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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Participation

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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Demonstrators raises their thumbs in approval inside Congress in favor of a draft law by the government which seeks to ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, Chile, March 17, 2016. The law passed the Senate on July 19, 2017.

© 2016 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The Chilean Senate on July 19, 2017 adopted a bill to ease abortion restrictions, Human Rights Watch said today. As Chile has the most restrictive abortion law in South America and one of the strictest in the world, the vote is a significant development in realizing women’s human rights and preventing unsafe, clandestine abortions in the region. 

The bill was approved more than two years after President Michelle Bachelet’s government introduced the original version of the bill.  The bill decriminalizes abortion under three circumstances:  if the life of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape; and if the fetus suffers severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

“Chile’s absolute prohibition on abortion has been a cruel law and bad public policy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Doctors will no longer have to turn away women who are in desperate and life-threatening situations to seek clandestine or unsafe procedures.”

The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Chile is one of very few countries in the world where abortion is criminalized with no exceptions. They also include Nicaragua and El Salvador in Latin America, which has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies. These highly restrictive laws fuel unsafe, clandestine abortions, putting women’s lives at risk. By approving this bill, Chile distances itself from legal restrictions that directly harm women’s health, Human Rights Watch said.

President Bachelet first introduced the bill in January 2015 to address the absolute ban on abortion in Chile’s criminal code. Under articles 342 (3) and 344 of the Chilean Criminal Code of 1874, an abortion caused by the pregnant woman or another person is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Senate voted on each exception to the abortion ban individually. The provision relating to a risk to the life of the pregnant women or girl was approved by a vote of 20 to 14.  The provision allowing abortion when a fetus is not viable was approved 19 to 14. The narrowest exception, and most controversial going into the vote, was abortion in the case of rape, which passed by only 2 votes, 18 to 16.   

This version of the bill must go back to the Chamber of Deputies before it is ready for President Bachelet to sign into law.

While the new law represents an advance in the region, the limitations in the law still mean that women who face health concerns due to a pregnancy cannot lawfully terminate a pregnancy. In addition, policymakers will have to address issues related to conscientious objection by a health care provider, which can impede access to legal abortion.

“The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights,” Vivanco said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Screengrab from Khulood's Snapchat story.

A woman named Khulood was interrogated yesterday in Riyadh and handed over for prosecution. Her transgression? Wearing “indecent” clothing. But the same night, Saudi authorities released her without charge.

A brief Snapchat video of Khulood appeared over the weekend with her in a short skirt and top which revealed her partial midriff as she walked through the Heritage Village of Ushayqir, 100 miles north of Riyadh. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which has a strict dress code – women must wear a loose black garment called an abaya and headscarf – considered this an act of defiance.

Saudis themselves took to Twitter to both laud and disparage her act. Some called for her trial while others pointed out that visiting foreign female dignitaries seem able to dress however they like.

News agency AFP reported that the Saudi government said in a statement today that the video had been published without Khulood’s knowledge.

While Khulood at least no longer faces trial for this act, Saudi’s strict dress code still has many impacts on women, including their ability to work. The Saudi Labor Ministry fines employers and workers who breach guidelines on sex segregation and women’s dress code, including mandatory headscarves. “Zahra,” a 25-year-old Saudi woman, told Human Rights Watch these rules mean that, “Companies don’t want to hire women. It is too much of a hassle.”

All this stands in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia’s purported efforts to strengthen women’s role in society. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic reform plan, for example, says Saudi women are a “great asset” and vows to let them “strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

The rush to interrogate Khulood is a reminder of how far Saudi Arabia has to go. Not only can women not wear what they want in public, but they also remain subject to the most serious impediment to women’s rights there is: Saudi’s male guardianship system. From birth to death, a woman must have a male guardian – a father, husband, brother, or son – give permission before she can travel abroad, marry, or even leave prison.

But there is now hope that this sorry system could be dismantled. In April 2017, King Salman ordered all government agencies to list, within three months, the procedures that require male guardian approval. That deadline passed quietly on Saturday. Saudi women wait to find out whether any of those rules will be dropped.

If Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is serious about social change, it should end the male guardianship system in its entirety, and lift other barriers for women including sex-segregation and the dress code.

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

An Afghan woman walks past a damaged car after a suicide attack on French restaurant "Le Jardin" in Kabul, Afghanistan January 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Many more women are being killed and injured in Afghanistan today than a year ago, according to the United Nation’s latest civilian casualty report. They are casualties of an intensifying armed conflict that is also claiming more children as victims every year.

As news outlets focus on increases in US troop numbers and policy shifts in Afghanistan, it’s easy to forget the terrible toll the war has on Afghan civilians.

The mid-year 2017 report from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) says casualties among women leapt 23 percent to 174 deaths and 462 injuries over the same period in 2016. The report, released earlier this week, tallies casualties between January 1 and June 30, 2017.

Many of these women were civil servants killed or injured when the Taliban or other insurgents launched deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on government institutions – like when a bomb exploded on a shuttle bus taking female staff to work at Kabul’s Water Supply Department in May, killing two and injuring four, including a child. Or the February suicide attack targeting the Afghan Supreme Court’s staff, which left nine women dead and seven injured. The list goes on.

Following the trend of previous reports, in which every year brings higher casualties than the last, UNAMA  documented a total of 1,662 war-related civilian deaths, and 3,581 injuries for the first half of 2017, roughly the same as the record set last year. An appalling number of those casualties continue to be children, with 436 deaths and 1,141 injuries – a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

The Taliban and groups linked to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) were responsible for 67 percent of all civilian casualties during the period. Many of these were the result of deliberate attacks on civilians, which are war crimes.

The good news is that civilian deaths and injuries by pro-government forces and their allies during ground engagements have declined since 2016. However, aerial operations by government and international forces were another story, as civilian casualties from air attacks jumped 43 percent from a year ago to 95 deaths and 117 injuries. There is a need for the government to better address fundamental weaknesses in training these forces, in tracking and addressing civilian harm, and paying compensation for wrongdoing in order to minimize such losses in the future. 

