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

In September 2016, another factory burned in the same district. Here, firefighters stand at the site of a fire at a packaging factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 10, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

A fire in Ideal Textile Mills in Bangladesh killed at least six workers this week, reportedly after sparks from welding set ablaze inflammable chemicals stored close by.

Soon, the blame game will begin. Perhaps there’ll be a government-ordered inquiry. Maybe someone will be sent to jail. Then it will be business as usual, and the six workers will join a growing list of those who died in factory tragedies there.

Earlier this year, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between clothing brands and unions, was renewed. The accord covers more than 1,600 garment factories. Under the revised agreement, the accord steering committee can opt in textile mills. This means the mills could also be subject to fire and building safety inspections, and management and workers could be trained on safety measures.

Instead of rallying around the Bangladesh Accord, the Bangladesh government has protested its extension. Unhelpfully, the government also announced it will begin a “new” initiative on fire and building safety.

The Bangladesh government authorities already inspect about 1,550 garment factories not covered by the accord or the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (another fire and building safety initiative led by American brands). In addition, government authorities inspect factories in sectors not covered by the accord or alliance, including textiles.

Over the past few years, the accord brands cut ties with 76 garment factories that failed to make their buildings safer. Similarly, the alliance brands terminated business with 158 garment factories. These factories are now the responsibility of government inspectors.

How have these terminated factories fared? Has the government ensured that the factories took steps to make the workplaces safer? Were any of these factories closed down as unsafe?

Who knows. In 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke with workers from four terminated factories. They had no knowledge about whether the government had inspected their factory and declared it safe. As one worker said, “We came to know it [the factory is not safe] only from some staff. We also asked the owner about it once. He only said that everything will be fine. ... We used to see fire drills here on the first Thursday of every month. But we haven’t seen this in the last three months – I don’t know why… I get worried when I think that our factory building is unsafe. But still I have to continue the job because I need it.”

If the government wants to be considered a credible labor inspectorate, it should at least publish reports on how factories terminated from the Accord and Alliance are faring. It’s not just an investment in transparency. It’s also a strategic investment in business.

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

Iraqi Ministry of Transportation buses taking internally displaced families to Hammam al-Alil in May 2017. In late August, Iraqi authorities bused 1,400 foreign women and children to the site. 

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities are holding more than 1,400 foreign women and their children who surrendered with ISIS fighters in late August 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The detentions appear to have no legal basis and none of the detainees has been brought before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention. The authorities should promptly charge or safely release them and confirm the whereabouts of up to 200 men and teenage boys, many foreign, who surrendered during the same period.

Beginning on August 30, Iraqi authorities detained the women and children next to a displaced persons camp in the town of Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, then transferred them on September 17 to an informal detention site in Tal Kayf, 10 kilometers north of Mosul.

“Hundreds of foreign children risk being abandoned in a hellish twilight zone, with no legal identity and no country willing to take them,” said Bill Van Esveld, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Iraq, foreign countries, and international organizations should not let these children fall into statelessness, or consign them and their mothers to detention without charge.”

On September 10 and 11, Human Rights Watch visited the fenced Hammam al-Alil site, consisting of 17 large warehouse-style tents, which was controlled by Iraqi forces. Researchers conducted individual and group interviews with 27 foreign women. The family groups interviewed included no boys over 12 and no men. Two women were visibly pregnant, and dozens of children appeared to be under age 3.

The women and international humanitarian agency staff there said they included Afghan, Azerbaijani, Chinese, Chechen, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Tajik, Trinidadian, and Turkish nationals. Reuters reported that they also included Algerian, French, and German nationals. Some women had identification documents but most said they did not. Most said they had traveled from their home countries to Turkey, then crossed into Syria before entering Iraq. Most of the children, particularly young children born in Iraq, had no birth certificates or ID documents.

One of the entry stamps in a Syrian woman’s passport who said she had entered Iraq lawfully, who was being held at the Hammam al-Alil site on September 10, 2017. Most women and children at the site had no identification documents.

© 2017 Bill Van Esveld/Human Rights Watch

An Iraqi military intelligence official who declined to give his name told Human Rights Watch at the site on September 10 that the women and children were being held “for their own protection.” There is no legal power under Iraqi law to detain people on this basis, nor is it legal to detain individuals merely because a spouse or parent was a member of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Under international law, Iraqi authorities may detain children only as a measure of last resort, and all detention needs to have a clear legal basis, be decided on an individual basis, and all detainees should be brought promptly before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention.

In late August, the foreign women and children fled a military offensive that retook the Iraqi town of Tal Afar from ISIS, and surrendered to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga military forces, who held them temporarily in a school before handing them to Iraqi forces, said international humanitarian officials and the women.

Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that men and boys over 12 were separated, their hands tied, and lined up against a wall inside the school compound. Women who were there on August 28 said that a woman carried out a suicide attack at the school that day, after which the Kurdish forces killed six males, possibly including two boys, who were being held separately just outside the school compound. When the women were moved to Hamman al-Alil on August 30, the men remained and the women did not know what happened to them.

On September 17, Iraqi military officers and Transport Ministry officials arrived at Hamman al-Alil, loaded the women and children onto buses against their will and left with them, saying they had orders from Baghdad to move them to a military intelligence detention site in Tal Kayf, humanitarian officials who were there told Human Rights Watch. Iraqi authorities did not give them advance notice or say where the families were being taken. It is not clear if the women currently have access to humanitarian assistance and protection monitoring, which is cause for concern, Human Rights Watch said.

