The ILO Committee making up governments, employers, and workers, following the adoption of the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention and Recommendation 2019, ILO, Geneva. 

© International Labour Organization
(Geneva) – The adoption of a ground-breaking global treaty on June 21, 2019 by the International Labour Organization (ILO) will improve protections for workers facing violence and harassment, Human Rights Watch said today.

ILO member governments, worker representatives, and employers’ organizations spent two years negotiating the text and voted overwhelmingly to adopt the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment, and an accompanying non-binding recommendation that provides guidance on the convention’s obligations.

“Governments, workers, and employers have made history by adopting a treaty that sets standards for ending the scourge of violence and harassment in the world of work,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The women who bravely spoke up about their #MeToo abuses at work have made themselves heard at this negotiation, and their voices are reflected in these important new protections.” 

Governments that ratify the treaty will be required to develop national laws prohibiting workplace violence and to take preventive measures, such as information campaigns and requiring companies to have workplace policies on violence. The treaty also obligates governments to monitor the issue and provide access to remedies through complaint mechanisms, witness protection measures, and victim services, and to provide measures to protect victims and whistleblowers from retaliation.

The treaty covers workers, trainees, workers whose employment has been terminated, job seekers, and others, and applies to both formal and informal sectors. It also accounts for violence and harassment involving third parties, such as clients, customers, or service providers.

Previously there was no international standard specifically addressing violence and harassment in the world of work. The World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2018” report found that 59 out of the 189 countries studied had no specific legal provisions covering sexual harassment in employment.

The ILO has found many gaps in legal protections relating to violence and harassment in the workplace. These include a lack of coherent laws, a lack of coverage in laws and policies for workers most exposed to violence, and an overly narrow definition of “workplace” in existing laws and regulations.

The new ILO convention and recommendation affirm the right to freedom from violence and harassment in the workplace. They provide for an integrated, inclusive, and gender-responsive approach for the prevention and elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.

The convention defines violence and harassment as “a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment.”

The treaty recognizes that violence and harassment go beyond just the physical workplace.

“Many workers face violence not only in the four walls of an office or factory, but on their commutes to work, at social events, or while dealing with customers or other third parties,” Begum said.

The convention requires governments to take measures to prevent and protect people from violence and harassment, and to provide enforcement mechanisms and remedies for victims, including compensation. These include adopting legal prohibitions of violence and harassment at work, and ensuring effective inspections, investigations, and protection from retaliation.

Governments should require employers to have workplace policies addressing violence and harassment, appropriate risk assessments, prevention measures, and training. Employers should address violence and harassment in their occupational safety and health management.

The convention also recognizes that vulnerable groups may be disproportionately affected by violence and harassment at work, and calls for states to ensure the right to equality and non-discrimination in employment and occupation.

States will also be required to identify high-risk sectors or occupations and take measures to effectively protect those workers.

The convention also sets out standards for how governments should mitigate the effects of domestic violence in the world of work, including by having flexible working arrangements and leave for domestic violence survivors.

Governments from many regions played a leading role in advocating for stronger protections, including Uganda and Namibia, which led the African Group of states, the European Union group led by France, as well as Canada, New Zealand, Philippines, and many Latin American and Caribbean states.

Out of 476 votes, 439 voted for, seven voted against, and 30 abstained. The United States reversed its decision from last year and chose to vote in favour of the convention.

The convention will enter into force one year after at least two states have ratified it.

Human Rights Watch has documented violence and harassment at work for more than 20 years, particularly for domestic workers, garment workers, fishers, farm workers, and migrant workers.

“The #MeToo movement showed us just how pervasive violence and harassment is in many workplaces, but now we have a treaty that spells the beginning of the end to such cruelty,” said Begum. “Governments should now ratify this treaty and seek to make a safe world of work a reality.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

[i] Human Rights Watch, A Revolution for All: Women’s Rights in the New Libya, May 2013,, p. 11.

[ii] “Libya: Extremists Terrorizing Derna Residents,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 27, 2014,

[iii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), S/RES/1325 (2000) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[iv] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (2008) (accessed  July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1888 (2009), S/RES/1888 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1889 (2009), S/RES/1889 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1960 (2010), S/RES/1960 (2010) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2106 (2013), S/RES/2106 (2013) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2122 (2013), 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, (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,  (accessed July 8, 2015); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch,” undated, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[vii] United Nations Security Council, Sixty-eighth year, 7045th meeting, October 21, 2013, (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,  (accessed July 8, 2015).

[ix] Human Rights Watch, Mass Rape in North Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks against Civilians in Tabit, February 2015,

[x] Heather Barr, “A seat at the table in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, May 1, 2015, (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, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xii] Oxfam “Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan’s future,” November 24, 2014, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xiii] See UN Women, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations: Connections between Presence and Influence,”  October 2012, (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, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2012/732, October 2, 2012, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2013/525, September 4, 2013, (accessed July 27, 2015); and S/2014/693, September 23, 2014, (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 (accessed July 20, 2015).

[xiv] “Women take the reins to build peace in Colombia”, UN Women press release, May 28, 2015, (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, (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, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvi] “He Left Before Syria’s Women Could Speak,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 19, 2013, (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,,%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,

[xx] “Sudan: Surge in Detention, Beatings, Around Elections,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 28, 2015,

[xxi] “Afghanistan: Urgent Need for Safe Facilities for Female Police,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2013,

[xxii] “Afghanistan: Surge in Women Jailed for ‘Moral Crimes,’” Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2015,

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch, “Here, Rape is Normal”: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia, February 2014,

[xxiv] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015,

[xxv] Human Rights Watch, “We are Still Here”: Women on the Front Lines of Syria's Conflict, July 2014,

[xxvi] “Sudan: Soldiers, Militias Killing, Raping Civilians,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 14, 2014,; “Sudan: Mass Rape by Army in Darfur,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 11, 2015,

[xxvii] Human Rights Watch, “Those Terrible Weeks in their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria, October 2014,

[xxviii] “Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 14, 2015,

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,

[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,, p. 5.