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

Clara is a community health worker’s dream client—she has absorbed all the training offered on preventing mosquito breeding in her home and implements it to perfection. I spoke to her last October in a favela in downtown Recife. She described how she diligently washes and covers her stored water tanks and told me that environmental officers even recognized her great efforts. “Congratulations,” they told her during the last inspection.

But, Clara is frustrated.  Her efforts to keep things clean at home seem futile when she looks at what’s happening outside her front door. “I have a flush toilet in the house, and it goes directly into the river. We don’t have any standing water here in the house, but the river is directly behind us.”

The marshy area behind her house is a breeding ground for mosquitos. 

O Brasil não solucionou os já antigos problemas de direitos humanos que permitiram que a epidemia de Zika se intensificasse, deixando sua população vulnerável a futuros surtos e a outros graves riscos de saúde pública. Em maio de 2017, o governo declarou o fim da emergência para o vírus Zika – mas sua ameaça no Brasil permanece.

For the past 10 months, we have been researching the impact of the Zika epidemic on women, girls, and families in northeastern Brazil. We interviewed 183 people, including 98 women and girls, for a new Human Rights Watch report.

The outbreak in Brazil exposed longstanding human rights problems that in turn exacerbated its impact. The Zika virus is most often transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. The warm, humid climate of northeast Brazil, with climate change in the backdrop, is a place where the mosquito thrives. By late 2015 and early 2016, authorities had linked babies born with microcephaly to an outbreak of the virus.

Brazilian authorities faced a reckoning. Decades of underinvestment in public water and wastewater services in this poorest region of the country exacerbated the proliferation of this mosquito. Efforts to control its breeding at the household level—a responsibility that often fell to women and girls—were burdensome and very insufficient.

As the virus raged, women and girls struggled to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Once pregnant, many didn’t get adequate information on how to prevent Zika transmission during pregnancy—causing anxiety and stress.

Criminal penalties for abortion force women and girls who wish to terminate a pregnancy to turn to clandestine, and often unsafe, procedures. Some doctors told us about patients who had used caustic acid or other unsafe methods in the last year to try to induce abortion.

Pregnant women and girls we talked to were scared about contracting Zika. Many, especially from poor communities, said that they couldn’t always afford to use mosquito repellent. And, it’s women from poor communities who typically endure the worst water and wastewater systems and are therefore exposed to more mosquitoes.

Inevitably, then, it’s some of Brazil’s poorest families who are struggling to raise children with Zika syndrome without the support they need. One father told us he had to spend almost his entire monthly salary on medications for his child. Many mothers we spoke with needed to give up their jobs so they could ensure their children had access to services and care—traveling long distances, sometimes daily, to health facilities.

Brazilian health authorities recently declared the Zika emergency over.  But for these communities suffering from inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure, the public health crisis remains.

When governments neglect peoples’ rights—to water, to sanitation, and to health—Zika and other diseases thrive.

The end of an emergency is not a time to relax. Now comes the hard work of preventing the next one.

This article was written by Amanda Klasing, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, and João Bieber, consultant at Human Rights Watch

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

I met Taise Campos, a 38-year-old schoolteacher, last February, when I traveled with a Human Rights Watch colleague to Roraima to try to understand the state’s off-the-charts rate of killings of women.

Taise’s life changed radically 11 years ago when her husband started drinking and became aggressive. He verbally abused her, calling her a “bitch,” a “vagabond,” and the “devil.” Then it escalated. He broke religious images and other objects that were dear to her. He also beat her in front of their two children, “always kicking [me] in places that were not visible,” Taise told us. He threatened her, saying: “You are not protected. You can be shot at any time. It may take 10, 15, 20 years, but one day I’ll kill you.”

The authorities in the Brazilian state of Roraima are failing to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases, leaving women at further risk of abuse.

All of his actions are forms of domestic violence—the physical abuse, the psychological abuse, and the threats. And it usually happens repeatedly, in what is called “the cycle of violence”—a cycle of abuse and periods of calm that makes it difficult for women to first recognize what’s happening and respond to it. In Taise’s case, the abuse was sporadic at first, followed by expressions of regret from her abuser, asking for forgiveness and promising it would end. “The violence began bit by bit, then it happened every month, then every week, afterward every day, and later it happened any time,” she said.

For many years, Taise never filed a police report.

Roraima is the deadliest state for women and girls in Brazil. Killings of women rose 139 percent from 2010 to 2015 there, reaching 11.4 homicides per 100,000 women that year, the latest for which there is data available. The national average is 4.4 killings per 100,000 women—already one of the highest in the world. And the problems we found with protecting women in Roraima from abuse are symptomatic of the failure to protect women nationwide. Studies in Brazil and worldwide estimate that a large percentage of women who suffer violent deaths are killed by partners or former partners.

Why is it difficult for women to report domestic violence? They may want to avoid the experience of sharing and reliving their traumatic story—an experience Taise described as “feeling so exposed that you feel naked.” Or they may fear facing unfounded counter-accusations that compound the feelings of shame, like those Taise later got from police officers: “What did you do to make him behave that way?” or “Aren’t you provoking him?”

Very often, the main reason is simply that they have no faith that reporting the violence to police will change anything—authorities won’t really protect them, nor will they investigate and prosecute their abusers.

Sometimes, though, women do overcome these barriers. Taise did finally summon the courage to go to the authorities. She filed more than 15 police reports over the years and provided evidence to support her complaints. She left her cell phone at the civil police station for analysis—for a year and a half. Yet the statute of limitations has expired on each crime she reported, with no results.

Taise’s case is in no way unique. In Roraima, we documented 31 cases of domestic violence. We found that many women do not report violence, or suffer abuse for months or years before going to authorities. When they do overcome odds and go to the police, the response is dreadful, as we showed in our recent report, “One Day I’ll Kill You.”

We found a long list of failures in the way the state handles domestic violence cases. Military police lack sufficient personnel to respond to all emergency calls. Some civil police officers decline to register domestic violence complaints or to ask judges for protection orders. Instead, they direct victims to the single “women’s police station” in the state—which specializes in crimes against women—even at times when that station is closed.