Col. Ahmed al-Taie from Mosul’s Nineveh Operation command told Reuters on September 10 that the Iraqi army was holding the women and children under “tight security measures” while “waiting for government orders” as to how to deal with them, including women he described as having been “deluded” by “vicious IS [Islamic State] propaganda.”

On September 12, the Norwegian Refugee Council stated that it would no longer manage the Hammam al-Alil site, where Iraqi military forces were present, because it could not be considered a humanitarian facility.

A KRG spokesman confirmed the suicide attack on August 28, but denied that Peshmerga forces had carried out the alleged extrajudicial killings. He said Peshmerga forces shot a man on August 30 because he was armed and carrying a bomb and threatened to kill a Yezidi captive and Peshmerga forces. The official said the Peshmerga had turned over to Iraqi security forces all the people who surrendered. Bodies found in Mosul since October 2016 suggested some Iraqi forces had extrajudicially killed suspected ISIS members there.

On September 16, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” Human Rights Watch confirmed with humanitarian sources on September 18 that none of the women and children detained since late August at the Hammam al-Alil site had been repatriated.

Iraqi and KRG criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings, by any party to the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.

Iraq should confirm the whereabouts of the missing men and boys, prioritize prosecution of ISIS members found to have committed the worst abuses, and consider alternatives to prosecution for people whose only alleged crime is ISIS membership or who entered Iraq illegally through Syria.

The Iraqi authorities should clarify the legal basis for holding the women and children, ensure all detainees are either charged with a crime and brought promptly before a judge, or immediately released, and are informed of their right to request consular assistance if they choose. Many of the foreign women apparently entered Iraq illegally, but not all are necessarily ISIS members. Iraq should work with international agencies to safely return foreign women who are not charged with a crime to their home country while considering the best interests of their children, taking into account the possibility that the mothers might be imprisoned. The government and international agencies should urgently identify durable solutions, including resettlement to third countries, for released women and children who cannot safely return to their home countries, including Syrian nationals.

While Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the women and children, their home countries’ and other foreign embassies have a key role to play in finding durable solutions, including potential third country resettlement.

“The Iraqi government should ensure the women’s safe repatriation, asylum or resettlement if they release them, or fair trials if it charges them with violating Iraqi laws,” Van Esveld said. “It would be a terrible irony if children, who were notoriously victimized by ISIS, were forced to pay with their future for ISIS’s crimes.”

Fleeing Tal Afar
ISIS took control of Tal Afar in June 2014. Iraqi forces opened an offensive on August 20, 2017, and retook control of the city and the eastern parts of the district from ISIS fighters on August 26, and the rest of the province in late August. A United Nations humanitarian update published on August 29 reported that 20,000 people fled the area between August 14 and 22, but that 1,500 who remained in the city attempted to flee on August 26.

The women Human Rights Watch interviewed said they fled fighting in Tal Afar at various times on or after August 26, in groups ranging from about 20 to hundreds of people. The majority were foreign women and children, but there were smaller numbers of older, wounded, or fighting-age men. Most women said their husbands were also non-Iraqi, and had been killed in fighting in Mosul or more recently in Tel Afar. Many had lived in the al-Askari neighborhood in Tal Afar.

Those fleeing found themselves stuck in a zone between Iraqi forces advancing from the south and a front line held by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north. All the women interviewed said they had surrendered to Peshmerga forces, who later transferred them to the custody of Iraqi forces.

The women described passing the town of Ayadiya, 17 kilometers north of Tal Afar, before meeting Kurdish forces, in an area of active fighting along a route strewn with landmines. Five of the women said they saw body parts or dead people along the route and some said that they saw incoming fire that killed some people fleeing. In most cases they could not attribute the source of the attacks. One woman said she saw a 12-year-old boy hit by a gunshot that blew off his leg below the knee. Another woman said that she saw a helicopter fire on a group fleeing ahead of her.

Surrender to Kurdish Forces, and Alleged Killings of Boys and Men
The women consistently said that Peshmerga soldiers gave them water and food, and facilitated the evacuation of some of the wounded and sick in ambulances. Some women said the soldiers took their money or gold. All the women said that when they surrendered, Peshmerga soldiers separated women from men and boys ages 13 or 14 and older, and took everyone to an empty school compound, apparently in the village of Saleh al-Malih. At the school, the Peshmerga placed the women, girls, and younger boys in classrooms, and the men and older boys along the inside of one of the walls that enclosed three sides of the compound, with their arms tied behind their backs.

Women who were there on the afternoon and evening of August 28 described seeing between 150 to 200 men and boys on the inside of the compound wall. Two women said they saw an older, heavy-set man with white hair, wearing a red T-shirt, lying unmoving on the ground for hours and apparently dead, among the men and boys seated next to the wall. They said a Peshmerga soldier walked back and forth in front of the men and boys, hitting them with his belt. Three women also said that they saw a group of around 20 men in their 20s and 30s, whom they described as ISIS soldiers, with arms tied, outside an earth mound along the fourth side of the compound.

These women said they arrived at the school at around 10 or 11 a.m. and that at around 1 p.m., a foreign woman who was apparently being checked by female Peshmerga soldiers at the school entrance detonated a bomb she was wearing or carrying, killing and wounding Peshmerga soldiers and displaced people. A KRG official said the bombing killed three soldiers. A UN report stated that a suicide bomber killed a child and two women and wounded 11 people, including 6 civilians. One witness had a small scar on her face and a bandage on her left forearm, which she said were from injuries caused by the explosion.