[xxxii] World Bank and World Health Organization, “World Report on Disability,” 2011, (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,

[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, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xlii] “DR Congo: War Crimes by M23, Congolese Army,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 5, 2013,; “Revealed: how the world turned its back on rape victims of Congo,” The Guardian, undated, (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 (accessed July 8, 2015); United Nations Secretariat, Secretary-General’s Bulletin, “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” October 9, 2003, (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, (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),

[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, (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

Mozambican girls take part in a lesson as part of a program that aims to help girls stay in school longer and stay out of child marriage in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, April 20, 2018.

© 2019 AP Photo/Christopher Torchia

Mozambique’s national assembly took an important step toward ending the country’s sky-high rate of child marriage by unanimously adopting a law banning the practice. The new law prohibits marriage of children younger than 18 years old, without exception, and awaits the president’s signature to go into effect.

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with almost half of girls marrying before 18, and 1 in 10 before their fifteenth birthday. Child marriage often pushes girls out of school and condemns them to a life of poverty. It leaves them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and early pregnancies, which can cause lasting harm and even death.

Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi should sign the proposed law without delay and ensure girls are protected from the harms of child marriage. Government authorities should then make sure that communities know about the law when it comes into force and monitor its implementation.

In 2016, Mozambique launched a National Strategy on Prevention and Fight against Child Marriage. The impact of the strategy, which expires at the end of this year, is unclear.

As parliamentarians acknowledged in the debate around the child marriage law, keeping girls in school is key to preventing child marriages. In addition to ensuring the law is fully enforcd, government authorities should also review efforts to increase school retention for girls as part of its strategy to end child marriage.

The government has already taken a few important steps in this regard. In December 2018, Mozambique revoked a discriminatory 2003 decree that forced pregnant girls to take classes at night school. Education officials should now monitor schools to ensure that pregnant girls are going to school during the day. They should ensure Mozambique’s new education strategy addresses the educational needs of all girls, including pregnant and married girls and young mothers. The government should also address other barriers to their education such as stigma and lack of finances.

By passing this law, the national assembly has recognized Mozambique’s international obligation to uphold the rights of girls. With the president’s signature, children in Mozambique will finally have a new law to protect them.

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

Relatives of disappeared persons participate in a silent protest, demanding an investigation into the disappearances of people in Kashmir. 

© 2019 AP Photo/ Dar Yasin
(New York) – India and Pakistan should act on the recommendations of the United Nations human rights office to protect basic rights in the contested region of Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said today.

The 43-page report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), released on July 8, 2019, raises serious concerns about abuses by state security forces and armed groups in both Indian and Pakistan-held parts of Kashmir. The Indian government dismissed the report as a “false and motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.” Pakistan welcomed the report but requested that sections be removed or amended in which the information was “not specific to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir but were general human rights concerns affecting all of Pakistan.”

“India and Pakistan blame each other for human rights violations in Kashmir while ignoring their own responsibility for abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Authorities in both countries should use the opportunity created by the UN report to change course and hold accountable those who’ve committed serious abuses.”

India and Pakistan blame each other for human rights violations in Kashmir while ignoring their own responsibility for abuses.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

The OHCHR said both India and Pakistan had failed to take any clear steps to address and implement the recommendations made in its June 2018 report, the office’s first-ever on human rights in Kashmir. The latest report comes after a deadly attack in February by a Pakistan-based armed group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, that targeted a security forces convoy in Kashmir, killing 40 Indian soldiers. Military escalation between India and Pakistan ensued, including cross-border shelling at the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto international border in disputed Kashmir.

The Srinagar-based Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society reported that conflict-related casualties were the highest in 2018 since 2008, with 586 people killed, including 267 members of armed groups, 159 security forces personnel, and 160 civilians. The Indian government asserted that 238 militants, 86 security forces personnel, and 37 civilians were killed.

The OHCHR found that Indian security forces often used excessive force to respond to violent protests that began in July 2016, including continued use of pellet-firing shotguns as a crowd-control weapon even though they have caused a large number of civilian deaths and injuries. The Indian government should review its crowd control techniques and rules of engagement, and publicly order the security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

The report also decried the lack of justice for past abuses such as killing and forced displacement of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and alleged sexual violence by Indian security forces personnel. It expressed concern over excessive use of force during cordon and search operations, resulting in civilian deaths as well as new allegations of torture and deaths in custody.

The OHCHR noted that India’s Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) “remains a key obstacle to accountability,” because it provides effective immunity for serious human rights violations. Since the law came into force in Kashmir in 1990, the Indian government has not granted permission to prosecute any security force personnel in civilian courts.

The UN human rights office also said that India should amend its Public Safety Act, an administrative detention law that allows detention without charge or trial for up to two years. The law has often been used to detain protesters, political dissidents, and other activists on vague grounds for long periods, ignoring regular criminal justice safeguards.

In July 2018, the Indian state government of Jammu and Kashmir amended section 10 of the Public Safety Act, removing the prohibition on detaining permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir outside the state. At least 40 people, mainly separatist political leaders, were transferred to prisons outside the state in 2018, the OHCHR said. It said that transferring detainees outside the state makes it harder for family members to visit and for legal counsel to meet with them. It also noted that prisons outside the state were considered hostile for Kashmiri Muslim detainees, especially separatist leaders.

