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

Frida Njeri (not her real name), 27, was raped by a man she said wore “combat trousers” in the presence of her 12-year-old son. Like many women Human Rights Watch interviewed, she did not report the sexual assault to the police because she did not know the attackers and feared retaliation. Many of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed described the perpetrators as mostly police officers or men in green uniform who often carried guns, batons, tear gas canisters, whips, or wore helmets and other anti-riot gear. Some women who reported sexual violence were sent back to their homes without police taking statements, or they ridiculed them, verbally abused them, or failed to follow up on complaints.

© 2017 Bonnie Katei for Human Rights Watch

I had already heard many disturbing stories of violence by the time I interviewed Mercy Maina, whose name I have changed to protect her privacy.  Even so, what Mercy told me was truly disturbing. She said she was raped during the post-election violence in August alongside her sister by two men wearing uniforms and helmets, and carrying guns and walkie-talkies.

But, Mercy told me, this was not the first time she had been a victim of post-election sexual violence. She was also raped by two police officers during the 2007-2008 post-election violence, that time with a friend who later committed suicide. Mercy became pregnant from that rape and has a 9-year-old daughter. She said she still suffers from stomach ulcers as a result of the stress of that rape.

Mercy is one of 71 women, girls, and men I interviewed about rape and other sexual violence during Kenya’s 2017 elections. They described brutal cases of vaginal and anal rape, gang rapes involving two or more attackers, mass rape of a group of women, attempted rape, rape with an object, putting dirt into a woman’s private parts, unwanted sexual touching, forced nudity, and beatings on genitals.

Some women were raped in the presence of family members, including children. In at least one case, a girl died after being raped. Most of the attackers, survivors and witnesses told me, were policemen or men in uniform, many of whom  carried guns, batons, teargas canisters, and whips, or wore helmets and other anti-riot gear, and by militia groups.

Many said they experienced profound mental trauma and anguish, they felt hopeless, fearful and anxious, had nightmares about the assault, or suicidal thoughts. Mercy, like many survivors, did not get immediate or comprehensive post-rape medical care or any mental health services. She and her sister didn’t go to a medical facility until two weeks after the rapes because they were afraid to go out in case their attackers came back and because they did not want to tell health workers what had happened. “You cannot trust people,” she told me.

Mercy never reported the sexual assault to the authorities. The reason she gave me captures the lack of trust in the police expressed by many survivors: “I did not go to the police because even in 2007 we were abused by the police and we were told by police you cannot report the government to the government.”

Some of the women we interviewed did try to report sexual violence, but the police sometimes sent them away without taking statements, ridiculed or verbally abused them, or failed to follow up on complaints. Such unprofessional police response also undermines survivors’ ability to seek help from health facilities, and weakens justice efforts.

Members of the Kenyan police and security forces have a long history of committing abuses, including sexual violence, during election periods, but the authorities have largely ignored election-related sexual crimes and the victims’ suffering. Thousands of women and girls are estimated to have been raped during the 2007-2008 political violence, including by state security agents.

Based on our extensive research, the authorities rarely  provided any medical treatment or post-rape counselling, or offered victims any financial support. Almost a decade later, very few cases have been properly investigated or attackers held accountable.

The Kenyan government continues to underestimate and has even denied the abuses committed during the 2017 elections. In December, President Uhuru Kenyatta congratulated the police, for “being professional” and “firm” during the election period, a move that shocked many Kenyans and was quickly criticized by civil society groups and others.

The Kenyan government and other state authorities have an obligation to protect women and girls, men and boys against sexual violence, to punish offenders, and provide reparations to victims. All sexual assault victims should get timely, quality, and confidential post-rape treatment, including psychosocial, or mental health, care for themselves and their families, and communities need to know where victims can get post-rape care, including free treatment.

It is critical for the government to also ensure that credible criminal investigations are conducted into all allegations of election-related sexual violence. It should consider establishing an independent judicial commission of inquiry to examine any unlawful activities of the police, including allegations of sexual violence, with a view to ending impunity and ensuring accountability.

The Inspector General of Police has committed to put in place a taskforce to investigate the involvement of its officers or other men in uniform in sexual violence during the 2017 elections period. If the  task force is to be successful, it will need clear terms of reference and bring together officials from relevant government bodies, health care providers, representatives of women’s and children’s groups and other civil society organizations and experts working on sexual violence.

It should set clear goals of the investigations, ways of reaching out to all victims, effective measures to secure accountability for these crimes, and mechanisms for the protection, treatment, and care of victims.

Sexual violence survivors should not be left suffering and ashamed. It is the Kenyan authorities who should be ashamed at failing to meet their needs or to prosecute their attackers.

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

“If you want to go back [home], you have to pay back the money we spent to bring you here.”

“Atiya Z.” (not her real name) and I were sitting under a veranda, shaded from the hot sun in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, when she recounted the words that sealed her fate. Atiya told me that in June 2015 she had travelled from her village in Kondowa to Oman for a job as a domestic worker to earn enough money to start a new line of business “for a better life” for her and her six-year-old daughter.

But when she arrived, her employer confiscated her passport and phone, forced her to work 21 hours a day with no rest and no day off; did not allow her to eat food without permission; and beat her every day. After three weeks of enduring this nightmare she tried to flee only for her employer to catch her and bring her back, telling her that the only way she could leave is if she paid them 2 million TZS (US $880).

Atiya said her employer confined her to the house after that. In April 2016, Atiya fell ill and said her employers stripped her naked and beat her with plastic hangers, and her male employer then raped her anally, to punish her. They then took all the money she earned and put her on a flight back to Tanzania the next day: “I was scared, traumatized, and didn’t know who to speak to.”

I spoke to 50 Tanzanian women who worked as domestic workers in Oman or the United Arab Emirates for a Human Rights Watch report issued in November 2017. The majority had migrated to Oman. Many domestic workers find families that treat them well and pay them in full and on time. But I spoke to women who described a far bleaker reality.

Employment visa from Oman in the passport of a former Tanzanian domestic worker. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

© 2017 Rothna Begum/Human Rights Watch

Almost all said their employers and agents confiscated their passports. Most worked 15 to 21 hours a day without rest or a day off. More than half said they were paid less than promised or not at all. Many said their employers gave little food, scraps left over from family meals, or starved them as punishment. Most described their employers humiliating them, shouting at them daily and making racial insults. Almost half also said their employers physically assaulted them: pulling their ears, and beating them with sticks and mops.

Nineteen women also described sexual abuse by male family members who groped them, exposed themselves, and chased them around the house. Several described attempted rapes. Some of these cases, like Atiya’s, amounted to forced labor or trafficking into forced labor, which is prohibited in Oman. We documented similar abuses of migrant domestic workers from different nationalities in a previous report on Oman from 2016.

There are more than 154,000 female migrant domestic workers in Oman, according to official Omani statistics from November 2017. They cook, clean, and care for families while in turn hoping to school their children, build homes, or start businesses.

While most domestic workers in Oman come from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, there are thousands of Tanzanian domestic workers too. Oman has a special relationship with Tanzania, particularly Zanzibar which it once ruled, and the two countries are tied together following centuries of intermarriage, familial and social relationships. Yet, the special relationship has done little to warrant better treatment for Tanzanian domestic workers, and their plight has largely evaded scrutiny.

We found that Tanzanians were left more vulnerable from the start because of the Tanzanian government’s failure to provide effective oversight of recruitment agents that charged domestic workers fees or deceived them about their working conditions. After migrating, it is Oman’s laws and systems that essentially allows employers to overwork, underpay, and abuse domestic workers.

Oman’s abusive kafala (sponsorship) system, in force in many Gulf states, ties migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employers and prohibits workers from changing jobs without their current employer’s permission. Workers risk imprisonment and deportation for “absconding” if they leave, even if they are fleeing abuse.

