-removal center, but the doctor said, as at the reception and identification center, they cannot examine or treat patients without a doctor’s orders. When an asylum seeker fell ill during the Human Rights Watch visit on a Sunday, a nurse said she could only give emergency first aid. She did not approach, touch, or communicate directly with the young woman, who had vomited, complained of severe headache, and appeared too weak to sit up.

Eight people interviewed said they had difficulty getting medical care at the pre-removal center.

Suha, 20, from Morocco, said she sought help because she had not menstruated in two months. “It took five days of begging the doctor [at the center] to go to the hospital,” she said. She said that after a negative pregnancy test, the doctor gave her tablets he said would induce her period. She said she had severe abdominal pain and vomiting after taking them. “I was crying all night from the pain,” she said. “When I told the doctor he just said to hold on – ‘in two days you will have your period.’”

Ten days later, she said her period had not started and she had ongoing pain “like knives” in her abdomen, which led her to cut her inner forearms with a broken mirror; she showed the interviewers the scars. She said that when the doctor returned on Monday she would plead for more tests to determine her condition.

Muhammed said he developed a skin condition at the Fylakio pre-removal center but was unable to get treatment. “I’ve asked to see a doctor, but [the police] curse at me,” he said. “I’m very itchy during the night and I’ve asked many times to see a doctor, but they haven’t allowed me to see one.” Six other people described itching or rashes they believed were caused or exacerbated by unsanitary conditions in the center.

People at Diavata, including pregnant women, said they were often unable to get care. “There is still one doctor in the whole camp,” said Bashira, 26, from Afghanistan, who gave birth to her second son during her two years there. “You have to sit waiting from morning to night to see the doctor.”

Authorities, medical personnel, and asylum seekers and migrants said a lack of female doctors creates additional barriers for women. “Most of the doctors are men,” said Bashira. “It is hard [for a woman] to tell them how you are feeling.”

The reply from the Hellenic Police director states “primary health care is provided for everyone without exceptions” at the pre-removal center, including necessary medical care and referrals to hospitals or other appropriate facilities. The Ministry of Migration did not respond to Human Rights Watch regarding provision of health care at the RIC and at Diavata camp.

Access to Psychological Support

Many of the asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they were experiencing symptoms of emotional or psychological distress but had not received psychosocial support.

No psychological support was available on-site at the reception and identification center when Human Rights Watch visited. People requiring mental health care were being referred to a medical center about 20 minutes away by car. A nurse at the center said the wait for an appointment is usually about a week. A Greek nongovernmental organization has since reportedly begun providing psychosocial and legal support, as well as recreational activities, for children, giving priority to unaccompanied children. However, no on-site psychosocial support is available for adults.

The nurse and deputy commander at the reception and identification center said it needs an on-site mental health care specialist. Eight asylum seekers and migrants interviewed there said they or a family member were experiencing symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety, crying bouts, and hair loss.

Suraya, in her twenties (nationality withheld), had been there for five months. She said she did not receive help she requested after another asylum seeker sexually assaulted her. “I’m losing my hair and I want to see a doctor,” Suraya said. “From the very first month [here] I asked for a psychologist, but they never brought one.”

Nadir, at the center with his 6-year-old niece, Abra, said they both have skin conditions and Abra is unable to sleep or eat. When asked whether she had received psychological support, Nadir said, “We haven’t even seen a doctor for our skin. I don’t think we’ll see a psychologist.”

Lack of information and interpreters means detainees are sometimes unaware of available care. Staff said a psychologist and a social worker are at the Fylakio pre-removal center on weekdays, but only two of six people who described experiencing psychological distress said they were offered assistance. Muhammed had been at the pre-removal center for 26 days. “I’m not well psychologically,” he said. “My thoughts are confused. Everything I’ve been through makes me suffer.” He did not know the facility had a psychologist or social worker.

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said medical care provided includes “necessary health care and psychosocial diagnosis and support.”

Human Rights Watch previously reported on confinement of women and girls with unknown men at the Fylakio centers, which they said caused or contributed to their psychological and emotional distress, including sleeplessness, anxiety, inability to eat, and crying. Two women at the pre-removal detention center said they had suicidal thoughts.

Pregnant Women and New Mothers

Human Rights Watch interviewed three pregnant women at Diavata camp, one who had given birth there and one with an infant, and two pregnant women and one with an infant at the reception and identification center.