Women in Roraima must tell their story of abuse, including sexual abuse, in open reception areas where their confidentiality is not protected and the risk of stigma and traumatization is high, as no police station in the state has private rooms to take statements. Civil police officers who handle domestic violence cases get no specific training to interview victims or prepare reports in these sensitive and traumatic cases. Most cases languish for years without investigation until they are eventually closed because the statute of limitations on the crime expires, without any prosecution.

But these problems are not confined to Roraima. Brazil has a comprehensive legal framework to prevent domestic violence and ensure justice, under the 2006 “Maria da Penha” law, named after a domestic abuse victim who took her case to a regional court. But the law has yet to be fully implemented throughout the country.

Although some Roraima officials showed a remarkable commitment to help women, the Brazilian authorities need to do much more.

The federal government should start by taking its international obligations toward women more seriously. Brazil has not yet submitted its eighth report to the UN committee that evaluates compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Brazil’s report is 17 months overdue. The report should acknowledge the enormous problems Brazil faces to address domestic violence. It should commit Brazil to reduce barriers for women to file complaints with the police, ensure that cases are properly investigated and prosecuted and protective orders issued by judges are adequately monitored, and allocate sufficient resources to train police officers in how to handle these cases humanely and effectively and to punish them if they fail to comply with their obligations.

Taise had a message for other domestic violence victims: “I know you are scared. I know you feel ashamed… And that you want, somehow, to protect your family. But remember that the first person you need to protect is yourself.”

For that, all the Taises out there need a commitment from Brazilian authorities to ensure a functional justice system that can provide the protection mechanisms and justice that they now largely have only on paper.

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

We write on the occasion of the forthcoming 5th Australian-Laos human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Vientiane, Laos in July 2017. Australia should raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, set clear benchmarks for improvements, and make the outcome of the discussions public.

Laos continues to be ruled through a one-party system, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Though the government encourages all citizens to vote freely, votes are handled by village chieftains or councils who work with government officials. The formation of other political parties is subject to criminal prosecution.[1] In March 2016, Laos elected Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith as the new prime minister. Prime Minister Thongloun has actively addressed the impact of environmental destruction, but has remained silent on other human rights issues facing Laos.

The government of Laos has not taken significant steps to remedy its poor human rights record and severely restricts freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems.
 

Since 1974, Laos has ratified seven major international treaties: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1974, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 2007, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2009, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2009, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 2012. To date, the Lao government has been reviewed by only three treaty bodies. Its first reports to CAT, the ICCPR, and ICESCR are all overdue.[2] To date, the government of Laos has invited only two UN special rapporteurs, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in 2010 and the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 1999, to visit the country.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Australia focus on (1) freedom of speech, association, and assembly; (2) enforced disappearances; (3) freedom of religion; (4) drug detention centers; and (5) women and girls rights.

Freedom of Speech, Association, and Assembly

Laos has failed to protect the rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly and is taking legislative measures to further entrench a culture of censorship and government control. All TV, radio, and printed publications are strictly monitored and controlled by the government. The constitution prohibits all mass media activities that run contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” While the constitution also recognizes that citizens of Laos have fundamental freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration, article 44 of the constitution severely restricts those rights by requiring that their exercise does not run contrary to the penal code.

The government has arbitrarily arrested and detained civil society activists and those deemed critical of the government. The penal code contains broad limitations that prohibit “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.” This effectively gives authorities sweeping powers to limit basic rights and fundamental freedoms for anyone they deem critical of the government and the authorities. Harsh prison sentences, ranging from one to five years for anti-government propaganda, and up to 15 years for journalists who fail to file “constructive reports” or who seek to “obstruct” the work of the government, are provided for in article 59.

The government’s repressive control over the media has fueled the expansion of internet and social media usage. As of 2015, 18 percent of the population was using the internet and nearly half a million people were accessing Facebook for news.[3] In response, in July 2015, the government enacted the “Law on Prevention and Combating of Cyber Crime,” which criminalizes vaguely defined web content. Citizens who share information, images, or animations which the government deems to “distort truth” are subject to “re-education and disciplinary measures.”[4]

Government authorities are becoming more attentive to criticism on social media. In 2015, authorities detained a woman without an arrest warrant after she posted a photo on Facebook of police officers extorting money from her brother in Xayaburi province after a traffic violation.[5] That same year, police officers detained a government worker after she posted information about lucrative land concessions provided by Luang Prabang officials to Chinese investors for development around one of the country’s most famous landmarks, the Khouangxi waterfalls.

Ahead of hosting the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, the government of Laos began to monitor social media usage closely, and detained citizens for posts it felt threatened the image of the country. Laos refused to host the ASEAN People’s Forum in conjunction with the summit, which is the forum that usually allows civil society members to highlight human rights issues. During the forum, which was moved to Timor-Leste, the government handpicked civil society representatives and told them to avoid politically sensitive issues.[6]

The government of Laos not only monitors and suppresses free speech by citizens in the country, but also by those living abroad. In May 2017, three Lao workers were sentenced to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years in a secret trial after criticizing the Lao government while working in neighboring Thailand. Somphone Phimmasone, 29, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and Soukane Chaithad, 32, were arrested and held incommunicado for over two months after returning to Laos to renew their passports in March 2016.[7] The three workers posted messages critical of corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations in Laos. They also participated in a protest against the Lao government outside the Lao embassy in December 2015.[8] The three workers are currently incarcerated in Samkhe prison in Vientiane.

Laos has also tightened government control in the operating guidelines for Non-Profit Associations (NPAs), civil society organizations organized by Lao people, as well as the decree overseeing the activities of international nongovernmental organizations. These restrictions set out greater requirements to provide notification and seek permission to receive or spend international development funds; limitations on areas of permitted work; limitations or prohibitions on any speech or activities deemed to offend government defined notions of peace and social order. The result is likely to be greater bureaucratic scrutiny over programs and budgets of nonprofit groups working in development and other grassroots projects in the country.