Some workers said their employers or agents forced them to forego their salaries as a condition for their “release,” work for a new employer who repaid recruitment costs to the initial employer, or work unpaid for months in return for flight tickets home or to recoup recruitment fees. Police and Manpower Ministry officials sometimes abet efforts by employers to recover their costs from their workers who fled abuse.

Other Gulf states have begun to tinker with the kafala system. The UAE for instance allows domestic workers to change employers without permission after they complete their contract, Saudi Arabia allows workers to change employers without permission in certain abusive conditions, and Qatar allows workers to change or leave employers who have breached their contracts. But Oman has yet to make real reforms. The Oman Manpower Ministry in a response to Human Rights Watch in November 2017, said that it was studying alternatives to the system.

Oman is also now the last Gulf state yet to provide legal protection for domestic workers’ rights. Bahrain included domestic workers into its labor law in 2012, albeit excluded them from its main protections. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and more recently in 2017, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have issued specific legislation for domestic workers. Oman however not only excludes domestic workers from its labor law, but its 2004 domestic worker regulations do not provide effective rights protections, penalties for their breach, or adequate complaints mechanisms.

Furthermore, some Tanzanian domestic workers, like other domestic workers, described how when they fled abuse, the police in Oman not only failed to help them, but charged them with “absconding” for violating the kafala system, or returned them to their employers. At best, they allowed them to leave the country but did not offer them the opportunity to file a criminal complaint. “Hidaya Z.,” for instance, said she went to the police for help in 2016 after a male family member sexually assaulted her but, she said the police told her to pay 200 OMR ($520) or spend three months in jail because her employer reported her for “absconding.”

Of the three Tanzanian workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch who went to the Omani Ministry of Manpower, one said the agent did not turn up to dispute resolution sessions, and the other two said that officials did not believe their stories of abuse and sided with employers. “Basma” for instance, said despite describing her abusive conditions, which amounted to forced labor, to a Manpower Ministry official mediating, he told her that they could not believe her account as they were not there, and instead recommended to Basma’s employer to report her to the police if she refused to pay back the recruitment costs, or work for a new employer who could pay for it.

These accounts also tally with reports by embassy officials in Oman who told Human Rights Watch in 2015 that they did not advise domestic workers to complain to the Manpower Ministry because the ministry officials did not believe them, and because the dispute-settlement department had no power to force employers or agents to attend the sessions or comply with their resolutions.

Having abusive systems and laws is bad for employers too, not just domestic workers. As experienced and skilled domestic workers find themselves trapped to abusive employers, they cannot leave them for better employers in Oman. Instead, some employers are forced into bartering with original employers on the price to “release” them.

The system also enables some good employers to begin to adopt abusive practices. They may come to believe that they should prevent workers from running away by adopting certain practices such as confiscating passports—a common practice—restricting phone calls, confining them to the house, denying them a rest day, or even withholding their pay. Unrealistic expectations that domestic workers can service large extended families, clean multiple houses, or remain at the beck and call for the most minute of tasks--“they drop a spoon on the floor and they call you to pick it up wherever you are in the house”—leave domestic workers overworked and employers disgruntled. Employers may even believe that domestic workers must be bullied into working harder or faster through shouting, insulting and even beatings.

Not only is this abusive, such conditions can more likely lead to workers fleeing. Domestic workers I spoke to have described wanting to work and earn a living in decent conditions, it is often finding out that their conditions are less than promised, and when they are overworked or abused, that they risk escape. Moreover, no one should be seeking to create an environment of fear, intimidation, and violence, in their home.

Oman should reform its kafala system to allow migrant domestic workers to leave and change employers without permission, and introduce legal protections to guarantee domestic workers rights. Employers should also be trained on providing decent working conditions which would not only protect workers but increase more healthy and long-term employment relationships. Domestic workers like “Atiya,” “Hidaya”, and “Basma” deserve to earn their promised salaries with decent working conditions.

As families in Oman increasingly rely on domestic workers, Oman should in turn make sure that domestic workers rights are made a reality. 

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

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un participates in the opening of the 5th Conference of Cell Chairpersons of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 22, 2017.

© 2017 KCNA

(Seoul) – Kim Jong-un intensified repressive measures against his own people even while grabbing world attention through aggressive weapons testing throughout the year. The government tightened travel restrictions, hunted down fleeing refugees with the help of China, punished its citizens for contact with the outside world, and continued to deny human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. North Korea remains one of the most repressive states in the world.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

“Kim Jong-un sits at the helm of a state built on horrific rights abuses and complete intimidation of its population,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Since the North Korean people are silenced, it falls to the international community to step up and press the country’s leaders on human rights, and to ensure that protecting human rights remains at the center of all international dealings with Pyongyang.”

Kim Jong-un sits at the helm of a state built on horrific rights abuses and complete intimidation of its population.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

North Korea restricts all basic civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly, and association. It prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media, independent civil society, or free trade unions. The judicial system is totally controlled by the ruling Workers Party of Korea and the government.

The government uses collective punishment, including torture in custody, forced labor in detention facilities that are essentially gulags, as well as public executions to maintain fear and control over the populace. North Korea is continually bolstering its efforts to prevent people from leaving North Korea without permission by increasing the number of border guards, CCTV cameras and monitoring systems, and barbed wire fences. China also increased checkpoints on roads leading from the border. During the summer and autumn of 2017, Chinese authorities also intensified crackdowns on both North Koreans fleeing through China and the networks guiding them.

In 2017, North Korea refused to cooperate with the United Nations Seoul field office and the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana. The government also continually denied the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that North Korea committed crimes against humanity. However, in 2017, the DPRK engaged with two UN human rights treaty bodies, the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and invited the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, who visited the country in May 2017, making her the first-ever UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur allowed into the country. Yet despite this uptick in engagement, North Korea still regularly refuses to acknowledge its own rights violations.

In March 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution that authorizes the hiring of “experts in legal accountability” to assess cases and develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for crimes against humanity. On December 11, 2017, for the fourth consecutive year, the UN Security Council discussed North Korea’s egregious human rights violations as part of its formal agenda, addressing the widespread and systematic rights violations as a threat to international peace and security.

“The sad reality is North Korea’s countless human rights victims have few options: either take their fate into their own hands by running the gauntlet in North Korea and China to get to a third country, or suffer in silence and hope governments around the world will step up to demand justice for them,” said Robertson. “It is crucial the international community not let the North Korean people down, and ensure accountability by building the case for criminal responsibility against the leadership.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People chant slogans and hold signs to condemn the rape and killing of 7-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan January 11, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Yesterday, Pakistani news anchor Kiran Naz went on the air with her young daughter to protest on camera the rape and killing of Zainab Ansari, a 7-year-old girl, whose body was dumped in a pile of garbage.

“It is true when they say that the smallest coffins are the heaviest,” Naz said, her daughter sitting on her lap. “And all of Pakistan is burdened by the weight of her coffin.”

Zainab went missing on January 4 and her brutalized corpse was discovered five days later, leading to widespread protests in Pakistan.

The cruel indifference of some crimes can shake a nation. But too often, incidents of child sex abuse remain hidden.

According to the Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization Sahil, an average of 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily across Pakistan. Zainab was among the dozen children to be murdered in Kasur district in Punjab province in the past year. In 2015, police identified a gang of child sex abusers in the same district.

It’s not just Pakistan – sexual violence against girls and women is commonplace in South Asia. In India, the crime that awoke the nation to this cruel reality happened in 2012, when a 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was gang-raped and left fatally injured on the road. Indians erupted in rage, demanding that the government take action to end sexual violence.