Two women, interviewed separately, said that minutes later, they saw Peshmerga soldiers shoot at least six men near the earth berm. The women did not know the victims or whether any were children, but “two of them were young and the other four had beards,” one woman from Syria said. They said the men’s arms were tied and that they did not appear to pose a threat. Three other women also described hearing an explosion, followed within 5 to 10 minutes by gunshots. The women said that shortly afterward, a Peshmerga soldier in a white flatbed truck drove with the men’s dead bodies around the school compound, and that they saw soldiers put the remaining members of the group of men outside the berm onto other trucks and drive away with them. It is not known what happened to the men.

In a separate incident, a Syrian woman in her 20s said that Peshmerga forces shot her husband, who was Turkish, and another Turkish man, both ISIS members, after they surrendered on August 30:


My husband had told the Kurds that he would surrender us and give back our Yezidi slave girl, and they told him we could go to Turkey, but then we surrendered and he was talking with another [ISIS member]. I was six meters away from him. I heard gunfire and turned around and his bloody body was on the ground. The other [ISIS member] started running and they shot him down.


In response to Human Rights Watch, a KRG spokesperson stated that “government sources strongly reject the allegation” that Peshmerga forces extrajudicially executed men at the school at Saleh al-Malih on August 28. He said Peshmerga had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the woman suicide bomber, who killed three soldiers and wounded two. On August 30, the spokesperson said, Peshmerga forces, who had been alerted by a Yezidi woman’s family that she was being held captive, shot and killed her Turkish captor when he arrived at their lines, threatening to kill her.

Transfer to Iraqi Forces; Disappearances of Men, Boys
The women said that Peshmerga soldiers held them at the school compound for varying amounts of time, not exceeding 24 hours, then loaded them and their younger children onto buses that took them to areas under the control of Iraqi forces, and ultimately to the Hammam al-Alil site. The military forces in control of the busses were Iraqi, not Peshmerga, soldiers.

The women described a large convoy of more than a dozen buses. Some women said that older men or wounded men were loaded onto the buses as well, but that most passengers were women and young children.

The women said that was the last they saw of the men and boys held along the school wall. Human Rights Watch interviewed women who were relatives of Turkish men ages 20, 43, 73, and around 45; an Azeri man in his 40s; and a Trinidadian man of 53 who last saw them at the school compound and do not know their whereabouts. Two Syrian women named eight women, four Syrian and four Azerbaijani, they last saw at the compound who had not turned up in Hammam al-Alil, and whose whereabouts they didn’t know.

Several women said Iraqi forces stopped their buses at checkpoints on the way to Hammam al-Alil, screened the passengers, and removed suspected ISIS members. At one of these stops, one woman said, a person whose identity was obscured by a mask identified 10 men and boys who were taken away by security forces that she could not identify, before the buses continued. A second woman said that Iraqi forces took her and other bus passengers into an empty building that was still under construction for screening.

Another woman, who was on a different bus, said that after it had passed two checkpoints, Iraqi security forces stopped it at a checkpoint in Hamdaniya, a Christian town 16 kilometers northeast of Hammam al-Alil, where a masked informant pointed out her Iraqi husband, age 56. A soldier took him and three other men from the bus to a prefabricated caravan at the checkpoint, and another soldier told her, “If he is innocent they’ll let him go.”

The woman, 39, has four young children, and insisted that her husband was not an ISIS supporter, and that the family had been in Mosul when ISIS took the city and had been unable to flee. Once the United States-led coalition started carrying out heavier airstrikes on Mosul, the family fled to Tal Afar, she said, where ISIS forces refused to let them leave.

According to international legal principles on the treatment of prisoners, Iraqi authorities have a duty to inform the families of the men who were taken off the buses, and to treat them humanely – regardless of whether they are ISIS supporters. Some Iraqi units have a record of enforced disappearances and executions of suspected ISIS members.

Treatment of the Women, Children
News media reported that Iraqi officials said Iraq was negotiating with the women’s home countries for their return. Human Rights Watch received information that the Azerbaijan embassy was pursuing the return of its nationals among the detained women and children.

Iraqi authorities should notify the women that they have the right to request consular support, and contact and facilitate consular access for women who wish to do so, while ensuring that women are not arbitrarily separated from their children except based on the determination that doing so would be in the child’s best interest. Iraqi authorities should ensure that women and children are not deported or repatriated if they would be at risk of persecution, torture, or unfair trials for their alleged Islamic State affiliation.

Iraqi authorities should protect the women and children from reprisal attacks, but not detain them or prohibit their freedom of movement unless they are suspected of specific crimes and have judge-issued warrants against them. Iraqi authorities and authorities in the women’s home states, if they are returned, should prioritize prosecutions for involvement in serious crimes.

Iraqi authorities should facilitate humanitarian access to them and their children, and ensure access to medical care and decent living conditions.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Tunisian woman holds up a flag during a march to celebrate International Women's Day in Tunis March 8, 2014. 

On September 14, Tunisia took a step forward by abolishing a 1973 Ministry of Justice directive prohibiting marriage between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man. But the news wasn’t all good this week – a day earlier parliament adopted a law that provides amnesties for certain serious acts of corruption – a move guaranteed to encourage such practices.

One step forward, one step back: Welcome to the inconsistent politics of Tunisia’s post-dictatorship transition.

Parliament adopted Law 49 on “reconciliation in the administrative field” by a vote of 117 votes to nine, with one abstention. The law offers blanket impunity for those civil servants implicated in corruption and embezzlement of public funds but who did not benefit personally. The law terminates any ongoing prosecutions and trials against these accused, and preempts any future trials for such acts.