The UN human rights office said that armed groups were responsible for human rights abuses including kidnappings, killings of civilians, sexual violence, recruitment of children for armed combat, and attacks on people affiliated or associated with political organizations in Jammu and Kashmir. It cited the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organization that monitors money laundering and terrorist financing, which has called on Pakistan to address its “strategic deficiencies.” India has long accused Pakistan of providing material support, arms, and training to the militant groups. Attacks in Kashmir have resulted in more than 50,000 deaths since 1989.

The OHCHR also found that human rights violations in Pakistan-held Kashmir included restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and association, institutional discrimination against minority groups, and misuse of anti-terrorism laws to target political opponents and activists. It noted threats against journalists for doing their work. The UN human rights office also expressed concern over enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-held Kashmir, noting that victim groups alleged that Pakistani intelligence agencies were responsible for the disappearances.

“The Indian government’s rejection of the latest UN report on human rights in Kashmir shows that it’s unwilling to confront its own human rights failures,” Ganguly said. “Both India and Pakistan should accept the findings of the report and invite an independent investigation to help end serious abuses in Kashmir.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This submission focuses on the protection of students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict and the protection of girls from violence and exploitation.

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (article 28)

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict;[1] the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[2] As of June 2019, 91 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, including 23 of Tunisia’s fellow African Union members. However, Tunisia has yet to endorse this important declaration.[3]

As of April 2019, Tunisia was contributing 75 troops and 16 staff officers to UN peacekeeping operations around the world. Such troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations “UN Infantry Battalion Manual” (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”[4]

Moreover, the 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes:

United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.[5]

Tunisia’s peacekeeping troops are deployed in Mali — a country where attacks on students and schools, and the military use of schools has been documented as a problem.[6]

In addition, Tunisia has recently been elected as one of the newest members on the UN Security Council. In response to this, Khemaies Jhinaoui, Tunisia’s foreign affairs minister, stated that Tunisia will be “looking for consensus to help develop preventive diplomacy and contribute to the settlement of conflicts by peaceful means. Tunisia…will be the voice for human rights.”

In June 2015, the month following the launch of the Safe Schools Declaration, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2225, which expressed “deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may render schools legitimate targets of attack, thus endangering the safety of children.” The Security Council encouraged all member states “to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.” In July 2018, the Security Council repeated this call for all countries to take concrete measure to deter the military use of schools in Resolution 2427.

Human Rights Watch believes endorsing and implementing the Safe Schools Declaration is an important step towards protecting children in armed conflict and deterring the military use of schools. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has urged all Member States to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and as of June 2019, ten members of the Security Council have endorsed it.[7]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Tunisia:

·         Are protections for schools from military use included in the pre-deployment training provided to Tunisian troops participating in peacekeeping missions?

·         Do any Tunisian laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of Tunisia to:

·         Endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools including by bringing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into domestic military policy and operational frameworks.

Protection from Violence and Exploitation (article 19 and 32)

In July 2017, the Tunisian parliament adopted the Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women.[8] The law introduces new criminal provisions and increases penalties for various forms of violence when committed within the family. It also criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces, and the employment of children as domestic workers.

The law includes preventive measures, such as directing the Health Ministry to create programs to train medical staff on how to detect, evaluate, and prevent violence against women, and directs the ministries in charge of education on developing education and training programs to combat discrimination and violence against women, and training educators on how to prevent and respond to violence in educational environments. The law also specifies measures to be taken with children who are victims of sexual violence, both girls and boys, and protects children of women who have been subjected to domestic abuse. The law specifies that a family judge can also request that residence (custody) of children be solely with the mother if she has been subjected to domestic abuse.

While the law requires authorities to refer women and their children to shelters if they are in need, it provides no mechanisms for funding either governmental or nongovernmental shelters. It also does not set out provisions for the government to provide women who have been victims of domestic violence with timely financial assistance to meet their needs or assistance in finding long-term accommodation.[9]

To further combat entrenched discrimination against women and girls, the government should also address discriminatory provisions in the personal status law. Although Tunisia has one of the most progressive personal status laws in the region--1956 Code of Personal Status--, however the code still designates the man as the head of the household and denies Tunisian daughters an equal share of an inheritance with their brothers, and in some cases with other male family members.

On November 23, 2018, the Council of Ministers approved a draft law, which would amend the provision in the 1956 Code of Personal Status, which currently provides that men would normally inherit twice the share that women inherit, under interpretations of Islamic sharia law. The proposed amendment would insert a section on inheritance in the Personal Status Code, “Provisions Relating to Equality in Inheritance” to provide gender equality in inheritance as the default, except when the person whose inheritance is involved formally opts out during their lifetime and chooses instead to have their wealth distributed according to the previous legal framework. The President formally submitted a draft law to parliament on November 28, 2018.[10]

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it ask the government of Tunisia:

·         Has the government set aside specific funds to ensure that its law on violence against women can be implemented? What funding does the government currently provide Tunisian NGOs who offer shelter to women? What assistance do the authorities provide to victims of domestic violence in need of financial aid or long-term accommodation?

·         While welcoming the draft law by the government to amend the personal status law to remove the default on gender inequality in inheritance, what steps is the government taking to remove the the designation of men as the head of the household?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of Tunisia to:

·         Ensure that shelters for women and girls are fully accessible and have adequate funding, and ensure that victims of domestic violence are provided with timely financial assistance to meet their needs and assistance in finding long-term accommodation.

·         Amend the discriminatory provisions in the personal status law allowing women as well as men to be designated the head of the household and to allow girls to claim an equal share of inheritance as male members of the family.



[1] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, (accessed November 6, 2018).

[2] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, (accessed November 6, 2018).