Although much remains to be done, the Indian parliament eventually did respond, unanimously adopting reforms to prosecute sexual violence and initiating new policies. Yet even before the Pandey attack, the Indian government had enacted a law to protect children from sexual abuse.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published Breaking the Silence, which included detailed recommendations to the Indian authorities on protecting children from sexual abuse. Similar steps are needed in Pakistan. These include believing children who report abuse, ensuring victims receive respectful care from health providers, and making sure police respond in a way that protects victims instead of harming them further.

Child sex abuse is not inevitable. A strong public and government response can mean the difference between life and death for little ones who deserve our protection. The heavy burden of little coffins needs to end. 

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

Taguhi shows scars on her neck and shoulder. In 2016, her former husband attacked her and her mother with an axe, killing her mother. 

© 2016 Nazik Armenakyan (Daphne.am)
(Yerevan) – The lives and well-being of women and children in Armenia who have survived domestic violence are in jeopardy because of the Armenian government’s failure to ensure their protection, Human Rights Watch said today. In December 2017, Armenia’s parliament passed a law on violence in the family, but women and children remain at risk until the government comprehensively changes how police respond to complaints of violence and provides accessible, quality services for survivors.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 12 survivors of severe domestic abuse in Armenia. The women said their husbands or male partners punched and kicked them, raped them, struck them with furniture and other objects, confined them in their homes, stalked them, and threatened or attempted to kill them with knives or other sharp objects. Five women said the attacks against them continued during pregnancy; three said they had miscarriages after their husbands beat them.

“Armenian authorities have failed to protect women and others from domestic violence, putting women’s and children’s health and lives in jeopardy,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new law is one important step, but until authorities take reports of domestic violence seriously and ensure that women and children get the legal, medical, and social help they need, the danger remains.”

Those interviewed said that when they reported abuse to police or other authorities, the authorities did nothing to prevent further violence, investigate cases, or hold the attackers accountable. In some cases, the authorities encouraged women to drop complaints and reconcile with their abusers. The authorities did not refer the women for services or assistance.

Armenia’s Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, an alliance of nongovernmental women’s rights organizations, reported that at least four women were killed by their partners or other family members in the first half of 2017, and at least 50 were killed between 2010 and 2017. The Coalition received 5,299 calls about incidents of domestic violence from January through September 2017.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented, Gayane (not her real name), 45, said that her former husband had repeatedly beat her during their eight-year marriage, stalked her after she divorced him, and frequently broke into her house to rob and attack her, most recently in November. “He grabbed me by the hair and threw me on to the sofa,” Gayane said. “He jumped on top of me and put his elbows on my throat, trying to strangle me. I bit him in the arm and he let go, but he dragged me off the sofa, threw me down on the floor, and started to kick me all over, shouting, ‘Die!’”

When Gayane ran to the police in her nightclothes, they said, “Oh, so you came and want to do something about your husband? He beat you? And so? Why did you let him in?” After receiving treatment at the hospital for a sprained wrist and numerous bruises, Gayane returned home to find her former husband asleep in her house with her two sons. Police refused to intervene.

Children witnessed abuse against their mothers, often for many years, and several women said their husbands committed violence against their children. Human Rights Watch also documented other family members, such as in-laws, abused women.

The new law requires police to urgently intervene “when there is a reasonable assumption of an immediate threat of repetition or the continuation of violence” in the family. Urgent measures include police removing the alleged attacker from the home and prohibiting them from approaching or communicating with the victim. Courts can issue six-month protection orders, with two possible three-month extensions.

Many women said they lived with their abusers for years because they had no means of escape. The country has only two domestic violence shelters, both in the capital, Yerevan, run by nongovernmental organizations, each with a capacity for five women and their children. Council of Europe standards call for at least one specialized shelter in every region, and one shelter space per 10,000 people. With a population of approximately 2.9 million, Armenia should have approximately 290 shelter spaces. The new law mandates creating government-run shelters, but does not specify the number of shelters or their capacity. 

The law defines domestic violence as “a physical, sexual, psychological, or economic act of violence” between family members, including spouses in unregistered marriages. It is not clear if the law applies to couples who are not in registered or unregistered marriages.

Just before submitting the law to parliament in mid-November, the government revised the law to include “strengthening of traditional values in the family” as a key principle. Authorities also changed the title to add the concept of “restoring harmony in the family.”

The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women expressed concerns that the new law’s principle of “traditional values” could be used to reinforce obsolete and problematic gender roles and stereotypes. Activists also fear an emphasis on “restoring harmony” could be used to pressure women to remain in abusive relationships.

During a December 6 meeting, Armenia’s minister of justice, David Harutyunyan, told Human Rights Watch that the concept of “restoring harmony in the family” recognizes the government’s obligation to not only protect victims, but to provide services to the alleged abuser, such as alcohol or drug treatment. He said that these initiatives would not take priority over protection.

The new law requires authorities to investigate alleged crimes in the family even if the victim withdraws a complaint to the police. It also mandates training for police, prosecutors, judges and others in the criminal justice system on how to respond to complaints and investigate and prosecute cases.

The European Union insisted the government of Armenia pass a domestic violence law as a condition for certain budgetary support. The European Commission also called on Armenia to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In late December, the government approved the possible signature of the convention, but has not yet done so.

“Women in Armenia need the government to provide meaningful protection from abusive husbands and partners, not to reinforce gender stereotypes about men’s dominance or family roles that can contribute to violence in the first place,” Buchanan said.

Accounts from Domestic Violence Survivors

Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with 12 survivors of domestic violence in Armenia: 11 in December 2017 and one in May 2016. Human Rights Watch also interviewed women’s rights activists and representatives of organizations providing services to survivors of domestic violence, who described similar accounts of abuse, authorities’ response to domestic violence, and obstacles to accessing services for survivors. Everyone interviewed was informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways the information would be used. All provided verbal informed consent. The interviews highlighted survivors’ experiences and the legal and other protection gaps that the government should address, including through the new law on family violence. Where necessary, pseudonyms have been used to protect interviewees’ identities.


From the first weeks of her marriage in 2004, at age 19, Armine’s husband abused her:

After we were married just one or two weeks, he hit me in the face. When he stayed out late, and I asked him where he was, this would set off beatings. When I was seven months pregnant with our first child he beat me, including in my belly. According to the doctor, this injured the baby and he was born with a problem in his spine.

Then my husband started to drink, and it was as if I just made mistake after mistake. He would humiliate me. He would take all the sheets and blankets off the bed and demand that I remake it. He would refuse to eat what I prepared and demand I go out and get something else. I can’t even pronounce the words he would say to me to insult me. They were all the worst words.

Later, he started to use sharp objects. Sometimes he would come home late at night and I would be asleep in my bed with my sons on either side of me. He would jump on top of me and put the knife to my neck and say, “I’ll kill you!”

Armine said her husband broke her rib during one beating, and broke her arm during another:

I was sitting at the table across from him with my youngest son in my arms. My husband got angry and picked up the table and turned it over. I tried to stop the table from crashing onto me, but it broke my right arm. I went to the hospital and got a cast. When they asked at the hospital what had happened, I lied and said I fell.

Armine also said that if she tried to protect herself, her husband would break furniture, throw household objects and smash windows. On one occasion, neighbors called an ambulance, hoping the medics could remove Armine’s husband. Medical workers refused to intervene saying, “He’s not a patient for us, take him to the psychiatric hospital.” They left without calling the police or telling Armine how she could get help.

One night in 2014 after her husband threatened to kill her with a knife and hit her younger son, Armine fled the house with her two children. Her former husband stalked her relentlessly for two years:

He would come to my aunt’s house. He would appear on the street as I took the kids to school. He would swear at me, demand that we get back together. Other times he would stand in front of me on the sidewalk and not let me pass. Or he would grab me by the arm or by my purse, trying to make me go with him.