A much more sweeping draft law to amnesty crimes of corruption, promoted by President Beji Caid Essebsi, was first introduced in Parliament in July 2015. Public uproar stalled the law, until this month when parties in the governing coalition pushed forward a new version that removed as candidates for amnesty business people accused of corruption. The law would undermine all accountability efforts initiated by the judiciary and a truth commission to investigate and prosecute systematic plunder of state funds under the former regime.

The following day, the Ministry of Justice announced that it had rescinded the 1973 directive prohibiting the marriage of a Tunisian woman to a non-Muslim man unless the man provides a certificate of conversion to Islam. If a Tunisian woman married a non-Muslim abroad, who lacked this certificate, Tunisian authorities would refuse to register their marriage. Essebsi, in an August 13 speech, called for reforming this discriminatory legislation. Women’s rights groups had long advocated for its repeal.

The convergence between the good news about women’s rights and the bad news about the fight against corruption is less incongruous than it may appear.

For a long time, the old regime used progress on women’s rights as a fig leaf to distract from its repressive policies. By championing women’s rights while at the same time expanding impunity for acts of corruption, the Tunisian government is reminding us of how these two contrasted realities worked in the past and how women’s rights were used to whitewash a system riddled with corruption and systematic human rights violations. 

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

A two-and-a-half-year old born with intersex traits walks with her parents in their garden. The parents have decided to defer all medically unnecessary surgeries until their child can decide for herself.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

Earlier this year, some leading specialist pediatricians told me that they routinely advise parents of infants to consider surgery on their baby’s sex organs to decrease suicide risk later in life. The claim is not based in medical data, and it’s unethical for a doctor to offer an understandably confused and concerned new parent irreversible and entirely non-urgent surgery to avert a hypothetical future harm.

So why is it happening?

I spent the past year interviewing intersex adults, parents of intersex kids, and doctors who specialize in treating them. Once called “hermaphrodites,” intersex people make up nearly 2 percent of the population—their chromosomes, gonads, and sex organs don’t match up with what we consider typically male or female. One of the reasons we hear so little about intersex people is that based on a now-invalidated medical theory popularized in the 1960s, doctors often perform surgery on them in infancy. They generally say the goal is to make it easier for kids to grow up “normal.” But as our recent report showed, the results are often catastrophic, the supposed benefits are largely unproven, and there are rarely urgent health considerations requiring immediate, irreversible intervention. One of the many risks of surgery is assigning the wrong gender.

“It is harmful to make sex assignments based on characteristics other than gender identity,” Dr. Deanna Adkins, the director of the Duke University Center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care testified in a North Carolina court: “[I]n cases where surgery was done prior to the ability of the child to understand and express their gender identity, there has been significant distress in these individuals.”

A groundswell is taking place right now to put an end to the risks Dr. Adkins points out.

My organization, Human Rights Watch, is joined by the United Nations, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, every major LGBT legal organization in the US, three former US surgeons general, and all intersex-led organizations around the world in calling for an end to medically unnecessary non-consensual surgeries on intersex kids. The American Medical Association Board of Trustees this year recommended respect for intersex children’s rights to autonomy and informed consent.

But some physicians refuse to accept that the status quo is harmful.

Today, on Suicide Prevention Day, the interviews with the two doctors who advocated early surgery are ringing in my ears.

One pediatric urologist acknowledged that it was possible to raise a child as either gender without surgery. But, citing transgender suicide attempt rates, he said: that if he were to abstain from sex assignment surgery on intersex children, it would result in “97 percent of [his patients having] gender dysphoria.” He said this puts him in a difficult position. He explained: “That carries a 40 percent risk of suicide. Not thinking about suicide. Suicide. Actually doing it, or trying to do it. That is an astoundingly large number…So that's a hell of a burden.”

To suggest that sex assignment surgery on an intersex kid saves them from a future suicide attempt is not only intellectually dishonest, but it skirts the actual issue.

First, while the fear of harassment of their children is a legitimate and palpable experience for all parents, surgical operations on intersex children have never been demonstrated to prevent bullying. True, data show that transgender people in the US carry a 41 percent risk of a suicide attempt in their lifetime, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall US population. But the risk is driven by factors that include discrimination and harassment—and in some cases ill-treatment by doctors— not by whether their genitals match their gender identity.

Second, performing surgery on intersex kids does not ensure their genitals will match their identity. Studies have found rates of gender assignment rejection among intersex children ranging from 5 to 40 percent, depending on the condition. Contrary to that urologist’s assertion that leaving his intersex patients intact would cause gender dysphoria, irreversible surgery may leave them with bodies that don’t match their identities.

Third, children should have the right to negotiate these complex social dynamics for themselves as they grow, and decide when and whether to have surgery—instead of having these decisions forced upon them. A recent investigative report from the Dominican Republic, where most intersex kids are left intact, showed that social awareness, and parent and teacher response help mitigate bullying —as with any other kid.

It is indeed a hell of a burden—but not for the doctor.

Rather it’s a burden on the parents of intersex kids who told me they felt bullied by doctors into choosing these high-risk cosmetic surgeries. And it’s a burden for the kid who will grow up permanently physically scarred and thinking of their body as shameful, in need of “fixing” by a scalpel.

Intersex kids deserve better—especially from doctors who specialize in their care. And no parent should have to wonder if a pediatrician is telling the truth.

We need to outlaw these surgeries on kids too young to decide for themselves that they want them—except in instances of true, data-driven medical need—to protect children from harm that can endure for the rest of their lives. It would protect parents from the mendacious wordplay that continues in clinics today. And it would allow intersex kids to thrive and get support when they need it.