The Ministry of Education tightly controls education in Laos–university professors are not allowed to teach or write about politically sensitive subjects and students are not allowed to organize or demonstrate. Participation in such acts is punishable by imprisonment for one to five years, or longer.[9] On October 26, 1999, the government of Laos arbitrarily detained five former student leaders for pro-democracy activities: Khamphouvieng Sisa-at, Keochay, Bouavanh Chanhmanivong, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, and Sengaloun Phengphanh. They were convicted of “generating social turmoil and endangering national security” and sentenced to 20-year terms.”[10]

Khamphouvieng died in prison owing to food deprivation and inadequate medical care. Keochay has allegedly been released, but his family remain unaware of his whereabouts. The fate of Bouavanh remains unknown.[11] On January 25, 2017, Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun were released from Samkhe prison, according to government officials.[12] However, there have been no updates on their whereabouts.

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should call on the government of Laos to:

  • Cease the harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders, independent journalists, social activists, and worker advocates.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong, and Soukane Chaithad detained in Samkhe prison in Vientiane.
  • End government control of the media, and reform licensing rules to allow media organizations to function freely and without fear of reprisal.
  • Revise the Internet Decree to ensure that it aligns with international standards protecting freedom of speech and expression.
  • Revise the draft decrees governing the functioning of local and international nongovernmental organizations, ensuring that they can exist independently and without government interference.

Enforced Disappearances

Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and extrajudicial execution. The Lao government has an obligation to conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation in all cases of alleged enforced disappearances, to resolve them, and bring those responsible to justice.

The Lao government has failed to make progress on at least 10 cases of enforced disappearance. Emblematic of the government’s failure to act in line with its international obligations is the case of prominent civil society activist Sombath Somphone. Sombath was detained at a police checkpoint and subsequently disappeared on the evening of December 15, 2012. Close-circuit television (CCTV) footage obtained by Sombath’s family from the Vientiane police shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by the police at a police post. The police then took Sombath into the checkpoint, after which he was escorted to a different vehicle and driven away.

Sombath Somphone, a prominent Lao activist, has been forcibly disappeared in Vientiane since December 2012. 

© 2013 Stephen Sautter

Lao authorities have repeatedly denied that the government took Sombath into custody and have failed to conduct a serious investigation into his enforced disappearance or provide any other credible information on his fate or whereabouts. Furthermore, the government has repeatedly rejected all offers of technical assistance for the investigation from various governments, including offers to analyze the original CCTV footage to assist with determining the identities of the individuals in the videotape or gathering additional details of the vehicles that were involved.

In another instance, the Lao government has failed to make progress in the case of Sompawn Khantisouk, the owner of two ecotourism businesses in Luang Namtha province, who was forcibly disappeared on January 23, 2007. Sompawn received a call from a local police officer to visit the police station concerning an alleged arson attack on his home the previous day. Riding his motorcycle, Sompawn received another phone call from the same police officer.

A few minutes later, as he was driving to the police station, witnesses saw an SUV signal to Sompawn to pull his motorcycle over. Witnesses stated that four men wearing police uniforms then forced Sompawn into the car and drove away. A rudimentary police investigation ensued that focused on discrediting the witnesses, and concluded without further evidence that Sompawn’s disappearance was the result of an unspecified personal or business conflict.

Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearances. Despite widespread calls for accountability, both regionally and internationally, questions about enforced disappearances have been met with denial or silence by the government of Laos.

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should call on the government of Laos to:

  • Conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into all pending cases of enforced disappearances and ensure that those responsible for the disappearances are held to account.
  • Disclose the fate or whereabouts of Sombath Somphone and Sompawn Khantisouk, and others forcibly disappeared.
  • Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and enact appropriate implementing legislation.

Religious Freedom

Article 43 of the Lao constitution grants citizens “the right and freedom to believe or not believe in religions,” yet the government remains suspicious of non-Buddhist religious groups. In 2002, the Decree on Religious Practice was issued as the main legal document that defines rules for religious practice and institutionalizes the government’s role as the final decision-maker regarding permissible religious activities. Local authorities sometimes use the decree’s various conditions to restrict certain aspects of religious practice. The treatment of religious practitioners varies by region, religion, and ethnic group. The government of Laos remains suspicious of religious minorities, particularly Protestant Christians.[13]

Protestant Christians, who are often not ethnically lowland Lao, are suspected of having allegiances to the West and the United States rather than to the Lao government. In the north, in historically sensitive areas such as Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces, and in central areas, such as Khammouane province, Protestants are among the most severely repressed. They face harassment by police and government officials, including intimidation of family members, pressure to renounce their Christian faith, and forced evictions from their villages.

In February 2015, five Christians in Savannakhet province were convicted of “illegally practicing medicine” and imprisoned for nine months after praying for a sick woman who eventually died.[14] They were later released after paying a fine. In September 2015, two Christians in Khammouane province were detained for “spreading their faith” to family members. Police had been monitoring the men for several years. Earlier that year, police in the same province detained and threatened to imprison four Christians if they didn’t renounce their Christian faith.[15] In December 2016, seven Christian families in Luang Prabang province had their identification cards, family books, and land titles confiscated by police and were forced to leave their village after they refused to renounce their faith. Other reports include arson attacks on Christians, government authorities seizing harvested crops from Christians, and beatings for celebrating Christmas and refusing to renounce the Christian faith.[16]

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should call on the government of Laos to:

  • Stop the arbitrary arrest and detention of Christians for practicing their faith.
  • Carry out investigations into allegations of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against Christian worshippers and other religious minorities.                        

Drug Detention Centers

The arbitrary detention of people suspected of using drugs, along with beggars, homeless people, children, and people with mental illnesses in compulsory drug detention centers across Laos remains of grave concern. As of mid-2011 (the most recent year for which data is publicly available), there were at least eight such centers across the country, of which the Somsanga detention center on the outskirts of Vientiane is the oldest and largest. Persons sent to Somsanga (as well as to other drug detention centers) are detained administratively, without judicial due process or oversight, and no mechanism for appeal. None of the persons whom Human Rights Watch interviewed had seen a lawyer or been sent to a court prior to their detention in Somsanga. 