[3] “Safe School Declaration Endorsements,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, accessed June 29, 2019,

[4] United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13, “Schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”

[5] UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.

[6] Education Under Attack: 2018, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2018,

[7] “Safe School Declaration Endorsements,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, accessed June 29, 2019,

[8] Loi organique n° 2017-58 du 11 août 2017, relative à l’élimination de la violence à l’égard des femmes, (accessed July 1, 2019)

[9] “Tunisia: Landmark Step to Shield Women from Violence: New Law Offers Protection, but Needs Funding“ Human Rights Watch news release, July 27, 2017

[10] “Tunisia: Parliament Should Back Gender Equality in Inheritance: Government-Approved Draft Law Sent to Chamber” Human Rights Watch news release, December 4, 2018,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This week, the United Kingdom Home Office, the country’s interior ministry, came under heavy criticism from the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency and UK politicians, human rights lawyers, and nongovernmental groups for claiming Nigerian women and girls trafficked to Europe can return home “wealthy from prostitution” and “enjoy high social-economic status.” 

Three women from Nigeria, work on the outskirts of Rome. Nigerian teenagers and young women selling sex is a common sight for motorists in Italy and are a haunting reminder Italy has largely failed to help a fraction of the migrants trafficked as sex workers.

© AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino 2018

The comments are contained in a 2019 official policy and information note on trafficking of Nigerian women, which is meant to provide information and analysis to Home Office officials handling particular types of protection and human rights claims. 

The Home Office’s claims ignore the reality in Nigeria. I have recently completed research for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on abuses that women and girls trafficked within and outside Nigeria suffer, and the assistance they receive when they are identified or return home. Many told me about suffering horrible abuses at the hands of their traffickers, including being exploited through forced prostitution and other forms of forced labor in slavery-like conditions. They told me they were raped, beaten, threatened with death, held in debt bondage, and not allowed to communicate with their families. Many said they had no options and wished to return to Nigeria.

But their abuse did not end after returning home. Many said they returned penniless, to worse economic situations, and with mental trauma, physical injuries, and illnesses. Although some women and girls returned to supportive families, others said their families blamed them for returning home without money, or abused, mocked, and ostracized the survivors, compounding their trauma. They said they were humiliated in their communities for returning from abroad with nothing, or for being victims of sexual exploitation.

The Home Office policy note acknowledges some of these problems, but reaches a conclusion at odds with the facts and evidence it contains. The Home Office has said it will rewrite the policy note – it should do so immediately. The UK government promotes itself as a leading campaigner against modern-day slavery, including human trafficking. This reputation is undermined by the UK ignoring the facts on the ground in Nigeria, to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Trafficking is a crime and a human rights violation, not a money-making adventure for victims.

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

‘This is a historic day.’

The words sent a shiver down my spine, as applause erupted at the United Nations in Geneva on June 21st. The governments, worker representatives and employer organisations which make up the International Labour Organization (ILO) had just voted for a new treaty tackling the scourge of violence and harassment at work.

For over 10 years, I have interviewed hundreds of domestic workers—in the Middle East, Asia and east Africa—who told me about physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. These are women such as Jamila A (the name changed for her security), a Tanzanian domestic worker previously employed in Oman, who told me that the men in the household would hide her bedroom key so she was forced to sleep with the door unlocked. ‘All of the men, even the old man, harassed me,’ she said.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement erupted and spread around the world with women, and some men, breaking the silence to speak out about the abuse they faced at work or from people who had huge sway over their careers. This movement built on decades of awareness-raising by women’s and workers’ organisations and coincided with the discussions already under way at the ILO.

The ugly reality is that abuse is endemic in many workplaces—with victims in sectors ranging from the most powerful to the most marginalised. But harassment and violence at work are often shrugged off in public discourse, as an inevitable ‘fact of life’ that has existed for generations.

Clearly Defined Steps

The new ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment refutes that notion by reinforcing and elaborating the right to freedom from violence and harassment in the world of work. It provides governments and employers with clearly defined steps to protect this right and to ensure that we can all work in safety and dignity.

Governments which become party to the treaty will agree to meet legally binding standards. The experience of past ILO treaties, and other human rights instruments, shows that those standards over time tend to become the international norm. So even governments which do not join the treaty will move closer to those standards to stay in step with their neighbours.

What does the treaty do?

First, it requires countries to prohibit violence and harassment at work in their laws and policies. They have to work to prevent it, to investigate violence that does occur and to provide remedies and protection from retaliation for victims. Officials should take an integrated and gender-responsive approach, through provisions in labour law, occupational-safety and health law, anti-discrimination or equality laws and criminal law, where appropriate. They should also require employers to have workplace policies addressing violence and harassment, with risk assessments, prevention measures and training.

Secondly, the treaty is progressive in that it covers not only current employees but also applicants, job-seekers, trainees, interns and volunteers. These are often some of the most vulnerable groups, due to their lack of power or their position on the weaker side of a clear power imbalance.

Take Harvey Weinstein, for example. Several women who had not even applied for specific jobs described numerous occasions when they said he insisted on sexual favours or acts in return for opportunities in the film industry or even threatened them with denial of such opportunities if they didn’t comply.

Governments should also address third parties who harass or are harassed. For instance, in 2017 Chicago City Council passed an ordinance requiring hotel employers to provide a panic button or notification device to workers assigned to clean or restock guest rooms or restrooms alone. This allows them to call for help if the employee ‘reasonably believes that an ongoing crime, sexual harassment, sexual assault or other emergency is occurring in the employee’s presence’.