As a father of a two-year-old with an intersex condition told me: “The world can be a hard place for people who are different and I am not naive to the fact that this could create some social difficulties for my daughter.” He and his wife visited multiple specialists, many of whom threatened social outcomes based on hypothetical understandings of what it might be like to grow up with a body that’s a little different from most people’s. The father said: “I don't think the solution is to subject her to anesthesia and perform a surgery, without her consent, that's irreversible.”

Parents are looking for medical advice from providers charged with interpreting data and protecting life and limb. Certainly it’s not a burden for doctors to avoid frightening parents with incomplete and inaccurate information.

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

This week means “back-to-school” for millions of students across the globe. In Saudi Arabia, where the new schoolyear begins on September 10, girls have a particular reason to rejoice. For many decades, Saudi women and girls have been effectively deprived of their right to play sports in schools — or even to exercise. Thanks to reforms made over the summer, for the first time, Saudi girls will be able to enjoy this fundamental right.

At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Sarah Attar represents Saudi Arabia as the country's first Olympic female runner, competing in the women’s 800 meters. 

© 2012 Getty Images

In July, the Saudi government announced it will allow physical education for girls in state schools beginning with this school year. This decision, long overdue, will have long-term health, economic, and education benefits for the kingdom’s 13 million women and girls.  Other recent reforms include Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al Saud’s promotion as the General Authority for Sports’ first female vice president, and her announcement that women’s gyms and fitness centers would be legal this year.

As with driving, sports and exercise have long been off-limits to women in Saudi Arabia — including even watching sports in a public stadium. While the recent steps deserve praise, many barriers remain.

There are gaps in understanding how the new policies will work in practice. The Education Ministry said that physical education classes for girls will be introduced “gradually” and “in accordance to Islamic Shariah regulations.” No further details were offered, including whether classes are to be mandatory, as they are for boys.  Also, with sports being off-limits to women for so long, the country has few qualified trainers or sports instructors. Physical spaces for women to exercise or play sports are virtually non-existent.

Saudi Arabia has more than a hundred national or international sports federations for men in sports such as soccer, volleyball and basketball, but still no federations for women or girls. Some religious leaders even equated girls taking part in sports to taking steps of the devil. Moreover, women are still banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, an obvious obstacle to taking part in team training or sports events.

Although many Saudi women have started their own sports initiatives, they confront barriers including the country’s male guardianship system, that can keep them sidelined. Indeed, the chief hurdle to women and girls playing sports in and out of schools is the male guardianship system, which requires every Saudi woman to have a male guardian (a father, brother, husband, or even a son), who must give his permission for vital decisions throughout a woman’s life, including applying for a passport, studying abroad, getting married and even exiting prison.

There is no doubt that the lack of access to sport and exercise has contributed to a serious health situation for women. Saudi women are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular diseases and obesity, compared with their male counterparts. A study by the Saudi Health Ministry found that 44 percent of women are obese, compared with 26 percent of men.

While Saudi Vision 2030, a new national economic action plan, describes “developing women’s talent and capacity to contribute to the economy and society,” the guardianship system continues to impede women’s ability to participate fully in the workforce, with some employers still requiring guardian permission for women to work, and companies required to segregate male and female employees and enforce a strict female dress code.

The global sports industry, from sportswear to fitness centers to ticket sales, has been a major economic driver. If Saudi Arabia were to get rid of barriers to women entering the workforce, and to effectively incorporate women and girls into its sports infrastructure and planning, it is likely that many economic benefits would soon follow.

As with exercise and gym classes for girls, the guardianship system itself is seeing some progress: In May, King Salman issued a decree ordering government agencies to provide women access to state services without guardian permission, so long as existing regulations do not require it. However, Saudi women are still waiting for delivery of these promised reforms.

Sports is at heart about the same rules applying to all, on a level playing field. Ending the ban on sports in schools for girls is a major step forward — especially if it leads to removing all remaining hurdles to health and basic human rights for girls and women in the kingdom.



Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter here. In April, Worden appeared onstage at the Women in the World New York Summit alongside Raha Moharrak, a Saudi mountain climber who summited Mount Everest. Watch video of that full interview below.

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

The national coat of arms is seen at the terminal of Minsk International Airport near the village of Sloboda, Belarus May 19, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

On September 4, Belarus police officials stopped a 22-year-old Russian woman of Chechen origin waiting for a flight at Minsk airport. They forced Luisa to go with them to a small room where her father was waiting to take her back to the home she had run away from.

Luisa fled Chechnya in June, after receiving serious threats on social media about her supposedly “loose” behavior. The men harassing her were affiliated with Carthage, an online group that publishes photos of “immoral” women. They said her behavior was “unfitting” for a Chechen woman and she “shouldn’t be walking the earth.” Luisa’s relatives found out and, concerned for the family’s reputation, threatened her with dire consequences.

Ramzan Kadyrov, who runs Chechnya through brutal repression with the Kremlin’s blessing, has long prioritized a “virtue campaign” for women. Through television and Instagram, he exhorts Chechens to ensure that women wear headscarves and follow men’s orders, describing women as men’s “property” and condoning honor killings. Women’s rights activists say honor killings have become more frequent in Chechnya, and I know of several other Chechen women fleeing violence and death threats.

Fearing for her life, Luisa reached out to a Russian rights group. They helped her hide until Norway offered her asylum. She was on her way there via Minsk, accompanied by a group representative and a lawyer, when local police effectively entrapped her. They did not let her companions into the room, and when Luisa walked out an hour later, in tears, Luisa told her travel companions she wanted to return home. When her companions tried to intervene, police accused them of pressuring Luisa and tricking her into the trip, then led Luisa away. She is now with her family.