International standards on detention of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees state: “as a general rule, pregnant women and nursing mothers, who both have special needs, should not be detained,” and alternative measures should be sought. International guidelines on detention of women also call for “gender-specific health care,” and for providing pregnant and lactating women with appropriate health and dietary support. Emergency obstetric and newborn care should be accessible in humanitarian crises, in line with international standards.

Greek law calls for reception and identification procedures to screen for and give priority to vulnerable people, including pregnant women and new mothers. Farah, 31, from Iraq and four months pregnant, said she had been unable to see a doctor at either of the centers in the Fylakio center. “I asked them to provide me with a doctor, but they said, ‘When you go to the reception and identification center, you will find one,’” she said. “[At the reception center] they said the doctor is coming, but he never showed up.”

Leila, 24, from Syria and seven months pregnant, had been at Diavata camp for four weeks with her husband and 2-year-old son. “Sometimes I feel like my stomach is tough and hard,” she said. “I desperately need to go to the doctor to see how my baby is, but the doctor here said, ‘When you move to another camp, you’ll see a doctor there.’”

Leila and another pregnant woman at Diavata said a doctor checked their babies’ heartbeats but did not perform an ultrasound or explain why not. World Health Organization guidelines call for an ultrasound during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to determine gestational age, and to aid in identifying and managing higher-risk pregnancies.

Pregnant and lactating women at Diavata also said they did not have adequate living conditions. Amina, 23, from Syria and six months pregnant, had been there for 20 days with her husband, parents, and 18-month-old son. “We are living in a tent and it’s raining all the time,” she said. “Whatever we can find – blankets and so forth – we sleep on. We have been asking various organizations [working in the camp] to help us but they say, ‘There are many pregnant women here, so you have to wait.’”

A woman from Syria had been living in a tent at Diavata for about 10 days with her husband and infant, who was less than two months old. Another woman who had given birth to her 11-month-old son at Diavata said she lived in a tent through her sixth month of pregnancy.

International humanitarian standards call for providing vulnerable people, including pregnant and lactating women, with additional bedding and clothing, as well as food or nutritional supplements in line with their needs.

Lack of Interpreters and Training

Even when care is available, lack of interpreters hinders access. There were no interpreters at the Fylakio pre-removal center at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit. The deputy commander there said a Health Ministry program should provide interpreters, but the positions are considered undesirable and are difficult to fill. “At the moment we don’t have any interpreters and we are figuring it out with other detainees,” he said. “The lack of interpreters is a problem, especially with increased arrivals.” Someone working at the center said one Arabic interpreter has recently been employed there.

Abdullah, 21, from Afghanistan, said he had seen the doctor at the pre-removal center several times for a rash and a throat problem. “The doctor sometimes uses one of the other detainees as an interpreter, and other times I try to communicate with signs [hand gestures] when there’s no interpreter,” he said.

Authorities at the reception and identification center said they have five interpreters funded by the European Asylum Support Office and the Dutch government, but this does not meet the facility’s needs, leaving staff to rely on other asylum seekers for translation. “If [an asylum seeker or migrant] speaks English, we can understand some things,” said the nurse there. “Otherwise we try to get an interpreter, or else we use someone else living in [the asylum seeker’s or migrant’s] section.” She said interpreters are often unavailable or not on-site when nurses need them.

Suraya said the lack of female interpreters compounds the problem for women and girls. “[People who speak with us at the reception and identification center] usually don't have an interpreter,” she said. “And even if you talk to them about a confidential women’s issue, the interpreter will be a man.” Samira, 18, from Syria, at the center for three weeks with her 15-year-old sister, said she had to use hand gestures to communicate she had her period and needed sanitary pads. “There was no interpreter, so I used sign language with the [medical staff],” she said.

Relying on other asylum seekers or migrants to interpret can compromise the quality of information transmitted, and violates privacy and confidentiality standards for medical and mental health care provision and for registration, identification, and processing of asylum seekers and migrants. Lack of trained interpreters – including women – can also hinder identification of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, torture, or other abuse.

Detainees who were or had previously been held at the pre-removal center said their distress was compounded by a lack of information and communication about why they were being held and the status of their asylum process.