Human Rights Watch found that detainees at the Somsanga center are locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were held for periods of three months to more than a year. Police who guard the facility’s main gate are responsible for security and are a constant presence among detainees. Detainees live in a punitive and heavily controlled environment. Those who try to escape are sometimes brutally beaten by “room captains”—trusted detainees whom police and center staff designate to play a central role in the daily control of other detainees, including serving the center’s as adjunct guards and punishing detainees who infringe center rules. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that “room captains” beat detainees who had attempted escape “until they were unconscious.” The detainee stated that guards witnessed the beatings and encouraged the “room captains.” Former detainees also reported being punished by being tied up in the sun for hours without food or water.

© 2011 Arantxa Cedillo

Somsanga offers little effective, evidence-based treatment for drug addiction to those who need it. Confinement is Somsanga’s central operating principle: most detainees remain in locked cells inside compounds with high walls topped with barbed wire. Human Rights Watch found that Somsanga holds most of its detainees against their will. Police or village militia (tamnautbaan) detain and bring people to Somsanga. Other detainees enter because their family members “volunteer” them to go out of a mistaken belief that the center offers therapeutic treatment, or because they feel pressure from authorities to help make their village “drug free.” According to former detainees, street children are among those detained in Somsanga. Children are entitled to additional protections against arbitrary detention. However, a number of former detainees described being detained alongside children 10 years old or younger.[17]

The treatment of individuals in compulsory drug detention centers violates a wide range of human rights, including the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to a fair trial; the right to privacy; and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Despite reports of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment at Somsanga, the Lao government has not investigated these reports, held any person responsible or taken steps to close the center down. In March 2012, 12 UN agencies—the International Labor Organization, UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, UN Development Program, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNODC, UN Women, World Food Programme, WHO, and UNAIDS— issued a joint statement condemning compulsory drug detention centers in the region and calling for their immediate closure. 

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should call on the government of Laos to:

  • Stop the arbitrary arrest and detention of people deemed “undesirable” in drug detention centers. 
  • Close all drug detention centers and release current detainees.
  • Carry out investigations into allegations of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Somsanga and other drug detention centers.
  • Expand access to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment and ensure that such treatment is medically appropriate and comports with international standards under the Ministry of Health.

Women and Girls

Laos has not implemented important UN treaty-body recommendations to improve redress for women and girl who endure domestic violence. This section outlines the barriers faced by victims of domestic violence.

In March 2016, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a report on violence against women in Laos. The report revealed that one in seven women has experienced physical or sexual violence from their partners at least once in their lifetime.[18] Nearly half of women experiencing violence do not tell anyone.[19] Many women living in rural or remote areas remain unaware of their rights.[20]

In 2014, the Law on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Children was passed.[21] However, this law falls short of international standards and good practice as it lacks clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the police when violence is reported, and clear procedures for redress.

Even though the 2014 law improves the prevailing legal options for victims by allowing them to choose whether to settle the case or have the matter brought before courts, the law still lacks clarity.[22] Before this law was enacted, women’s options of approaching the police were severely curtailed, only allowing those who experienced a “serious” impact to approach the police. In all other cases, the victim’s complaint was supposed to be settled locally. The most widely used policy for handling disputes is through the informal “Harmonious Village Policy” with the village chief heading the mediation process in domestic issues.[23]

Women’s awareness about the 2014 law and their legal rights remains poor. This leaves victims at a disadvantage since deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and traditional gender roles are the norm, especially among many ethnic groups where a woman must move into her husband’s village. Women in abusive situations often remain silent to prevent bringing shame to the village and to avoid retaliation from the husband’s family.[24] Even where women choose to file complaints with authorities, they rarely receive legal assistance after filing complaints against their abusers.[25]

In December 2015, the Lao National Assembly approved the Law on Anti-Trafficking in Persons, which was publicized in February 2016. However, Laos continues to be a transit country for sex-trafficked girls and women from Vietnam and China.[26] The sex trafficking of Lao girls has expanded into China, where marriage proposals from Chinese men acting as wealthy business owners lure girls into working in brothels and prostitution rings.[27]

During the upcoming dialogue, Australia should call on the government of Laos to:

  • Raise awareness regarding the 2014 law governing violence against women and children and take measures to improve implementation.
  • Periodically report on the implementation of the 2014 law governing violence against women and children.
  • Establish and adequately support legal, health, and social services, including shelters, for women who are victims of violence.
  • Undertake a widespread program of public awareness and public education regarding gender equality.
  • Collect and publicize comprehensive data on sexual and domestic violence and share this with the public.
  • Produce guidelines and conduct appropriate training programs for all law enforcement, health, and education professionals regarding gender equality and to implement the 2014 law governing violence against women and children.
  • Increase efforts to prosecute and punish sex trafficking and public officials complicit in trafficking.

Improve transparency by collecting information on government anti-trafficking activities, including case details and financial allocations, and share this information among ministries and with nongovernmental stakeholders.


[1] US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 – Laos Human Rights Report,” 2016, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265560.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[2] Civil Rights Defenders, “Laos’ International Human Rights Obligations and Commitments,” August 31, 2016, https://www.civilrightsdefenders.org/files/Laos-international-human-rights-obligations-and-commitments_CRD_final.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[3] Civil Rights Defenders, “Laos’ International Human Rights Obligations and Commitments,” August 31, 2016.

[4] Law on Prevention and Combating Cyber Crime, No. 61/NA, July 15, 2015, art. 57, https://www.laocert.gov.la/ftp_upload/Cyber_Crime_Law_EnVersion.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[5] Radio Free Asia, “Lao Woman Detained After Posting Police Extortion Photos to Facebook,” May 28, 2015, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos/detention-05282015140757.html (accessed May 28, 2017).

[6] Radio Free Asia, “Lao Government Muted Representatives to ASEAN People's Forum,” August 9, 2016, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos/lao-government-muted-08092016165754.html (accessed May 28, 2017).

[7] Amnesty International, “Laos: Further Information: Three Activists Sentenced to Prison in Secret Trial: Soukan Chaithad, Somphone Phimmasone, and Lodkham Thammavong,” May 17, 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa26/6270/2017/en/ (accessed May 28, 2017).