Perhaps the Belarus police officials knew nothing about Luisa and wanted to help a desperate father find his daughter. Maybe Luisa’s father convinced her that she could return home safely. However, Belarus police had no business coercing a woman into a meeting she did not choose, isolating her from her legal advisors, and ignoring risks of abuse. This is not the first time that Belarus authorities block fearful Chechens from passing through Belarus to safety; it should be the last. 

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

“Is there no justice for rape?” asked Jane, a young woman from Nairobi’s slums. “If police, who should be helping us, can just rape women and nothing is done to them, what will prevent men from continuing to rape us?”

Jane (not her real name) claimed to have been gang-raped by three members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a para-military wing of the Kenyan police.

Kenyan anti-riot police fire tear gas in Kisumu, Kenya, August 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Baz Ratner/Reuters

She is one of the more than 150 women, girls and men I interviewed about sexual violence during the political violence of 2007 and 2008.

The number is unknown but it’s likely that thousands of rapes occurred—including many by state security agents. Many victims were left with illness and serious injuries.

Sexual assaults

But the government has not given them medical care or other support and its claims of prosecutions are not proved by convictions.

The 2017 General Election, therefore, rightly raised grave concerns about likely resurgence of widespread sexual violence and whether the government would act decisively to prevent such assaults, take action against alleged attackers and appropriately assist the victims.

And even with incomplete information, initial reports link sexual assaults to the elections.

Women’s rights groups and activists allege that police raped and sexually harassed women and girls, especially after the electoral commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner.


Human Rights Watch (HRW) obtained credible reports of election-related sexual violence in Kisumu and Nairobi, especially Dandora.

The question now is whether the authorities will promptly investigate the allegations and seek justice for the victims or, as in the past, ignore these abuses and victims’ suffering.

Unreported rapes don’t mean that they didn’t happen. Survivors are reluctant to come forward due to insecurity and the general climate of fear, women’s rights activists say.

Many women and girls—as well as men and boys—are unwilling to speak out due to the stigma of being a victim of a sexual violence, or fear of retaliation by the attackers. Other barriers to reporting rape include lack of money for transport and lack of awareness about the importance of seeking help such as for post-rape care.

Lack of trust

Most victims do not have confidence in Kenya’s security agents, who have long been accused of human rights abuses. HRW has documented many cases where they raped and sexually harassed women and girls during security operations or political unrest.

The State’s failure to punish abusive officers only helps to perpetuate the lack of trust.

Reporting sexual violence is always difficult; reporting it to the police, colleagues of culprits can be impossible.

Police sometimes make light of sexual crimes and show negligent and dismissive attitudes towards victims, or even collude with offenders, who pay them to drop cases against them.


Problems regarding reporting and the unwillingness of authorities to initiate genuine, credible and fair investigations and prosecutions to punish perpetrators were key challenges after the 2007-2008 election-related rapes.

The government’s overall failure to investigate and prosecute the range of crimes committed then remains a key concern.

Kenya is obligated under international law to close the impunity gap for sexual violence.

It will be difficult to end the cycles of election-related sexual abuses—and more generally rape and other gender-based violence—until the government creates an environment in which victims are willing to come forward and it properly investigates and prosecutes complaints.

Bringing to justice culprits—including members of the security forces and the officers who look the other way—would assure women such as Jane that they will get justice for rape.


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

Bara’a, 10, originally from Ghouta, stands in front of the tree where she set up a blackboard and began teaching younger children in her informal refugee camp in Mount Lebanon what she remembered from her first grade class in Syria. © 2016 Bassam Khawaja/Human Rights Watch

I met “Salma” in May at the only maternity clinic in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp. Having already miscarried twice by age 20, she was then five months pregnant and anxious to finally give birth to her first child.

Salma was among dozens of Syrian refugee women and girls seated in the clinic’s vast waiting area that day. All were hoping to receive prenatal care, find out if they were pregnant, or get family planning advice. Lively chatter filled the room as women took advantage of the rare opportunity to leave their small and rickety temporary shelters to socialize and relieve the overwhelming sense of loneliness born out of displacement and insecurity.

Life in Zaatari, the world’s third-largest refugee camp, is plagued by poor living conditions, lack of electricity, uncertainty, and isolation. The maternity clinic, supported entirely by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and operated by the Jordan Health Aid Society, offers an oasis from the stresses of camp life. It’s a haven for women, not only providing prenatal care, but meeting myriad other needs such as preventing gender-based violence and providing mental health support services to women and girls suffering from the strain of fleeing war and living in exile.

Salma tries to attend as many of these sessions as possible, but she told me that demand is so high that many women and girls get turned away.

“They offer us these food packages as an incentive to encourage women to come, but what they don’t understand is that women are coming anyway because they want to learn,” Salma said. “We don’t need incentives, we are hungry for information.”

The care offered in the maternity clinic is remarkable given it is in a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert. More than 7,500 healthy babies have been born in the clinic since 2012, without a single mother dying in childbirth.

Funding from the United States has been instrumental in enabling the organization to deliver lifesaving services in humanitarian settings. Yet in July, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations approved a foreign affairs budget that goes beyond the Trump administration’s decision to block appropriated funds. The House bill prohibits any funding from going to UNFPA, regardless of executive action. Two floor amendments seeking to strike that language were defeated. Advocates of humanitarian aid to people in crisis conditions, especially mothers and children, now look to the Senate to protect UNFPA funding and preserve the  important US role of responding to emergency health needs in crises around the world.