In 2015, Armine lost her job in a medical center after her then-former husband twice came to her workplace:

I worked a 24-hour shift. He came one night and was drunk. He said ‘I came to see if you are actually working or if you are doing something with some lover. I won’t let you work anywhere. I will slit your throat!’ After that the director came and told me I shouldn’t come to work anymore. He said, ‘It’s not ok for your husband to come here and sort out your family problems.’

The medical center director did not offer Armine any assistance.

She said the police failed to protect her:

After we were divorced, I called the police four or five times when my [former]husband showed up at my aunt’s house. They would come, take him away, then let him go after five minutes. One time I wrote a complaint to the police. The officer said, ‘We can’t do anything. We can’t detain him. There is no law.’ The investigator who received a complaint said that the only possibility was a court process with the outcome being a monetary fine for him. I decided it wasn’t worth it. He didn’t have the money to pay for a fine.

Armine described her ongoing anxiety and fears after more than a decade of abuse. She said, “I haven’t heard from him, and I believe he is not living in Armenia anymore, but I am still scared. I go to work early in the morning, when it is still dark out. I am extremely anxious from the time I leave home until I get to work. If I hear footsteps behind me, I am afraid it’s him.”


Taguhi, 38, and her husband married in February 2014. She described frequent beatings for more than two years, including when she was pregnant in 2014. In another incident, her husband beat her and threatened her with a knife while she was holding their infant son. Taguhi frequently sought refuge at a friend’s home or with her parents, during which time her husband would threaten, stalk, and attack her. Taguhi’s husband also attacked her father and broke the window of her father’s car in 2015, she said. Although her father complained to police, they closed their investigation, saying there was a lack of evidence of a crime.

Taghuhi filed complaints with the police following many of the beatings, although several investigations were closed due to lack of evidence. In January 2016, however, a court convicted her husband of battery and torture based on a number of Taguhi’s complaints about beatings from February to April 2015. The court sentenced him to six months in prison but immediately released him on a conditional sentence. He served no prison time.

Despite his conviction, he continued to stalk her, especially at her parents’ apartment, forcing his way in, or attacking her near the building’s entrance. From February through July 2016, Taguhi filed at least eight complaints with the police. After an attack near her parents’ apartment in July 2016, Taguhi fled to the police with her mother. The police accepted her written complaint and then drove the women back to the apartment building, but refused to escort them to the door, although Taguhi told them she feared her former husband might be waiting for them.

As she and her mother approached the apartment door, Taguhi’s former husband, who had been hiding nearby, attacked the two women with an axe, killing Taguhi’s mother. Taguhi was hospitalized for six weeks, with numerous injuries, including a nearly severed shoulder, a partially severed ear, and axe wounds to her scalp, hand, arm, neck, chest, abdomen, and back. Her father, who came out of the apartment and tried to intervene, lost two fingers on his left hand. Her son, who was at home with the grandfather, watched the attack from the doorway. Taguhi’s former husband is in pretrial detention facing murder and attempted murder charges.

Taguhi herself, however, is also facing trial on battery charges for scratching her former husband’s arms and neck with her fingernails in June and early July 2016. She said that she was acting in self-defense and that her artificial fingernails could not have caused injury consistent with battery.


“As soon as I got married, when I was 18, the nightmares started,” said Zaruhi, now 30. “He drank heavily, and so did his parents. All of them would hit me sometimes.” Zaruhi’s husband controlled her, threatening to kill her. He refused to let me go out of the house or even have coffee and socialize with the neighbors, she said. “He threatened me that if I tell anyone about the beatings he would kill me, or if I tried to leave him, he would find me and kill me. I felt like I had no choice but to stay.”

Her husband also raped her and controlled her sexually. “One night he came home drunk and wanted to have sex. I said, ‘I don’t want to, don’t touch me.’ He got very angry and yelled, ‘When I want to, you will sleep with me. Even if you don’t want to, I don’t care! If I want to, you will give it to me.’” Zaruhi said he punched her in the head, knocked her down, and kicked her in the abdomen, and then raped her. “After that, even if I didn’t want to be with him, I agreed. I stayed calm, just so that he wouldn’t beat me,” she said.

Zaruhi said that one day in 2009, her husband beat her when she was about five months pregnant with her third child. She started having vaginal bleeding and went to the hospital, where doctors told her that the fetus had died in the womb.

Despite regular abuse, Zaruhi was afraid to go to the police because of her husband’s death threats and those of her mother-in-law, who said: “If you ever think of going to the police, know that we have friends in the police, and it won’t do you any good.”

After a severe beating in August 2017, Zaruhi divorced her husband and moved in with her parents. He repeatedly came to their house, beat her and threatened to take their four children. She eventually moved and went into hiding. “I just want him to leave me alone,” she said. With the support of a local women’s rights organization, Zaruhi went to the police. She has filed a complaint regarding the beating that caused the death of her baby and has sued for alimony and child support. The investigation is ongoing.


Astghik, 38, has three children. Her husband has abused her since shortly after they married in 2010. She said:

He grabs me and shakes me. He spits on me. Every day he wounds my soul. He threatens me, often with a knife, and tells my children, ‘I will kill your mother and you will end up in the orphanage.’ He forces me to have sex with him. I don’t want to. I do it with loathing. I do it just so there wouldn’t be another fight.

One time, earlier this year, he shoved a kitchen knife at me, threatening to kill me. I called the police, but when they came, they said, ‘Unless he actually hurts you, we can’t do anything.’

With the help of a lawyer at a nongovernmental organization, she filed an official complaint regarding the death threats. The investigation is ongoing. Although the two are officially divorced and Astghik is entitled to court-ordered child support, she continues to live with her abusive former husband, because he does not, and is not forced to, pay support, without which she has no income and is not able to provide shelter for herself and the children.


Hasmik said that her husband beat her for the first time soon after they married in 2004, and continued to do so regularly throughout  their nine-year marriage, including during her pregnancies in 2006 and 2007. He punched her in the head when she was three months pregnant with their first child, who was born with a hearing disability. Hasmik believes her pregnancy was harmed by the abuse she suffered.

One day in 2013, Hasmik’s husband punched her in the face, broke a glass of water on her head, and beat her with a chair. “He had beaten me so badly that I lost consciousness,” she said. “I could not open my eyes, and when I did, I saw blood everywhere and on the wall.”

Her husband’s family refused to help her go to the hospital. Hasmik was bed-ridden for several weeks. Soon after she recovered, her husband resumed beating her.

After another beating later in 2013 that caused a severe injury to the side of her head, Hasmik ran away and spent the night outside in fear. She was two months pregnant. She went to her parents’ house and soon decided to have an abortion, not wanting to have another baby in her troubled family. While recovering at home, she fainted, and her family called an ambulance. When the medics saw her head injury, they insisted that she notify the police.

Police arrived from the town where Hasmik and her husband lived, but instead of assisting her, they urged her to go back to her husband. Hasmik refused, and with the support of a women’s rights group, moved to a shelter, filed a complaint against her husband for abuse, and petitioned for custody of her children. Hasmik’s former husband threatened her, saying he would never let her see their children again, unless she withdrew her police complaint.

Police failed to respond appropriately or prevent further threats and abuse during the investigation. During one witness confrontation, a procedural step in criminal investigations when the two parties must meet together with the investigator, Hasmik ’s husband shouted at her saying, “I will smash this table on your head!” When the investigator did not respond, Hasmik fled, and filed a complaint. At the next interrogation the investigator said to her, mockingly, “He didn’t actually hit you with the table. Why did you run out of here?”

Her former husband was later charged with torture, including causing physical and psychological suffering, of a person financially dependent on him (Criminal Code article 119). In December 2014, a court convicted him and sentenced him to 18 months in prison, but he was released from the courtroom under a national amnesty for certain crimes, and served no prison time. He did not further harm Hasmik, but in 2015 attacked his parents and police who responded. A trial on charges of using violence against police is ongoing.