Beyond the Four Walls

Thirdly, in another groundbreaking aspect, the treaty recognises that the world of work extends far beyond the four walls of an office or factory and includes work-related travel, daily commutes and work-related social events. For example, employers can work with unions and workers to help prevent harassment, such as by providing street lighting near the workplace or transport home late at night.

The ILO Committee making up governments, employers, and workers, following the adoption of the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention and Recommendation 2019, ILO, Geneva. 

© International Labour Organization
The client dinner is another classic example. The employer can argue they have no control of a social event outside the office or of a client who is not their employee. But employers do have some options. If the employer presses the worker to maintain the relationship, despite harassment, they are putting her at risk of further harm.  A workplace policy can create channels for workers to report harassment, and to outline how employers should respond.

Fourthly, the treaty requires governments to adopt legal protections on equality and non-discrimination at work. Women, migrants, LGBTI people, and members of ethnic minorities are among those who face a greater risk of violence and harassment at work, due to perceived differences and power inequalities. Discrimination is at the root of such violence.

Fifthly, domestic violence follows its victims to their workplaces and governments should take measures to mitigate the impact. An increasing number of governments have adopted laws to prohibit employers from dismissing victims of domestic violence, for simply being victims, or have introduced specific leave provisions.

In 2018, New Zealand became the most recent country to pass such legislation–granting victims of domestic violence 10 days of paid leave to leave their partners, find new homes and protect themselves and their children. These measures can save lives.

Overwhelming Majority

The ILO convention was adopted by an overwhelming majority: not a single government voted against it and only a handful abstained. It is accompanied by a recommendation which provides further guidance on the obligations it sets out.

Jamila A and many of the other women I spoke to over the years shared their stories with the hope that no other woman would suffer what they endured.

Countries should start to take steps to ratify the convention, develop action plans and begin to make those hopes a reality.

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

July 2, 2019

The Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Re: Support B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019”

Dear Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Charles Allen, Councilmember Anita Bonds, Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, Councilmember Jack Evans, Councilmember Vincent C. Gray, Councilmember David Grosso, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Councilmember Elissa Silverman, Councilmember Brandon Todd, Councilmember Robert White, Jr., and Councilmember Trayon White, Sr.:

We, the undersigned organizations, urge you to support B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019.”

This bill would increase public health and safety in the District by removing criminal penalties associated with sex exchange. Specifically, the bill repeals statutes that criminalize adults consensually engaging in sexual exchange, upholds existing laws prohibiting sex trafficking including of people under 18, and establishes a task force to evaluate the impact of decriminalization and the need for additional steps to improve community safety.

This approach is not new, and it has proven results. Sex work has been decriminalized in New Zealand since 2003,[1] and this approach is gaining momentum in the United States as the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act moves forward in DC and similar legislation is introduced in New York.[2]

  1. Criminalization of Sex Work is Ineffective and Harmful

Criminalization of sex work has a greater negative impact on communities already facing discrimination, including communities of color, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions.  Many sex workers in Washington, DC are Black and brown trans and cis women, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Nationally, around 20 percent of trans people have engaged in sex work in their life, and this number increases to nearly 40 percent for Black trans people.[3] Many turn to sex work to survive after experiencing discrimination or abuse and being denied access to employment, housing, and healthcare.

Criminalization increases violence against sex workers, especially survival sex workers, by exposing them to police harassment and brutality and by creating additional obstacles to safe and stable housing, employment, and healthcare due to arrest and incarceration.

Street-based sex workers engaged in survival sex work often bear the brunt of criminalization. Research shows that over 80 percent of street-based sex workers experience violence in the course of their work.[4] In DC, among the surveyed sex workers who had been approached by police, nearly 40 percent were verbally abused, and one in five said that an officer asked them for sex.[5]  Criminalizing sex work perpetuates stigma against people who face already high rates of violence, subjecting them to harassment, dehumanizing comments, and risk of experiencing violence.

“I’ve been picked up by a police officer before, and I’ve been told that either you give me [sex] or you’re going to jail,” says Louraca, a Black trans sex worker organizing for sex work decriminalization in DC. This experience is common in the District and sex workers rarely feel safe enough to report these harms. In November 2018, two trans sex workers reported that police officers in Prince George’s County and DC were using the threat of arrest to coerce them into having sex with the officers, requesting anonymity for their safety.[6] In DC, when incidents were actually reported to law enforcement, 75 percent of sex workers reported being dissatisfied with police response.[7]

Criminal penalties for consensual sexual exchange often harm the most vulnerable while fostering violence and exploitation. While criminalizing sex work is often touted as a means to prevent trafficking, it can actually increase vulnerability to trafficking for the sex workers who are criminalized, due to fear of arrest, discrimination, and loss of income, particularly with the recent loss of internet platforms through SESTA/FOSTA.[8] Criminalization of sex work also impedes trafficking enforcement because witnesses are less likely to report evidence of coercion or trafficking to authorities if they fear arrest.[9]

As Police Chief Peter Newsham has said, “we can’t arrest our way out of prostitution.”[10] Our response to poverty and lack of traditional employment must be based in supportive services and housing. The District will not solve anything by criminalizing people for doing what they need to survive.

  1. Removing Criminal Penalties Will Help Improve Public Health and Safety

Removing criminal penalties for engaging in sexual exchange reduces public violence and protects sex workers. Criminalization of sex work only leads to a cycle of violence, poverty, and incarceration. Sex workers tell us this, and the research shows us this, as well. 