The future of these and other vital programs is in doubt. Earlier this year, the Trump administration decided to block funds to UNFPA, citing its statutory authority under a provision called the Kemp-Kasten amendment and raising concerns, without concrete evidence, that the organization’s programs in China may support coercive reproductive health policies and programs. UNFPA disputes this, and Congress already prevents the UNFPA from using any U.S. funding in its China work.

The Senate’s Committee on Appropriations will consider its version of the foreign affairs budget bill in early September. Senators from both sides of the aisle will have the opportunity to protect women like Salma who hope to have healthy pregnancies and deliver their babies safely, even in some of the direst places on earth. As it drafts its version of the budget, the Senate should not only ensure UNFPA is fully funded, but that humanitarian initiatives or operations like those of UNFPA are protected from executive branch efforts to make funding judgments on widely discredited claims.

According to UNFPA, all the programs in Zaatari camp rely either wholly or partially on U.S. funding. But the organization’s reach is global. UNFPA offers a range of programs in more than 150 countries focused on maternal and child health, family planning, and efforts to end child marriage and female genital mutilation and other forms of gender-based violence.

The Trump administration’s decision to cease funding to UNFPA came as a shock to “Hani,” 26, another camp resident who in 2015 became part of a 40-member team made up entirely of camp residents operating a youth center that provides recreational, educational, artistic and mental health activities. The center was created by Questscope, a nongovernmental group, in partnership with the population fund.

Residents planned the center from scratch, he said. Today, the youth center has a grass playing field, a music room, a gym, and a library, and has served over 2,000 youth in the camp.

There is nowhere else in Zaatari where young women and girls can come to a safe space and play sports, learn a musical instrument, read in a quiet library, and get mental health services all in the same space. In separate shifts, the same activities are available to young men and boys.

One of those boys, “Ahmad,” a 17-year-old refugee from Daraa, told me that he had lost at least a year of education because of the war. At first, Ahmad said, he was afraid to seek help. “When I came to the camp it was very difficult, dusty and terrible living conditions, and I felt in isolation,” he told me. “But I saw how the leadership team acted. I felt safe here, not to have war and to develop myself as a person.”

Given the Trump administration’s determination to halt U.S. funding for the population fund, its services to people living in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous situations face an uncertain future. Even after international donors pledged $207 million to help mitigate the agency’s losses, UNFPA says it still needs $700 million to cover the funding gap it faces between 2017 and 2020, in part because of the U.S. funding cuts.

For the thousands of Syrian residents of Zaatari camp like Salma, Hani and Ahmad and for the people around the world who benefit from the population fund’s programs, Congress should take action to halt the cutoff of U.S. funding to UNFPA. By cutting the funding for these programs, the U.S. is harming vulnerable Syrian refugees and many other people around the world who have nowhere else to turn. 

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

Guests dance at a wedding in the Chechen capital on April 24, 2013. 

© 2013 Reuters

Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, launched a program in June to reunite families divided by divorce. Ostensibly concerned with rising divorce rates and the impact of such break ups on children, Kadyrov created local councils “for harmonising marriage and family relations.” Made up of public officials and Muslim religious authorities, the councils draw up lists of divorced couples in their districts and approach the spouses, suggesting reconciliation.

By 12 July, Chechen media applauded the reunification of six families, by 25 July the number had risen to 240, and on 21 August, Chechnya’s state television and radio broadcaster triumphantly reported that the council’s work resulted in the reunification of 948 families.

The claim that close to 1,000 divorced couples have chosen to reunite two months after a ruthless and abusive autocrat declared such family reunifications a priority, should be treated with scepticism and concern that they are not all voluntary. And yet many Chechen women discussing the new initiative on messaging apps, including some reunited with their ex-husbands, express enthusiastic support for Kadyrov’s initiative.

The real reason may not be obvious to those outside Chechnya: embracing this new “family reunification” program is the only way these women, their female friends and relatives, can get access to the children they lost to divorce. Chechen traditional laws, often upheld by local authorities even when they run contrary to Russia’s laws and international human rights obligations, stipulate that children belong with the father and his family. Having worked in Chechnya for over 15 years, I’ve met numerous women who stayed in abusive marriages for decades because they could not contemplate losing their children. Other Chechen acquaintances of mine left their husbands, unable to put up with abuse, and barely if ever get to see their kids.

But in recent years, several Chechen lawyers told me, judges in Chechnya have started to rule more often in favour of mothers in at least some custody cases, citing the best interests of the children. The correct standard for deciding custody of a child should indeed be what is in their best interest, and not their parent’s gender.

Kadyrov, an ardent proponent of so-called traditional values, did not seem to appreciate these developments. When commenting on his family reunification program in a televised broadcast in July, he grumbled:

Most [divorced] mothers want to take the kids away from the fathers, go to the muftiat [local Muslim authority], to the elders, to all the relatives. And they also come to us [the government]… they rent an apartment in the city and ask for money. One told me she needed an apartment [to live with her children]… [We] brought in the father [of her children], I asked him why aren’t you providing for your family? And he says… this woman wouldn’t leave me alone [until she] took the kids… If they can live together until they have five kids, why can’t [they] then live together for the sake of the kids?

Kadyrov says the family reunification programme’s primary objective is to benefit the children who bear the brunt of their parents’ divorce. His aspiration may be genuine, but it does not give him the right to force families to stay together. When those approached by the “family relations” councils refuse to reunite with their ex-spouses, the councils’ representatives reportedly pressure them, emphasising that “this is Kadyrov’s instruction” and therefore must be obeyed.

For women who have escaped abusive relationships, such “reunification” could put them at risk of further physical and psychological harm, with potentially deadly consequences.