[8] Voice of America, “Rights Groups Condemn Harsh Prison Sentence Against Lao Worker,” May 18, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/rights-groups-condemn-harsh-prison-sentence-against-lao-worker/3855563.html (accessed May 28, 2017).

[9] US State Department, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 – Laos Human Rights Report,” 2016, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265560.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[10] International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Free Former Student Leaders Arbitrarily Detained for 17 Years, press release, October 26, 2016, https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/laos/free-former-student-leaders-arbitrarily-detained-for-17-years (accessed May 28, 2017).

[11] International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Free Former Student Leaders Arbitrarily Detained for 17 Years, press release, October 26, 2016.

[12] US State Department, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 – Laos Human Rights Report,” 2016, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265560.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[13] US State Department, Office of International Religious Freedom, “Laos 2015 International Religious Freedom Report,” 2015, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/256329.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[15] Radio Free Asia, “Lao Authorities May Release Christians Jailed for ‘Illegally Practicing Medicine’,” February 20, 2015.

[16] Open Doors UK, “Laos: Christmas Time Persecution in Luang Prabang,” December 22, 2016, press release, http://www.opendoorsuk.org/news/stories/laos_161222.php (accessed May 28, 2017).

[17] Human Rights Watch, Somsanga’s Secrets: Arbitrary Detention, Physical Abuse, and Suicide inside a Lao Drug Detention Center (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011), https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/10/11/somsangas-secrets/arbitrary-detention-physical-abuse-and-suicide-inside-lao-drug.

[18] “Landmark Report: Violence against women a ‘hidden scourge’ in Lao PDR,” United Nations Population Fund press release, March 10, 2016, http://lao.unfpa.org/news/landmark-report-violence-against-women-%E2%80%98hidden-scourge%E2%80%99-lao-pdr-0 (accessed May 28, 2017).

[20] United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Combined Initial, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Periodic Reports of States Parties, Lao People’s Democratic Republic,” CEDAW/C/LAO/1-5, August 18, 2003, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N03/469/53/PDF/N0346953.pdf?OpenElement (accessed May 30, 2017) p. 50

[21] Law on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Children, No. 56 of 2014, http://un-act.org/publication/view/lao-pdrs-law-on-preventing-and-combating-violence-against-women-and-children-2014/(accessed May 30, 2017).

[22] Law on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Children, art. 31 read with art. 47.

[23] US State Department, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 – Laos Human Rights Report,” 2016, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265560.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[24] National Commission for the Advancement of Women, Lao PDR, “Summary Report a Study on Violence against Women in Lao PDR,” 2014-2015, pp. 88, 91.

[25] United Nations Women Watch, “Report on Rural Domestic Violence and Gender Research: Lao PDR,”  http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/vaw/ngocontribute/CUSO.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017), p. 3.

[26] US State Department, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2016,” June 2016,  https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258880.pdf (accessed May 28, 2017).

[27] Radio Free Asia, “Chinese Marriage Proposals Become Prostitution Nightmares for Some Lao Girls,” February 13, 2017, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos/chinese-marriage-proposals-02132017122352.html/ (accessed May 28, 2017). 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When Honduras parliamentarians this week unanimously passed a bill making child marriage illegal, they took leadership on an issue that deserves urgent attention in Latin America. As momentum builds across the globe to end this abusive practise, Latin America is lagging.

Governments – including Latin American governments – have committed under the United Nations sustainable development goals to eliminate child, early, and forced marriage by 2030. Germany, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, as well as several US states have recently passed laws cracking down on child marriage. Many countries are developing plans for how to end child marriage by 2030.

Latin America has not followed suit – and that’s not because there isn’t a problem there. The region has alarmingly high rates of child marriage. According to UNICEF, in five countries at least 30 percent of girls marry before the age of 18; Nicaragua has the highest rate, at 41 percent, and the others are Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 11 more countries – Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay – between 20 and 30 percent of girls marry before age 18. These rates rival those in high prevalence countries in Africa and Asia, where more attention has been paid to the issue. Several other countries, including Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, are among the minority of countries not providing data on child marriage to UNICEF.

Latin America is the only region with a high rate of child marriage where there has not been a significant decline in child marriage over the past 30 years. Of the other four countries with rates over 30 percent, all except Guatemala permit marriage before age 18 with parental consent, sometimes as early as 14. Of the eleven countries with rates of child marriage between 20 and 30 percent, eight still legally permit child marriage, typically with parental consent.

Ending child marriage is urgent because it is deeply harmful to children everywhere. Married children often drop out of school, and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often become pregnant soon after marriage and early pregnancy involves serious health risks for pregnant girls and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults.

Enforcing the new law in Honduras – which replaces one permitting children aged 16 and older to marry with permission from their parents – will be the next important step. Too many countries have good laws on the books but fail to enforce them.

For the many other countries in Latin America that need urgently to end child marriage, it is time to follow Honduras’ lead.

Honduras has joining the growing, global movement to relegate the harmful practise of child marriage to the past. Let’s hope other countries across Latin America will follow suit. 

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

Salma, a 22-year-old French national living in Belgium who chooses to wear the niqab after converting to Islam, gives an interview to Reuters television outside the Belgian Parliament in Brussels in this April 26, 2010 file photo.

© 2010 Reuters

The European Court of Human Rights has struck another blow to women’s autonomy, ruling in favor of bans on full-face veils enacted in 2011 in Belgium.

Echoing a 2014 ruling in S.A.S v. France, the court cited the vague idea of “living together” as justification for the bans. Nowhere does the European Convention on Human Rights state that “living together” can be adequate grounds for restricting rights. The court accepted the Belgian government’s argument that wearing clothing that obstructs the face is “incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and, more generally the establishment of human relations.”

Perversely, this week’s ruling could hinder exactly this kind of social interaction, isolating women who elect to wear full-face veils. Two of the women who brought the case said the ban had severely curtailed their lives, forcing them to abandon the niqab or remain housebound.

There is no denying that the ban’s impact falls most heavily on women who wear the full-face veil – even the court acknowledges that Muslim women are disproportionately affected. After all, what other face-covering garment is regularly worn in public? Despite the blatantly unequal burden on women, the court declined to rule the law discriminatory, finding it is not unreasonable or beyond justification, while dismissing concerns about the undue burden placed on women.