Though a court awarded Hasmik custody of her then-6-year-old son in 2013, her husband’s family refused to give the child to her, and the regional division of the Justice Ministry’s enforcement service did not carry out the judgment. Her son finally moved in with her in November 2016 after national authorities intervened. Hasmik’s daughter had lived with her since late 2013 since her husband did not want the child because of her disability.


Karine. 44, filed a complaint against her husband in 2016, after he beat and raped her for many years, but the authorities’ response led her to abandon the process. She said:

I had to forgive my husband and go back to him. Police and municipality officials insisted that I do so, and also withdraw my complaint. They said that it’s a family matter, that my husband was [psychologically] sick, and that it was my duty to help him. Police told me that even if I pursued the complaint, it would not lead to anything, just some fine.


The Armenian government should:

  • Ensure the prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of all domestic violence cases, using methods that mitigate risks for survivors, and prosecute and punish the attackers;
  • Systematically train police, judges, and other relevant authorities in domestic violence response, including filing and investigating complaints, in line with international standards;
  • Ensure immediate access to protection for survivors of domestic abuse through availability of shelter spaces, including in rural areas, and short- and long-term protection orders;
  • Ensure that survivors and their children have access to quality, comprehensive and inclusive medical, psychological, legal, and other services;
  • Conduct campaigns to educate the public about the new law, how to file complaints, and the availability of services;
  • Ensure that enforcement of the law includes victims in non-marital intimate relationships;
  • Swiftly adopt relevant changes to the criminal code to ensure appropriate punishments commensurate with the gravity of the abuse;
  • Revise the criminal code to include an aggravating circumstance covering crimes committed within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the abuser shares or has shared the same residence with the victim, in line with the Istanbul Convention; this approach allows for the use of the generic provisions in the criminal law while imposing a higher sentence in cases of domestic violence;
  • Consider addressing domestic violence as a dedicated criminal offense. This can provide an optimal response particularly in cases of abusive patterns of behavior in which isolated acts of violence do not reach the criminal threshold; and
  • Ratify the Istanbul Convention without delay. 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Maria Carolina Silva Flor and Joselito Alves dos Santos with their 18-month-old daughter, Maria Gabriela Silva Alves, pictured after the launch of the Human Rights Watch report Neglected and Unprotected, July 2017.

© 2017 Amanda Klasing/Human Rights Watch

Maria Gabriela Silva Alves will have no party for her second birthday today. No cake. No gifts. No celebration. Gabi, as her parents call her, has congenital Zika syndrome, and her parents simply cannot afford it.

Gabi is one of thousands of children born with congenital Zika syndrome in Brazil over the last two and a half years. I met Gabi and her family while researching the human rights impacts of the Zika epidemic in northeastern Brazil. At 8-months-old, I was struck by how tiny she was, how lovingly her mother held her. Last July, I saw Gabi again when she was a year and a half. I had the joy of holding her several times, and having her nestle into my arms under the loving gaze of her parents, Carol and Joselito.

Brazil has not addressed longstanding human rights problems that allowed the Zika outbreak to escalate, leaving the population vulnerable to future outbreaks and other serious public health risks. 

Her parents were thrust under an intense media spotlight with little government support following her birth. Doctors weren’t sure – still aren’t sure – what Gabi’s life will be like. But her parents have been doggedly seeking services and support. She has a new automated chair that allows her to move around more easily. And, after spending nearly half of Gabi’s life commuting long distances for health care, they now have appointments in their own municipality with transportation provided.

This is not without costs. The family has racked up insurmountable debt caring for Gabi and her older brother, keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads. Though they receive a small financial contribution from the government, there is not enough money to keep their family healthy, much less to celebrate Gabi’s birthday.

Gabi and her family are not alone. Even as the headlines on Zika have faded, children throughout Brazil, and around the world, are growing up with congenital Zika syndrome. No longer babies, they and their caregivers need evolving support. They face difficulties buying expensive medicine, traveling to urban centers for appointments, and keeping paid work because of heavy family responsibilities. Federal and local authorities, and the broader international community, will need to address the special evolving needs of Gabi and children like her concerning their health, but also their education and other still unknown issues.

As Gabi embarks on her third year of life, I wish her and her family good health. And I hope they get the support they need.

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

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

© 2017 Reuters

On January 1, Luo Qianqian, a Chinese scientist living in the United States, along with four other women, accused Chen Xiaowu, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Beihang University, of sexually harassing them when they were his students. The accusations were widely reported by Chinese media, and later that day the university suspended him from teaching and launched an investigation.

“I hope this act of weiquan [rights defense] will enable more people … to have enough courage to step forward and say #MeToo,” wrote Luo on her social media account.

After the university’s swift action, many Chinese asked, “Is #MeToo finally coming to China?”

But past events serve as a cautionary tale – at least on China’s university campuses. In the past four years, 13 incidents prompted universities to pledge to investigate allegations of sexual harassment by professors, according to the NGOCN, an online information platform for Chinese nongovernmental organizations. But not all those universities provided further information, and those that did only imposed light punishments, such as suspensions. In 2014, Xiamen University merely suspended history professor Wu Chunming from teaching after a group of female students accused him of coercing them into having sex with him. One year later, Wu was chosen to be a founding member of a prominent archaeologists’ group.

According to a 2017 survey of 6,592 college students and recent graduates by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center and the public interest law group Beijing Impact, 69 percent reported that they had been sexually harassed, but less than 4 percent had reported it to their university or the police. The report says only 5 percent of universities offer sexual harassment prevention training, and no school has established formal procedures to handle sexual harassment complaints.

In September 2014, 256 professors and students signed an open letter urging the Ministry of Education to establish sexual harassment prevention and response guidelines for university campuses. In October 2014, the ministry issued a document prohibiting university teachers from “sexually harassing” students or, “having improper relationships,” with them, but the document failed to elaborate on the meaning of these terms or spell out punishments.

Chinese universities will come in line with the #MeToo movement when they promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigate sexual harassment allegations, when they appropriately define and hold people accountable for sexual harassment, and when students have confidence to report what happened to them.

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

Girls sit for lessons on a stairwell inside a school building.  Overcrowding—compounded by the demand for gender segregation—means that schools typically divide their days into two or three shifts, resulting in a school day too short to cover the full curriculum.

© 2017 Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch

This year was a remarkable one in terms of women’s rights. From the euphoria of the Women’s March to the pent-up trauma released by the #MeToo disclosures, 2017 has been a rollercoaster for activists – and for most women.

On Donald Trump’s first full day as US president on 20 January, women’s rights activists marched in unprecedented numbers in more than 70 countries. In October, allegations of a long record of sexual harassment and violence on the part of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein set off a flood of similar allegations against other prominent men across the globe, toppling dozens by the end of the year. Women worldwide are fed up and that frustration was on display in ways that felt unusually visible and global.

But if the legacy of 2017 is to be more than a warm glow and a pussy hat, 2018 needs to deliver concrete, sustained change. Activists must harness the energy of the marches and #MeToo, connecting the struggles of women and girls internationally and creating change despite women’s rights often feeling increasingly under siege.

This year also brought plenty of bad news for women. The World Economic Forum declared that the “global gender gap”– the gap between the status of women and men on four key indicators: health, education, politics and the workplace – worsened, with growing inequality in economic participation a particular problem. This is the first time the gap has widened since tracking began in 2006. In 2016, the forum predicted that it would take 83 years to close the gender gap; now it estimates 100 years. It said: “Even though qualified women are coming out of the education system, many industries are failing to hire, retain and promote them.”

In education, new data from Unicef showed that in countries affected by conflict, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school as boys. In South Sudan, 76% of girls are not studying; in Afghanistan and Chad, the rates are 55% and 53%.