Kadyrov rules over Chechnya with an iron fist, commanding all aspects of political and social life there. Given that harsh reality, it’s hard not to dread that in the wake of his new project local courts will stop supporting mothers’ custody claims for fear of retaliation by the authorities.

Indeed, two women from Chechnya who managed to keep their children after divorce told me the other day that “reconciliation officials” had approached them and urged them to return to their ex-husbands. They adamantly reject the idea but fear their husbands, who are also under pressure from the authorities, will go to court and get custody of the kids in no time at all. Their dread is real.

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

Demonstrators raise their thumbs in approval during a rally inside congress in favor of a draft law that would ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, March 17, 2016. The placard reads: "Chile makes history today, we become a more humane and free country." 

© 2016 Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters
(Santiago, Chile) – Last month, in a huge victory for Chile’s women, the Constitutional Court here upheld a long-awaited law that eases a total ban on abortion, raising hopes that other Latin American countries will soon reconsider their cruel restrictions on the procedure.

The new Chilean law, passed by Congress in August, decriminalizes abortion under three circumstances: if the life of the pregnant woman is at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape; or if the fetus will not survive.

Despite the modesty of those changes, the easing of the ban, proposed by President Michelle Bachelet in 2015, faced fierce resistance from the Catholic Church, evangelical groups and the right-wing opposition in Congress, whose challenges to the law were rejected by the court on Aug. 21.

Several other Latin American countries — Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Suriname, Haiti and Honduras — still ban abortion completely. In these countries, high maternal mortality rates from complications arising from unsafe illegal abortions, violence, poverty and weak judicial and health systems are all too common, as was the case with a 10-year-old girl with a mental disability who was raped and gave birth in El Salvador last month.

People may have moral, religious or medical disagreements on what defines the beginning of human life. But forcing women to continue pregnancies when they’re at risk of death, or carry to term an unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape, or to suffer through an unviable pregnancy, are harder to defend. Chile’s experience can be an example of how to reform laws that forbid women from terminating tragic pregnancies.

Although polls show that 70 percent of Chileans supported the law, a legal victory seemed unlikely. In 2008, the Constitutional Court had prohibited emergency contraception, and Chile’s Constitution requires the protection of prenatal life. Opponents of the bill felt confident they could sink it in the courtroom.

Perhaps more surprising, most of Chile’s elite opposed the bill. While on many issues they embrace globalization and often send their children to be educated abroad, at home they passionately defend regressive views toward women.

Against this backdrop, human rights groups and the government looked to Chile’s aspirations to integrate with the world. International law experts and human rights groups were called upon to participate in the process before the court. We were among them. Many supporters reminded the local elite that Chile was the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that still imposed a full ban on abortion.

Expert witnesses sought to undermine the opponents’ main argument, that a fetus has a right to life. We acknowledged the value of such a life but argued that a complete ban on abortion is an inefficient way of reducing the number of terminations compared with policies like affordable day-care programs and efforts to end gender-based violence. The criminalization of abortion moves women away from the government, hampering their access to maternity care and supportive policies.

We also argued that an absolute ban on abortion imposes an inhumane burden on women, an argument that had proved convincing in Colombia, where in 2006 a women’s rights coalition won a court battle to secure a right to abortion in circumstances similar to those now allowed in Chile.

It was also necessary to end the stigma associated with abortion. Civic institutions in Chile have invested much time and resources telling the stories of women who had abortions, to show the unfairness of treating them as criminals. Thanks largely to their efforts, the news media here is openly discussing the complex issues around abortion for the first time.

The joint venture between government and nongovernmental organizations to open the debate on abortion marks a human rights watershed in Chile. But much still needs to be done. Chile retains many unreasonable obstacles to legal abortion: for example, private hospitals can refuse to offer the procedure on religious grounds. Chile should also allow women to terminate if their health, not just their lives, are at risk.

In the meantime, Chile’s breakthrough should encourage other countries to reconsider their harmful and regressive laws banning abortion.

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

Saudi women have lobbied for an end to systematic discrimination against them for many years – could this long wait be nearing an end?

In April, King Salman issued an order stipulating that government agencies cannot deny women access to government services simply because they do not have a male guardian’s consent unless existing regulations require it. If adequately enforced, the order could end arbitrary guardian consent requirements that government bureaucracies impose on women.

Under the order, all government agencies were to provide a list by mid-July of procedures that require male guardian approval, suggesting that authorities might review these rules and regulations and even eliminate some. But since July, the government has been silent on this.

So while the Saudi authorities may be rethinking the country’s longstanding policies toward women, they have not stipulated how and when these reforms will come to pass. Saudi leaders are kicking the hard questions down the road and asking women to be patient.

The importance of the April order, though exaggerated by local news agencies, is clear. If it was enforced, public universities, for example, would not be able to require a guardian’s approval for women to enroll and attend classes. However, the order is still limited – it kept in place regulations that explicitly require guardian approval, such as for women to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or get married, and still allowed private individuals and entities to ask women for their guardian’s permission at their own discretion.

The authorities should not miss this opportunity to meaningfully change the ways in which women can participate in Saudi society. Enforcing the April order should just be the start. Next, the authorities should dismantle all aspects of the guardianship rules, including those written into existing regulations, laws, or policies, and punishing private actors that discriminate against women by requiring guardianship approval.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, its supposed “vision for the future,” declares women to be a “great asset” whose talents will be developed for the good of society and the economy. If Saudi Arabia wants women to fully participate in public life, authorities should end the male guardianship system, starting with state-enforced restrictions on women that include travel abroad, obtaining a passport, or driving. Saudi women have already waited too long.

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