Just as women should not be forced to wear the niqab or other religious dress, they should not be denied the choice or punished for doing so. Nor should they – or other citizens – be subject to unreasonable or discriminatory limitations on their freedom of religion or right to express it. These rulings embolden other governments to dictate how women can dress, and send a dangerous message that it is acceptable to curtail women’s freedom of expression and belief.

Fostering human relations is a laudable goal. But forcing women to choose between wearing what they want and being able to appear in public isn’t the way to do it.

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

Teenage girls are the forgotten victims of Brazil’s Zika outbreak. The virus, transmitted by mosquitos, leaves many babies of mothers infected during pregnancy with lifelong disabilities that require constant care. Because teenage girls in Brazil don’t always get the information they need to prevent pregnancy and have very limited access to abortion in the case of unplanned pregnancy, many of the mothers of children affected by Zika are very young.

One muggy October evening last fall in Paraíba State, Brazil, a round-faced 17-year-old girl—let’s call her Thaís—handed off her 8-month-old daughter to her mother, and turned to talk to me. Thaís gave birth to a baby with Zika syndrome in January 2016, just two months after authorities in Brazil started tracking an unprecedented increase in the number of infants born with microcephaly, a condition in which the baby’s head is smaller than expected, often accompanied by problems with brain development.

Wastewater and garbage are dumped directly into the river in a slum in the Coelhos neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco state.

© 2016 César Muñoz Acebes/Human Rights Watch

As we sat in the living room of the modest home she shares with her partner, she told me her pregnancy was not planned. Like many people infected with Zika, Thaís never had symptoms of the virus during her pregnancy. However, she lives in a community with longstanding water and sanitation problems. Thaís and her partner only have access to tap water three days a week, so they store water in huge containers.

Mosquitos can breed in stored water if it is not properly covered and maintained. Thaís was careful to cover her water containers, but she lived near an open sewage channel full of dirty, standing water—ideal conditions for mosquito breeding.

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. 

“We have a lot of mosquitos,” she told me. “The sewage is not covered, and at night it’s full of mosquitos.” She did not know she had been infected with Zika until after the baby was born. Children born with Zika syndrome, like Thaís’s daughter, often have seizures, difficulty eating, problems with vision and hearing, and other complications.

Zika has already spread to the United States. Mosquitos in parts of Florida and Texas carry the virus and can transmit it to humans. It can also be transmitted sexually, in the US often by people returning from trips to Zika-affected countries. Brazil’s Zika crisis showed just how quickly the virus can spread in the right conditions. The outbreak in Brazil is linked to the birthof thousands of children with Zika syndrome.

Thaís stopped going to school when her daughter was born, though she hopes to go back one day. Now she spends her days battling municipal authorities to get transportation so that she can take her daughter to a specialized rehabilitation center. For teenage mothers like Thaís, getting the services their babies need can be especially difficult.

The Brazilian newspaper Estadão reported that roughly one-quarter of the women and girls who gave birth to babies with microcephaly between November 2015 and September 2016 were under age 20. That’s more than 760 adolescent girls and young women—including 35 girls between 10 and 14—now raising children with Zika syndrome.

Thaís was just one of nearly 100 women and girls my colleagues and I interviewed in northeastern Brazil, the center of the Zika outbreak, for a new report. Many of them had similar stories, but what really moved me were the experiences of girls, still children themselves, trying to prevent pregnancy and protect themselves from Zika. Now some of them are raising children affected by the virus.

More than one-third of Brazil’s population lacks access to a continuous water supply, and nearly half is not connected to a wastewater system, according to the latest data—this means raw sewage is going directly into the environment, often close to homes or open waterways. It’s hopeless for anyone, let alone a teenage mother raising a child, to try to battle mosquitos at home when they also have to deal with these pervasive water and sanitation problems in their communities.

Unplanned pregnancies were common among the young mothers we interviewed. Health services often didn’t give them the clear and accessible basic information about reproductive health that they needed. But nearly 20% of births in Brazil are to girls and young women ages 10 to 19—more than 560,000 births per year. A national survey involving nearly 1,000 young women and girls ages 15 to 19 found that 21% were not using any method of contraception, and only 17% had visited a public health clinic to discuss family planning in the 12 months before the survey.

Women and girls told us they felt “disturbed,” “shocked,” or “desperate,” when they found out they were pregnant. Unfortunately, their choices are limited. Abortion is a punishable crime in Brazil, except in cases of rape, when the life of the woman is at risk, or the fetus has anencephaly—a fatal congenital disorder where the brain doesn’t develop. Women are discouraged from even speaking about abortion. Over and over, the women and girls we interviewed told us they felt that they didn’t have any options except continuing their pregnancies—even when they didn’t want to.

Because of this situation, studies show that hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Brazil risk their health and lives to get clandestine—often unsafe—abortions each year. Doctors told us they had treated women and girls in the last year who had turned to unsafe methods to try to induce abortion. Some of them tried to induce abortion by placing water purification chemicals in their vaginas, causing bleeding ulcerative sores.

More than 900 women have died from unsafe abortion in Brazil since 2005, according to Ministry of Health data. One out of every six of those deaths between 2011 and 2015 was a girl, as young as 10, or a teenager.

One young woman told me she was raped when she was 13, and took pills she bought at a pharmacy to terminate the pregnancy. At the time, she didn’t know that because she was raped she probably could have had a legal abortion. “I didn’t have a lot of information,” she said. “I didn’t know what I could do. I didn’t even tell my mother.” After taking the pills, she experienced heavy bleeding to the point that her clothing was soaked with blood, she told me, shifting in her chair as she spoke. She managed to terminate the pregnancy, but as she described what happened, I kept thinking that she was only 13. Imagine how scared she must have felt; bleeding excessively, not knowing what to do, and afraid to tell anyone.

Being a teenage girl is hard, anywhere. Being a teenage girl without reproductive choices is even harder. Being a teenage mother of a child with Zika syndrome, without adequate support from the government—that’s inexplicably tough. That’s what Thaís and other girls confronting the impacts of the Zika virus outbreak are: warriors, “guerreiras,” as one father called them.