Writing this in Yangon, Myanmar, where I’m investigating trafficking of women, I’m painfully aware of how conflict targets women and girls. Human Rights Watch has documented in excruciating detail how the Burmese military has been using rape as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, attacks that were widespread and aimed at terrorising people so severely that they would never return home. Sexual violence against women and girls featured in numerous other conflicts, including in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In health, reproductive choice is under attack. Access to family planning services is also directly linked to education, politics and the workplace, since women with control over their fertility are more likely to attend school, to work and to participate in public life. Particularly harmful was the US government’s renewed and expanded imposition of the “global gag rule”, which bans recipients of billions of US aid dollars from even discussing abortion with patients or legislators. This rule is already having devastating consequences as service providers who choose not to comply are forced to shut services as they lose funding. This policy will affect virtually every country that receives US development assistance. A number of other Some donor countries have worked to mitigate the harm of this policy, but the large scale of US aid funding means a huge hole remains.

To nurture the seeds of change sown in 2017, the women’s movement will need to find effective ways to embrace the problems of all women. Many have made the point that most of the attention generated by #MeToo has focused on elite workplaces and elite victims – the sense that many women who have come forward may risk losing a film role but won’t be left unable to feed their children. This response needs to be global, addressing the racial and economic divides that can deprive the movement of unity. Drawing connections and mutual support between a Rohingya rape survivor in Bangladesh and a groped intern in the UK parliament, an out-of-school girl in Tanzania and a woman denied access to abortion in Nicaragua will never be easy. Nevertheless, so many of our problems are faced in common.

Child marriage is a glaring example of an abuse that harms girls around the globe. About 15 million girls married as children this year – one every two seconds – in many countries, including Britain and the US as well as Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Brazil. Married girls often leave school early, are more likely to live in poverty, are at greater risk of domestic violence and face more serious reproductive health risks, including death in childbirth, than women who marry as adults. Bangladesh, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage, regressed this year and made it again legal for children to marry. The UK government opposed legislation that would have ended child marriage. In the US this year, Texas and New York narrowed the circumstances under which children can marry, but child marriage is legal in all 50 US states; in 25 states, children of any age can marry under some circumstances.

In 2018, our movement will have to widen its scope. Sexual harassment, abuse and assault of women is commonplace in many industries and workplaces. #MeToo has triggered discussion about gender-based employment discrimination, both overt discrimination and the more insidious ways inequality excludes, marginalises and exploits women workers. Women know that sexual harassment, job discrimination, reproductive rights and violence against women are all connected – they see those connections all around them. We need reform in all those areas, in virtually every country.

The growing number of women running for office, including many in the US prompted to seek election by Trump’s victory, is a good sign. And female voters in every country can demand more gender-balanced cabinets, such as those appointed by Canada’s Justin Trudeau, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Sweden has a “feminist foreign policy” and this year Canada pledged a feminist policy on overseas aid. They can be held to these policies, which could be models for all democracies. National action plans on women, peace and security offer a chance to focus global attention on the rights of women and girls affected by conflict.

Power concedes nothing without a demand, as the African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass said. Women communicated loud and clear in 2017 that they are fed up. Now they need to say exactly what they want and keep pressing those demands every day, in every country. The year 2017 was ferocious in terms of women’s rights; 2018 will be an even tougher fight.

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

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

© 2016 Reuters

Any Afghan woman can tell you that sexual harassment is widespread in Afghanistan. A 2016 study found 90 percent of the 346 women and girls interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment in public places, 91 percent in educational environments, and 87 percent at work. This is not news to my friend Soraya (a pseudonym), a lawyer working in Kabul trying to improve access to justice for women.

Several months ago, she and I observed a rape trial. As is often the case in Afghanistan, the session took place in the cramped judge’s chambers, with witnesses for the prosecution and defence, and both families present. It was a crowded, tense scene; everyone was anxiously awaiting the final evidence and the verdict.

Everyone except the judge. As he waited for the paperwork, he tossed questions at Soraya. Apparently trying to impress her, he boasted of becoming a judge after cheating on his bar exam. He beckoned her over, and handed her his phone. Soraya told me that he asked her for her phone number and pressured her to friend him on Facebook.

In conservative Afghanistan, where social media, particularly Facebook, have become an arena for sexual harassment, and women and girls sometimes face criticism or abuse simply for using social media, such a request is particularly offensive. Women have described receiving rape threats via Facebook. In one rape case Soraya and I investigated, the perpetrator had stolen a young woman’s phone and threatened to make public her identity and photos on Facebook unless she had sex with him.

Harassment was made a crime in Afghanistan in 2009, but the term was not defined. In 2016, the parliament passed a bill defining harassment as, “physical contact, illegitimate request, verbal and non-verbal harassment, and any other acts that caused psychological, physical damage, and humiliated a woman or a child.”

These definitions are broad, providing ample ammunition to government officials seeking to curb harassment. Less evident is any genuine will to change the culture of institutions to instil respect for women. Until that happens, new laws and regulations will do little to protect women from a daily hail of abuse.

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

One day in April 2013, Shabana went to work in the garment factory where she was a seamstress, feeding cloth, hour after hour, day after day, through ravenous sewing machines in a room filled with hundreds of women doing just the same.

By the end of the day she lay trapped beneath the rubble of the eight-story building in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh—a victim, albeit alive, of the deadliest garment factory accident in recent history. At least 1,134 other workers in the building died, and more than 2,000 were injured.

“Sometimes I just can’t sleep without pills. I keep remembering how many people died that day,” she said, years later, frail and hollowed. “Maybe I should have died too.”

Shabana miraculously survived three days buried in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, a disaster that shook the world and belied the lofty claims of big apparel brands that they were taking sufficient measures to protect the workers who toiled to create their products.

Labor advocates wanting to campaign for compensation for victims had to know which global apparel brands had ordered the clothing produced in the five factories that had been housed in the collapsed building. But at the time, no one knew. Labor rights activists and others scrambled to find company labels even as bodies of workers were being pried from the rubble, and traumatized survivors struggled to recall anything about the brands for which they had worked, and almost died.


As consumers we do not think much about the “Made in …” labels sewn on our clothes or stamped onto the soles of shoes, if we notice it at all. But woven invisibly into the fabric of the clothes we wear are stories of individuals—often women—who cut, stitch, and glue the shoes, shirts, and pants that we pick from store shelves and hang in our closets.   

Factory building collapses and fires are not the only problems in the apparel manufacturing world. In the US$2.4 trillion garment industry, which employs millions of workers worldwide, labor rights abuses are rife. In countries around the world, factory owners and managers often fire pregnant workers or deny maternity leave; retaliate against workers who join or form unions; force workers to do overtime work or risk losing their job; and turn a blind eye when male managers or workers sexually harass female workers.

Why should global apparel brands care? And what is their role?

The governments of producing countries worldwide are primarily responsible for working conditions and labor law compliance in factories. But according to international standards, though non-binding, global apparel and footwear companies or “brands” that order products manufactured in factories also have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of workers are respected throughout their supply chain. They must take measures to prevent and address human rights abuses.

For starters, they should make sure workers and the public know which factories are producing for which brands, and they should be transparent about their supply chains. Too often, though, brands side-step responsibility by failing to publish key information—such the names, addresses, and other important information about factories manufacturing their branded products.

This kind of disclosure is the foundation on which corporate responsibility is built. More and more apparel companies disclose this information to show where they are producing and the sites they are monitoring. By the end of 2016, these included adidas, C&A, Columbia Sportswear, Cotton On Group, Disney, Esprit, Forever New, Fruit of the Loom, Gap Inc., G-Star RAW, Hanesbrands, H&M Group, Hudson’s Bay Company, Jeanswest, Levi Strauss, Lindex, Marks and Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, New Balance, Nike, Pacific Brands, PAS Group, Patagonia, Puma, Specialty Fashion Group, Target USA, VF Corporation, Wesfarmers Group (Kmart and Target Australia, and Coles), and Woolworths.