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said all detainees are “systematically informed” about reasons for their detention and their rights, including their right to contact representatives from external organizations. He said “relevant brochures have been posted in prominent spots” and detainees are given “information sheets,” but did not specify languages in which such documents are available.

Health professionals interviewed at both Fylakio centers said they had no specialized training in working with asylum seekers and migrants or in detention facilities, and sometimes no prior related experience. International standards call for all staff working in immigration detention to be trained in identifying symptoms of trauma or stress, as well as on sexual and gender-based violence, human rights requirements, and standards for detaining asylum seekers. The reply from the Hellenic Police director said the Health Ministry is now responsible for providing doctors, nurses, psychosocial support staff, and interpreters to facilities for migrants and asylum seekers.

Abuse and Mistreatment by Police

Ten asylum seekers and migrants said police at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center and reception and identification center mistreated them, including through verbal abuse, humiliation, and violation of privacy. Two said they witnessed police hit other people being held in the facilities.

People interviewed at both sites said police used derogatory terms and shouted and laughed at them. “Police call us ‘malaka,’” said Fatima, 24, from Algeria, about the pre-removal center. People in the reception and identification center said police there used the same insult. “One thing they always say is ‘malaka,’” said Suraya. She also said she witnessed police at the reception center beat children twice, once in front of her 9-year-old nephew. “My nephew was in front of the police when they beat the kids with kicks, slaps, and plastic batons,” she said.

Muhammed, from Afghanistan, said he had seen police at the pre-removal center hit detainees with plastic batons the previous day. He also said police treated asylum seekers and migrants of differently according to nationality. “Policemen are nice to Turks and Syrians, but not to Pakistanis and Afghans,” he said.

Four asylum seekers, including a woman, a girl, and two men with young nieces, said police at the reception and identification center regularly entered their containers unannounced. “The doors [to the containers and rooms] don’t lock,” said Nadir at the reception center with his 6-year-old niece. “Every night the police just come in to count us.”

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said his office has received no complaints of mistreatment by police and requested details of incidents reported to Human Rights Watch. The reply said authorities have “zero tolerance for human rights abuses” and impose “severe disciplinary sanctions” on those who fail to adhere to orders to protect life, respect human dignity, and prohibit torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

International rights bodies have criticized Greece in the past for failing to address allegations of police abuse and have called for complaints mechanisms to investigate abuse allegations. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, and other treaties to which Greece is a party, the government is bound by the absolute prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, including in detention and reception facilities.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists demonstrate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 19, 2018 in favor of abortion legalization.

© 2018 Fabio Vieira/FotoRua/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ingriane Barbosa Carvalho, a mother of three in her early 30s, died two months ago in Brazil. The medical examiner’s report states that she died of complications from an unsafe abortion, and the story made headlines last week when the provider was arrested. Carvalho is one of the casualties of Brazil’s harsh abortion law.

A case currently before the Supreme Court could expand access to abortion in Brazil. On August 3 and 6, experts from all over the world, including Human Rights Watch, will testify in the case, which challenges the criminalization of abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Most abortions are illegal in Brazil. Women and girls with resources can travel abroad to terminate pregnancies or find safer clandestine abortion providers. But for those like Carvalho with fewer resources and little access to information, the only options are to risk their health and life with a clandestine abortion, or to continue the pregnancy.

Media reports said that Carvalho tried to end an unplanned pregnancy using home remedies and then, when they failed, sought an abortion from an unsafe provider who inserted the stalk of a castor oil plant into her uterus. She went to the hospital with a fever and chills, and died a week later of a serious infection.

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have abortions in Brazil each year, most of them clandestine and many unsafe, because abortion is so heavily restricted. The deaths of some never make the news. And many others who have clandestine abortions in isolation – without support, often suffering through health complications, uncertainty, or fear – survive, and quietly carry their stories with them. Human Rights Watch has interviewed a few of these brave women, and many others have shared their stories as part of a campaign led by Anis – Institute of Bioethics and Think Olga, two Brazilian groups.

The case before Brazil’s Supreme Court could push the country’s laws more into line with its international human rights obligations. It could make it possible for women like Carvalho to seek help from trained medical providers and safely terminate pregnancies for any reason in the first trimester, without resorting to back alley clinics and dangerous methods. No woman or girl should have to put her life or health on the line to end a pregnancy she does not want.

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