A meta-review published in PLOS Medicine in December 2018 analyzed 134 studies about sex work from 1990 to 2018 across the world, and found that the policing of sex work is associated with increased risk of violence and increased risk of HIV and other STIs for sex workers.[11] They recommended pursuing legal reforms to remove criminalization and investing in social services for and by sex workers.[12]

  1. Reduces Vulnerability to Exploitation and Violence

People in the sex trade are safest when their work is not criminalized, because they are able to screen clients, to negotiate safer sex practices, and to report incidents of client and police violence.[13] A study in nearby Baltimore demonstrated an association between sex work criminalization and client-perpetrated violence.[14] After criminal penalties were removed in New Zealand, sex workers reported that they were more likely to report a bad incident to the police and 61.9 percent of street-based sex workers reported they were more able to refuse a client.[15]

While most sex workers are not coerced or trafficked, sex workers are in the best position to identify who is being coerced or trafficked, and removing criminal penalties allows them to be full partners in efforts against exploitation.[16] In fact, in 2019, Mexico City passed legislation to decriminalize sexual exchange as part of their effort to combat human trafficking.[17]

  1. Promotes Public Health

Addressing sexual exchange as a public health matter improves the connection to services, increases the ability to negotiate safer sex practices, including condom use, and reduces the transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and other STIs.[18]  After decriminalization in New Zealand, sex workers reported increased ability to negotiate safer sex with clients.[19]

The criminalization of sex work is a worldwide problem, necessitating comprehensive solutions. Around the world, criminal laws on sex work prevent sex workers from accessing health and legal systems that should serve them. Criminalization of sex work has a profound and costly impact on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of sex workers, especially Black and brown sex workers. Female sex workers, in particular, bear a disproportionate burden of HIV[20] and also experience significant unmet needs related to family planning, safe pregnancy, safe abortion, and gender-based violence.

Criminalization serves as a key barrier to essential health services due to fear that seeking health care could lead to negative legal consequences. The World Health Organization’s guidelines on HIV prevention for key populations points to criminalization of sex work as a key “barrier to effective HIV services,” and recommends that countries “work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.”[21] Global models suggest that decriminalizing sex work could lead to a 33 to 46 percent reduction in incidences of HIV acquisition among sex workers over the next 10 years.[22]

*          *          *          *          *         

The time for justice for people who trade sex in DC is now. The lives of sex workers and sex trafficking survivors depend on urgent action. Supporting sex workers benefits the safety of our entire community. Sex workers deserve to survive and to thrive.

The undersigned recognize that removing criminal penalties is only one tool to help promote the safety, health, and well-being of sex workers. Housing and employment discrimination, racial profiling and police harassment, poverty and homelessness, are just a few issues that also impact the lives of sex workers.


350 DC
Advocates for Youth
Allen Chapel AME Church
Black and Pink, Inc.
Black Lives Matter DC
Black Youth Project 100
Blacks in Law Enforcement of America
Casa Ruby
Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)
Collective Action for Safe Spaces
DC Anti Violence Project
DC Area Transmasculine Society
DC Dyke March
DC For Democracy
DC for Reasonable Development
Defending Rights & Dissent
Free Speech Coalition
Harm Reduction Coalition
Human Rights Watch
In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda
Institute of the Black World 21st Century
International Indigenous Youth Council, DC
Jewish Voice for Peace
La ColectiVA
Lambda Legal
March for Racial Justice
Maryland Trans*Unity
Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition
Movement Voter Project
National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF)
National Cannabis Festival
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for LGBT Health
National Lawyers Guild, D.C. Chapter
National Survivor Network
Nelwat Ishkamewe
No Justice No Pride
Occupation Free DC (OFDC)
Positive Women's Network-USA
Reframe Health and Justice
Restaurant Opportunities Center DC
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
St. James Infirmary
The Center for Constitutional Rights
The DC Center for the LGBT Community
The Future Is Feminist
The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
The W.I.R.E
Tits and Sass
Trans United
Trans-Latinx DMV
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Whitman-Walker Health
Woodhull Freedom Foundation


[1] Prostitution Reform Act 2003, New Zealand (2003),

[2] Decrim NY, Legislators Intro First Statewide Bill to Decriminalize Sex Work, Decrim NY (June 10, 2019), Other sex worker-led coalitions and organizations have been organizing for decriminalization in other parts of the country, too, including, for example, the national Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, BAY-SWAN in California, COYOTE-RI in Rhode Island, CUSP in Alaska, and Harm Reduction Hawaii.

[3] James, S. E et al., 2015 US Transgender Survey, Nat’l Center for Transgender Equality (2016), Erin Fitzgerald et al, Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade, Nat’l Center for Transgender Equality (Dec. 2015),

[4] Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City, Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project (2003)​,

[5] Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., Different Avenues (2008),

[6] Marina Marraco, Transgender Prostitutes Who Accused Cops in Sex Scandal Meet with US Prosecutors, Fox 5 DC (Nov 20 2018),

[7] Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., Different Avenues (2008),

[8]Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, Greg Tripp, Craiglist Reduced Violence Against Women,; Rose Conlon, Sex workers say anti-trafficking law fuels inequality,

[9] Erin Albright & Kate D'Adamo, Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization, 19 AMA J. Ethics 122 (2017),

[10] MPD Chief Peter Newsham, 2012 City Council hearing on Prostitution Free Zones.