This is especially important because in the apparel sector, unauthorized subcontracting is a frequent problem. Some of the worst labor abuses occur in such unauthorized subcontracted sites, farthest from any kind of scrutiny or accountability.

Such disclosure not only demonstrates that a company is mapping its supply chain, it also helps to identify good and bad subcontractors, and focus additional monitoring efforts where they are most needed. Workers need this information too, as do those who may advocate on their behalf, including union representatives, local and international nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, journalists, and academics. The more supply chain data is publicly available, the more likely it is that abusive conditions will be reported—whether publicly or to the brands whose supply chains are implicated—and the more likely it becomes that problems can be solved.

Campaigning for Transparency

In 2016, Human Rights Watch joined eight international labor rights groups and global unions advocating for a basic level of transparency in the garment industry. The coalition developed a “Transparency Pledge,” a uniform minimum standard for transparency, drawn from industry good practices. The pledge is a modest starting point for company disclosure. Companies can do far more than what the pledge seeks, for example by publishing information about where they source cotton and other materials from.   

The coalition reached out to 72 brands—some leaders on transparency and others that lag behind— to urge them to align their practices with the Transparency Pledge. Seventeen leading global apparel and footwear companies have to date committed to publishing all of the information sought in the pledge.

Each company that does so commits to regularly publish on its website a list of all factories that manufacture its products. The list should specify the full name of all authorized production units and processing facilities; site addresses; parent company information for the production units; type of products made; and a rough indication of the number of workers at each site.

Among the leaders who previously already disclosed supplier factory information and fully committed to the pledge are adidas, C&A, Cotton On Group, Esprit, G-Star RAW, H&M Group, Hanesbrands, Levi’s, Lindex, Nike, and Patagonia. Companies that were going transparent for the first time and committed to the pledge are: ASICS, ASOS, Clarks, New Look, Next, and Pentland Brands.

Another 17 companies, though falling short of pledge standards, shifted in a positive direction, and committed, for the first time, to publishing their supplier factory information. Disappointingly, however, many apparel companies simply rejected transparency altogether or did not respond to our repeated efforts to engage with them.

Transparency is not a silver bullet. But it is a powerful tool for focusing more on-the-ground eyes on labor abuses and factory dangers, and it provides workers and advocates critical information about where to turn with problems. Transparency also builds confidence among consumers who care about the ethical business practices of brands. And it allows workers to at least hope that brands profiting from their labor will hear of their struggles—and intervene.

Information Barriers

In 2016, I met a garment worker from a factory in Burma. The factory management gave workers time off to celebrate Thingyan, the annual Buddhist water festival—also a government holiday. When workers returned, the managers forced them to compensate for lost productivity by working consecutive Sundays, their only day off. Factory managers singled out workers who refused and denied them overtime work for two months, leaving these low-wage workers with even less take-home pay. The factory’s actions were blatantly illegal under Burmese domestic laws.

Workers despaired: they wanted to report what was happening to the brands for which they produced, but they had no way of knowing what those were. They suffered silently.

In another case, an eight-month pregnant worker from Cambodia told me that a garment factory terminated her contract because she was pregnant. The factory refused to pay her legally required maternity benefits, and told her not to return. So she turned to a local nongovernmental organization, which wanted to help her alert the brand. The problem was, no one knew which brand placed orders with that factory. They were at a dead end.

Apparel companies know the challenges workers face if they try to collect brand information from their factories. These include a combination of poor literacy and language barriers; lack of awareness about the label parts that need to be collected; not being equipped with smartphones to photograph labels; and fear of retaliation.

Garment workers I’ve interviewed in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Burma have often said they were too afraid of retribution to risk photographing or collecting brand labels in factories, or that the factory did not attach the labels at all. Putting the onus on workers to sleuth around to figure out which brands they produce for is patently unfair and only adds to workers’ problems.

Creeping Toward Transparency

In the past, consumers asserted their right to know where their products are made to bring about change in the garment industry. In late 1990s and early 2000s, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) campaigned at many US universities, demanding that brands producing licensed apparel bearing their college logo must provide factory names and locations. This led companies like Nike and adidas to share the names and locations of factories where workers made their products—an important breakthrough in the decades-long struggle for transparency.

Since 2005, Nike and adidas have been publishing their supplier factory information, and more brands followed. Some brands that closely guarded factory names as “competitive information” have now released this data. In 2013, the leading fashion group H&M—which according to a company representative used to keep its supplier factories list locked in a safe in Stockholm at one point—became the first fashion brand to publish the names and addresses of its supplier factories. Other companies followed suit in 2016, with big companies like C&A, Esprit, Marks and Spencer, and Gap Inc. also going transparent.

Apparel companies committed to ethical business practices will not shy away from their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which says that businesses should “know and show” that they are respecting human rights in their supply chain, including by mapping their supplier factories. Industry leaders have set the standard for such “showing” by putting supplier factory information in the public domain. Reflecting on how critical it is for a company to publish its supply chain information to meaningfully apply the UN Guiding Principles, Prof. John Ruggie, former UN special representative for business and human rights, who drafted the principles, told Human Rights Watch:

At the very heart of the guiding principles and corporate responsibility is the notion of ‘knowing and showing.’ If a company does not know and cannot show, or will not show, then it raises questions.… A company that respects human rights … is in a sense shortchanging itself by not being transparent. If it believes its [human rights] practices are strong, they should be disclosing the sites they are monitoring and take credit for that.

Transparency as Competitive Advantage

Some brands that reject transparency invoke the oft-repeated trope of competitive disadvantage. They argue that publishing the names and locations of the factories that produce for them will be detrimental to staying competitive. This thinking is misguided.

First, the notion that such a basic degree of transparency puts a company at a competitive disadvantage is contradicted by the fact that leading companies already disclose factory information and have not claimed to suffer any financial harm as a result.

Second, most brands already partially share this information on industry platforms such as Sedex and the Fair Factory Clearinghouse. Through these, they exchange information about supplier factories, including reports about working conditions.

Some of this supposedly “secret” information about factory names and locations is also accessible to competitors through databases, including Import Genius and Panjiva, which compile US customs data.

Publishing supplier factory information would allow brands sourcing from the same factory to exchange key information about working conditions and potentially collaborate to prevent labor abuses or dangerous conditions.

Some argue that their membership in initiatives like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a binding agreement between brands and global unions, forged after the Rana Plaza collapse, is proof of their commitment to transparency. The Bangladesh Accord publishes a list of all garment factories covered by the initiative, but does not publicly identify which factory produces for what brand, let alone globally. The initiative has had a positive impact on fire and building safety in Bangladesh, but is not a substitute for a company’s own transparency practices governing its global supplier factories. 

At least one company, Inditex (which owns Zara and other brands), has refused to publish any supplier factory information, arguing that it privately discloses the data to global unions with whom it has signed a global framework agreement, intended to improve working conditions throughout its supplier factories globally.

Publishing supplier factory information would only amplify the effectiveness of such a global framework agreement. Other brands like ASOS, H&M, and Tchibo, which have global framework agreements, also publish their supplier factory information. Their practices demonstrate that the two tools—framework agreements and transparency—can coexist.

Apparel Companies that Publish Supplier Information and Participate in Other Initiatives

Bangladesh Accord members include: adidas, ALDI North and ALDI South, Benetton, C&A, Cotton On, Esprit, G-Star RAW, Fast Retailing, H&M, Hugo Boss, John Lewis, Kmart Australia, LIDL, Lindex, Loblaw, Marks and Spencer, Next, New Look, Puma, PVH, Target Australia, Tchibo, Tesco, and Woolworths.

German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (the Textil Bündnis) members that publish supplier factory information include: adidas, ALDI North and ALDI South, C&A, Esprit, H&M, Hugo Boss, LIDL, Puma, and Tchibo.