The families raising children with Zika syndrome in Brazil are fighting for the support and services their families need. They struggle to pay for expensive medicines, get to urban centers for services for their children, and continue work or school. One mother told us, “If we don’t go after things, fight for them, there is nothing.” But no one, especially children like Thaís, should have to fight so hard to live or to raise a child safely and with dignity.

The authorities in Brazil should make long overdue investments in water and sanitation infrastructure, provide women and girls with comprehensive reproductive health information and services, decriminalize abortion, and ensure children with Zika syndrome have long-term access to services.

Additionally, the U.S. and other countries should look at what went wrong in Brazil to stop the next Zika crisis from happening.

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

This week, a United Nations expert committee will review Nigeria’s record concerning women and girls. It will be an opportunity both to endorse Nigeria’s efforts to protect its schoolgirls from abduction and attack, and to urge more action.

Boko Haram, a homegrown Islamist armed group, has for years carried out a campaign of deliberate attacks on girls, teachers, and schools.

“We were in the school when Boko Haram came and started shooting,” killing one boy, 15-year-old “Aisha” told Human Rights Watch in 2016. “They said they will come back if we don’t stop going to school. So the school was closed, and the military came to stay there. But Boko Haram still came back to burn the school.”

Besides such attacks, Human Rights Watch also documented how both Boko Haram and government troops have occupied schools, putting students’ safety and education at risk. The presence of fighters in schools disproportionately affects girls, who are especially exposed to dangers like sexual violence.

But in 2016, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) asked the Nigerian government about the presence of troops in schools, the government questioned “the source and authenticity of this report.” That’s not good enough. The committee should press the government delegation for a firm answer on whether government forces have been using schools for military purposes.

Nigeria claims an operational code exists preventing their armed forces from using schools. The committee should ask for a copy of it. If such a prohibition exists, it should be recognized as best practice – so long as the military complies with it. Either way the committee should urge the government to protect schools from military use.

Nigeria has taken actions to protect girls that deserve praise. The government has improved security around schools and universities, including through digging ditches around schools; installing security lighting; using sandbags to deter intruders; stationing security personnel at schools; and setting up roadblocks on access roads. It’s also tried to find alternative ways to educate displaced children. Nigeria was also among the first countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment to better protect students, teachers, and schools during war.

All children have the right to an education free from danger. This week, CEDAW can help make this right a reality for Nigerian girls whose education is under attack.

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

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its longstanding ban on sports for women and girls in public schools is a vital step forward, Human Rights Watch said today. But serious hurdles, including the country’s male guardianship system, remain in place, preventing women from fully accessing the education and health benefits of sports exercise.

The announcement, published on the Education Ministry’s website on July 11, 2017, states that Saudi girls’ schools will offer a physical education program beginning in the fall 2017 school term “in accordance with Islamic law standards” and would scale up “according to the possibilities available in each school” including sports halls and competent women instructors. The statement said that the ministry made the decision to fulfill the goals of Vision 2030, an ambitious government roadmap for economic and developmental growth.

In 2013, the Saudi Artist Shaweesh and the artist collective Gharem Studio created life-size graffiti art commemorating Saudi track and field Olympian Sarah Attar’s run into the history books as one of the first two Saudi women to participate in the Olympics. 

© 2013 Shaweesh and Gharem Studio

“This overdue reform is absolutely crucial for Saudi girls, who have been denied their basic human right to health through exercise, joining teams, and the long-term health, economic, and education benefits of sports,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “This important step forward can advance human rights and health for women despite the daunting legal hurdles that remain in the country.”

One Saudi women’s rights activist told Human Rights Watch that she welcomed the announcement that Saudi Arabia will offer physical education in government schools, but warned that it did not offer details of how it will be carried out. She said that no girls’ public school in Saudi Arabia currently has sports infrastructure and there are few female sports instructors. In addition, the statement did not say whether physical education will be mandatory for girls, or if schools will require girls to get parental permission to enroll in P.E. classes.

The female basketball team of Jeddah United warm up in Jordan on April 21, 2009. Jeddah United is the only private sports company with women’s teams.

© 2009 Reuters

Saudi Arabia lacks government sports infrastructure for women, with all stadiums, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men. Official sporting bodies hold no sports competitions for Saudi women athletes in the country, and do not provide support and training to Saudi sportswomen hoping to compete in regional and international competitions. But, in a positive move, on August 1, 2016, the General Authority for Sports, which functions like a sports ministry, announced a new female department and appointed Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud as its head.

Saudi Arabia should build upon this recent reform and open sections in the more than 150 Saudi Sports Federations to women, and remove the ban on women spectators in stadiums, Human Rights Watch said.

For the past decade, Human Rights Watch has advocated strongly for access to sports for women and girls in Saudi Arabia. In its 2012 report, “Steps of the Devil,” Human Rights Watch found that Saudi government restrictions put athletics beyond the reach of almost all women and girls. In its 2016 research, Human Rights Watch found that women were increasingly claiming their right to play sports, but that the country’s national policies and male guardianship system created sometimes insurmountable hurdles to meaningful participation in exercise.

As documented in the Human Rights Watch 2016 report, “Boxed In,” Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country.

Every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf, including whether she can apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or be released from prison. On April 17, King Salman issued an order to all government agencies to provide women access to government services without a male guardian’s consent unless existing regulations require it, and to provide a list within three months of procedures that require male guardian approval. The deadline for agencies to provide the list is in two days.

Women regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative’s consent or presence – from renting an apartment to filing legal claims. They are barred from driving in Saudi Arabia, which is a barrier to taking part in team training or sports.

The order appears to keep in place regulations that explicitly require guardian approval, such as for women to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or get married. It also does not address areas in which private individuals and entities ask women for guardian permission such as before they are employed or undergo medical procedures.

“Sports for girls in Saudi state schools is a significant advance that gets the reform ball rolling,” Worden said. “But women and girls will not be able to see the full health, economic, and education benefits of sport until the male guardianship system is gone.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am