[11] Lucy Platt et al., Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies, 15 PLOS Med. (Dec. 11, 2018),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.; Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers (Nov. 2007),

[14] Katherine Footer et al., Police-Related Correlates of Client-Perpetrated Violence Among Female Sex Workers in Baltimore City, Maryland, 109 Am. J. Pub. Health 289 (Feb. 2019),

[15] Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act On Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers 15, 116 (Nov. 2007),

[16] Erin Albright & Kate D'Adamo, Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization, 19 AMA J. Ethics 122 (2017), Sex Work is Not Sexual Exploitation, Global Network of Sex Work Projects (2019),

[17] Christine Murray, Mexico City to Decriminalize Sex Work, Eyes Steps to Cut Trafficking, Reuters (June 2, 2019),

[18] Lucy Platt et al., Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies, 15 PLOS Med. (Dec. 11, 2018),; Cunningham, S. & Shah, M., Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health, NBER Paper No. 20281 (July 2014),

[19] Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act On Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers 13 (Nov. 2007),

[20] See generally Shannon K. et al., Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: influence of structural determinants, 385 The Lancet 55-71 (2015),

[21] Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations, World Health Organization 86 (2016),

[22] C. Beyrer et al, An action agenda for HIV and sex workers, 385 The Lancet 287 (2015),; HIV/AIDS: Sex Work, World Health Organization,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters from Unchained at Last speak in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston to end child marriage in Massachusetts, May 2017. 

(c) 2017 Susan Landmann/Unchained at Last
On June 26, activists in wedding dresses and chains gathered at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to press for passage of a bill to ban child marriage. Some wore tape across their mouths.

“Arms chained, mouths taped, trapped, silenced,” said Fraidy Reiss, executive director of the group Unchained at Last.“This is what life looks like for girls and women right here in Pennsylvania who are forced to marry.”

Incredible as it sounds, only two U.S. states have banned child marriage outright. Many others set the minimum age at eighteen but include exceptions with no minimum age. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the law allows parents or guardians to sign off on marriages for those under eighteen and courts can authorize the marriage of children under sixteen if it is deemed in their “best interest.” 

According to Reiss, as of 2014 there were a least 2,000 women living in Pennsylvania who had been married before age eighteen.  

The United States has lagged behind the global legal reform trend on child marriage, but this is starting to change. In 2018, New Jersey and Delaware became the first states to fully outlaw child marriages, with no exceptions. Bills to ban child marriage are pending in nine states.

The House bill to make Pennsylvania the third U.S. state with a complete ban passed unanimously, 195-0, and is now before the Senate for consideration.

Child marriage is deeply harmful. It puts girls, who are much more likely to be subjected to child marriage than boys, at risk of negative health outcomes, curtailed education, poverty, and domestic violence. Child brides experiencing domestic violence may face difficulties in retaining a lawyer, filing for divorce, or seeking shelter. 

I’ve seen up-close the grave harm child marriage causes. Both of my grandmothers were child brides, in Trinidad and Tobago respectively. They were forced by their families around ages thirteen and sixteen to marry adult men they had never met. Both had early pregnancies, gave birth to seven and eight children respectively, and experienced the loss of a child shortly after birth. No one asked whether this was what they wanted. Returning to their families was not an option. 

Sadly, my grandmothers’ experiences of child marriage decades ago are being replicated today. As of March 2018, UNICEF reported that some 12 million girls around the world marry before age eighteen each year.

Many countries are working to end child marriage by 2030, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Trinidad and Tobago outlawed child marriage in June 2017. Other countries are doing the same. 

This is paying off. According to UNICEF, during the past decade, the proportion of young women who were married as children decreased by 15 percent. That’s good news, but there’s still much more to be done, including in the United States. 

In addition to Pennsylvania, bills to prohibit marriage before age eighteen—without exception—are pending in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Connecticut, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. U.S. lawmakers in these states should make these bills a priority and send them forward quickly for a vote. 

I often think back to my adolescence, and how different it was from my grandmothers’ experiences. I spent those years going to school, learning music, hanging out with friends, playing cricket and soccer and later studying to become a lawyer. My grandmothers and mother encouraged me to enjoy my childhood and seize opportunities they were denied. 

No child, in the United States or anywhere, should go through what my grandmothers endured. Lawmakers here should do their part by outlawing child marriage, and letting kids just be kids. 

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

Business owners and workers assess flood waters as some start cleanup on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Harmony, Pennsylvania. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

News from the central United States is full of natural disaster, sodden houses, and suffering as a flooding crisis continues in the region. The Anthropocene Alliance (Aa), an organization with more than 30 local and regional community leaders - mostly women - from 16 US states, is demanding action.

This week, they asked the US government to take “action now to stop development in wetlands and floodplains, reform flood insurance laws, and reduce human-caused greenhouse gases that cause global warming.”  

Aa’s executive director, Harriet Festing, told me after disasters it’s often women who pull communities together and lead responses to climate change impacts. Human Rights Watch has seen this first-hand speaking to women in Puerto Rico, a US territory, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Many women spoke about how, without any support from the US government, they and others took action and provided services, from thousands of meals to safe homes for domestic violence survivors.

Women community leaders we spoke to in Puerto Rico said they have never been consulted by government disaster experts about preparing for more extreme weather events, foreseeable because of climate change science. Activists, nongovernmental organization leaders, lactation consultants, ob-gyns, and others told us their work was taken for granted or ignored after the 2017 storm.

Women globally want states to take more action against climate change. On Friday, June 28, women leaders were at the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding not just that states reduce emissions but that women, who experience global warming impacts differently and often more severely than men, are empowered to protect communities. A new report mandated by governments at the council demands “full, equal, and meaningful participation of women with diverse backgrounds in climate change mitigation and adaptation at all levels.”

The Human Rights Council’s message matters for all women living with the impacts of climate change, including those facing flooding in the central US and in Puerto Rico. And it should matter to President Donald Trump.

He may have pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council and the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and ditched his predecessor’s climate action plan. But it’s time that he, and those who want his job in 2020, start paying attention to women, especially from poor and marginalized communities, on the front lines of climate change.

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

Members of the US women's soccer team celebrating a goal at the FIFA Women's World Cup in France, on June 11, 2019.