Incentivizing Transparency, Role of Investors

Multi-stakeholder initiatives—involving different stakeholders from the garment industry, such as brands and NGOs, including the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Labor Association, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—should play an important role in moving the industry toward basic transparency.

Such initiatives should make publishing supplier factory information a condition of membership and seek time-bound plans from existing apparel and footwear member-companies to move toward this goal. At the very least, they should require that brands in prominent leadership roles—such as boards of such initiatives—publish supplier factory information. Primark, for example, is on the board of the Ethical Trading Initiative, making its refusal to go transparent all the more reproachable. Walmart, one of the founders of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has yet to publish its global supplier factory information.

Investors, including pension funds, can use their role as owners in companies to press for transparency. For instance, investors like APG and investor groups such as SHARE Canada and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility regularly engage with companies on supply chain transparency.

It is not just a social imperative but can help reduce their financial risks by allowing for better preventative measures through collaboration with other brands. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark—backed by investors including the London-based assessment management company Aviva Investors—also requires apparel companies to map and disclose at least the upper layer of their supply chain.

“Soon there won’t be much to hide,” said Professor Ruggie, highlighting the increasing weight that investors are giving to economic, social, and governance (ESG) indicators. “People who are either inside or servicing the investment community will vacuum up everything that’s out there. They are using everything from GPS to Google Earth to collect information. It’s better for companies to provide this information themselves than have a data provider possibly misconstrue it and sell it as proprietary information to an investment or asset management company, and have it adversely impact the ratings. Companies will realize it’s better to be transparent.”

A Call to Governments

Governments should compel transparency and other mandatory human rights processes in an apparel company’s supply chain. Only they can impose penalties on noncompliant companies, and only they can set enforceable standards that truly level the playing field for businesses and workers.

Tragically, the combination of reluctance to regulate companies and overall government apathy has meant there have not been strong legislative efforts worldwide to address human rights concerns in the garment industry. Legislation that specifically requires apparel and footwear companies to publish supplier factory information would be an important step.

Nevertheless, the increasing attempts by some governments to legislate on company responsibilities towards human rights in their global supply chains may lead to some change. For example, the UK Modern Slavery Act—which among other things, requires companies to monitor for modern slavery in their supply chains, does not specifically require companies to publish supplier factory information.

But it has served as a catalyst for transparency: a number of UK apparel and footwear companies have published supplier factory information as part of their overall risk mitigation strategy on modern slavery in their supply chains. The French law on due diligence by companies is yet another piece of legislation that serves as a good example that can be built on.

In the post-Rana Plaza world, no apparel company should think twice about a basic level of transparency. Workers’ rights and lives come first.

Shabana in Bangladesh still struggles to piece her life back together. Nightmares and depression hamper her life and ability to work. Setting foot inside a garment factory is unthinkable. “Workers should know about brands so they can tell their true stories,” she said.

This essay carries information that is current as of December 15, 2017.

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

Clasped hands of a victim of sexual violence in India. 

A 22-year-old Dalit woman from Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh, reported being raped in January 2016. The police were reluctant to act because the man accused was a local leader of a political party with powerful caste affiliations. Finally, after she went to court in March 2016, a judge ordered the police to file a First Information Report (FIR) to begin the investigation. But without proper protection, the woman and her husband had to flee the village and move hundreds of kilometers away after repeated threats and harassment from the accused and others in the village.

“We weren’t able to stay in the village because the accused were ready to kill us and the police did not take any action against them,” she said. “There’s no one for us.”

In 2013, India enacted new and stronger laws to deal with rape and sexual violence against women, leading to greater number of girls and women willing to report such crimes. These were important initiatives by the government to respond to the public dismay over cases of rape and other violent attacks. However, lack of victim and witness protection acts as a significant barrier to obtain justice. It deters victims from cooperating with investigations and testifying in court, and makes it more likely they will turn “hostile” and retract earlier statements, contributing to unwarranted acquittals.

Victims and witnesses of serious crimes are particularly at risk when the perpetrator is powerful, influential, or rich and the victims or witnesses belong to a socially or economically marginalised community. Girls and women who report sexual violence are often even more vulnerable and face extreme pressure or direct threats from the accused, as Human Rights Watch found in its report “Everyone Blames Me”: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that India needs a witness protection scheme. In 2006, the Law Commission of India issued detailed recommendations for “administrative or legislative action” for witness protection. Yet to date India has not enacted a law or developed a nationwide scheme for witness protection outside the courtrooms.

How Delhi Follows Up on Witness Protection

In the capital, Delhi, however, the authorities took the important initiative to introduce a Witness Protection Scheme in 2015. The Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA) passes protection orders in each case after evaluating the threat. The Commissioner of Police is responsible for the overall implementation of the witness protection orders. Protection measures can include armed police protection, regular patrolling around witnesses’ house, installing closed-circuit television cameras, and relocation.

Once the DSLSA receives an application for protection, it seeks a threat analysis report from a senior police officer of the district or unit investigating the case. DSLSA is required to interact with the witness or others linked to the prosecution to determine protection needs, and make a final order within seven working days of the application being filed and pass interim protection orders, if needed.

The Delhi State Legal Services Authority has received 45 cases since 2015, including five cases of rape, four cases of child abuse, and one case of acid attack. “In most cases, the victim or witness have the most to fear until they depose in court,” said Geetanjali Goel, special secretary at the DSLSA. “Usually after that, witnesses don’t want protection. Our job is to provide protection until the witness wants it.”

While the Delhi scheme can provide a good model for the rest of the country, there are still challenges. The scheme provides for a witness protection fund, but so far, no such fund is functional. Lack of a fund can contribute to delays in witness protection orders, especially when it requires infrastructure such as installation of CCTV cameras.

The police were also supposed to set up a Witness Protection Cell, dedicated to implementing the scheme and submitting monthly reports to the DSLSA. In the absence of such a cell, DSLSA currently seeks its own follow-up reports in each case. While the scheme is new, currently there are no mechanisms in place to evaluate its working or data to determine whether protection in a case was effective.

Anatomy of Threat and Intimidation

Aside from the scheme in Delhi, courts across the country have at times ordered protection of victims and witnesses in sensitive cases. In 2013, in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state, seven women reported being gang raped during the communal violence in September that killed over 60 people and displaced thousands. The women petitioned the court for security and in January 2014, the Supreme Court directed the state to provide protection. Two police constables—an armed male and a female–were provided to each woman around-the-clock. However, their lawyer said, the protection wasn’t sufficient.

“In cases where the vulnerability is so high, just giving protection by armed constables does not solve anything. It does not take into account the anatomy of the threat and intimidation,” said advocate Vrinda Grover, who represented the victims in Supreme Court.

As is common in cases of violence against women, besides threat of physical attack, the intimidation can be far more insidious, communicated to the victim and her family through elders, powerful or influential men, and thugs in the community.

Grover said a fast-track court should have recorded their statements and promptly examined them as witnesses. “The delays proved to be fatal to the case,” she said. Out of seven women who reported being gang raped, one died and at least three turned hostile. One woman is still willing to testify, but Grover along with civil society groups had to relocate her and her family out of the state for her safety. Meanwhile, they are waiting for the Allahabad High Court’s decision on their application to transfer the case out of Muzaffarnagar district.

Barriers to an Effective Witness Protection Scheme

A key barrier to an effective witness protection scheme in India is also the lack of independence and accountability of the police. In Barkha’s case, police took eight months to file a First Information Report after a court order. Forced to live hundreds of miles away from her village, unable to follow up on her case, Barkha says she has lost hope for justice.

If Barkha and others like her receive protection and support after they file complaints for rape, sexual assault, and other violent crimes, they would have a greater chance to obtain justice. For this to happen, the government will need to enact an effective witness and victim protection law and ensure it is adequately funded.

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