© 2019 USWNT

Once every four years, we get the chance to celebrate the millions of women and girls who play soccer around the world as we watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

But as you cheer for top players and your favorite national teams, it’s also a chance to reflect on the fact that in many countries, women and girls have to fight to even get onto a playing field. And once they do, they face threatsunfair payharassment and sexual assault.

In May 2017 FIFA published a landmark human rights policy that commits the federation to “upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities.” But it has a very long way to go.

We are at a moment of global reckoning over discrimination, abuse and exploitation of women in the workplace. That reckoning should extend to athletic fields, and players of all levels, from schoolgirls to Olympic champions. The sports world needs to adopt and enforce human rights policies and practices for permanent changes to ensure that women can play sports, be fairly compensated, and experience sports as a safe space.

While they compete for goals and prizes, women footballers have a bigger challenge: changing FIFA, the federation that runs the game itself.

Women are increasingly vocal on their right to play sports, to do so safely, and to be paid fairly for their work as professional athletes. From Kabul to Sydney to California, female athletes are demanding equitable pay, safe working conditions, and basic protections against sexual assault and harassment.

But in 2019, women’s World Cup teams are competing for just 7.5% the amount of prize money awarded at the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia.

In March, 28 members of the US women’s team filed a class action lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation for gender-based discrimination, presenting evidence of inequitable compensation, training conditions and medical support. Australia’s women’s national team, the Westfield Matildas, says they are prepared to take FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, to court if it doesn’t increase pay for female soccer players.

But even beyond the World Cup, access to sports is restricted for females in many countries by culture, pay, and physical danger. In Saudi Arabia, the male guardianship system limits a woman’s freedom to travel abroad. Authorities have required Saudi women competing in the Olympics to travel with a male guardian, though girls can at last play sports in state schools as of 2017.

Qatar is the host of the next men’s World Cup, but its stated commitment in its World Cup bid to women’s empowerment through sports has done nothing to reform the discriminatory laws that keep women effective second-class citizens. Qatar has a women’s national team—but they have never competed in the Women’s World Cup. Souad al-Hashimi, a player on the team, has said, “There aren’t very many girls playing football. So when the boys play, I go play with them.”

In Iran, women are barred from watching soccer matches in stadiums, a violation of the Olympic Charter and basic human rights. Iranian women were kept out of the national stadium at a qualifying match between Syria and Iran, even though some Iranian women were able to purchase tickets. Some reported they were arrested and beaten.

Women in Iran have filed an Ethics Complaint against their federation president, Mehdi Taj, who despite violating the FIFA statutes’ gender equality rules was nonetheless elevated in April to vice president of the powerful regional governing body under FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The stadium ban puts women and girls in danger when they take risks to protest and to attend soccer games dressed as men. Female sports photographers have to scale rooftops outside the stadiums to do their jobs. Yet with Iran still banning half the population from stadiums for four decades, FIFA has never punished or criticized the Iran federation leaders for their exclusionary policies.

In Africa, female staff members have filed multiple sexual harassment complaints against the Confederation of African Football president Ahmad Ahmad, who sits on the FIFA leadership council.

Players on Afghanistan’s women’s national team filed claims against federation president Keramuudin Karim and other officials for sexual assault and death threats. One female player told the Guardian that “Karim put a gun to her head after he punched her in the face and sexually assaulted her in a hidden bedroom accessed from his office, threatening to shoot her and her family if she spoke to the media.” Other players say they were called “lesbians” and subsequently got kicked off the national team.

This month FIFA finally banned Karim for life, for “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players.” This is an important step forward. But whether families feel it is safe to send girls to play depends on whether Karim is prosecuted and those who enabled him are kicked out of football.  Karim’s general secretary of the federation, Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada, is suspended for his role in the abuse of women players—yet was somehow just promoted to the AFC’s governing executive committee.

Instead of elevating abusers to leadership positions in global soccer, FIFA needs to back women’s rights in word and deed, and do a better job of supporting female players, coaches, teams, and fans.

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

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey delivers the annual State of the State address at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, January 9, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

When I predicted that the extreme abortion law just passed in the US state of Alabama would be used to punish women, I was told that I should read the law more closely because it has a specific article that says it will punish the people who perform abortions, not the women who have them. Sadly, the latest news from Alabama convinces me I’m right: a pregnant woman, Marshae Jones, has been indicted for manslaughter after being shot in the stomach by another person.

Alabama’s criminal laws are already being used to police the bodies of pregnant women and the new abortion law would make that worse. I read that “protective” article in context: as a provision of law serving as a fig leaf, paying socially appropriate lip service to protecting poor women from their own decisions.

Laws criminalizing abortion come about because the people who pass them believe abortion deserves criminal penalties, and where abortion is highly restricted, in practice it’s almost always the woman who is punished. The criminal justice system finds a way. In El Salvador, where there is a total abortion ban, the more than a dozen women imprisoned for terminating pregnancies are mostly prosecuted under homicide provisions

So it’s not abstract theory that women in Alabama could face prison time under the new law – it’s a reasonable expectation. Pregnant women in Alabama are already being punished for drug use, as Amnesty International documented in 2017.

Marshae Jones, 28, who was five-months’ pregnant, was indicted in Alabama yesterday – she’s apparently considered to blame for the death of her fetus for starting a fight and then allowing herself to get shot. A grand jury failed to indict the woman who fired the gun. Although Jones was shot, and lost her pregnancy, a police officer told press “the only true victim in this was the unborn baby.”

I write this from Alabama, where everyone you meet is friendlier than the last person. If you think Alabama’s new law isn’t about punishing women for not staying pregnant, then you aren’t paying close enough attention. Marshae Jones’s case should be dismissed and for the love of everything Alabamians claim to hold dear, she should get a sincere apology and redress.

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