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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Update: On May 15, Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act


Late last night, the Alabama Senate passed a draconian abortion law criminalizing abortion and attempted abortion. Last minute attempts to carve out an exception for victims of sexual violence were rejected. It is unclear whether Alabama Governor Kay Ivey will sign the bill into law without this exception, but many worry that she ultimately will.

For now, abortion remains legal in Alabama because access to abortion is constitutionally protected under Supreme Court jurisprudence stemming from the landmark case Roe v. Wade. The Alabama bill is in direct conflict with Roe, and its author has been clear from the beginning that her goal is to use its passage as an opportunity to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.

Should that happen, women in Alabama could face jail for having – or even trying to have – an abortion. And other states would surely follow Alabama’s lead – some already have similar laws on the books or being considered. It is a dark day for women in Alabama and sends a chilling message to others across the US.

I know what it looks like when abortion is criminalized. My colleagues and I have documented restrictive abortion laws and their impacts in many countries. I’ve spoken to doctors in Ecuador, for example, who feared criminal prosecution and treated patients like potential suspects if they came in with a miscarriage, because they fear the woman may have induced it herself. They don’t want to be implicated in a crime so don’t ask questions important to treating the patient, and they ignore signs that a woman or girl might be a victim of abuse.

In countries with the most extreme abortion laws, doctors will even withhold lifesaving care to pregnant patients, such as chemotherapy, for fear they might break the law. A teenager in the Dominican Republic died precisely because doctors refused to treat her for leukemia while she was pregnant. 

Years’ worth of research and reliable data show that abortion restrictions don’t reduce abortions, but instead just drive them underground and often make them unsafe, fueling maternal death and injury. It’s shameful that this bill, and a similar law in neighboring Georgia, was passed within days of the US releasing shocking data on the country’s high rates of preventable maternal mortality.

Alabama is already a state where women’s health outcomes are determined by race, economic class, and geography – this cynical bill doesn’t even pretend to address the real health needs of Alabamian women. Instead, it seeks to control women and girls’ bodies against their will. What a shocking abdication of responsibility by Alabama law makers.

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

A pregnant woman carries empty plastic bottles to collect water a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017.

© 2019 AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

Today is my first Mother’s Day as a new mum in the United States. Today I am also flying to Puerto Rico, to better understand how Hurricane Maria impacted pregnant women and women with newborns when the massive storm hit in September 2017.

My 9-month-old daughter, Eve, is coming with me to the Caribbean island.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. Scientists found that a storm of Maria’s rain magnitude is nearly five times more likely to occur again than in 1950, largely as a result of climate change.

In Puerto Rico, I want to find out what preparations are in place to protect people, including expectant and new mothers, from such deadly storms.

This is my first trip to research a government’s response to extreme weather events, but I hope to travel soon to other parts of the US (Puerto Rico is a US territory) to look at similar issues. Floods, hurricanes, and wildfires that cause misery, death, and displacement, are set to become more frequent and more severe. Climate change will meet people where they are. If pregnant women or new mothers live in marginalized communities and experience gender discrimination already in daily life, extreme weather events and poorly designed government responses may well exacerbate those abuses.

This is new work for me. Over the last years, I have interviewed many women and girls who fled conflicts and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, South Sudan, and Burundi, mostly to understand the crimes women face during atrocities, like rape by armed men. We know that women and girls are impacted differently by massive loss and displacement, that policies and funding need to be in place to address specific needs – like for contraception – that are often forgotten. Such policies need to be constantly adapted for a world increasingly in crisis.

This Mother’s Day I want to begin to understand why the basic needs of women on this Caribbean island – women who hold US passports – were not being adequately met on the worst days of their lives. I want to see what community-based groups are fighting for.

Climate change is here, and Eve will likely feel and see impacts all her life. But the work of reckoning with how we will face its impact on those most affected is only beginning.

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

People demonstrate in front of St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland, with posters 'Free Ela' to support Elzbieta Podlesna who is accused of profanation for displaying a poster of Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo. May 6, 2019.

© 2019 Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
(Berlin) – The arrest of a woman over a picture of a religious icon with a rainbow halo on May 6, 2019 is the latest attempt by Polish authorities to target LGBT and gender equality activists. Government officials allege the work is blasphemous and object to its presumed link to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and gender equality.

Amnesty International reported that police searched the home of Elżbieta Podlesna and arrested her following her return from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands with the human rights organization. Police seized her laptop, mobile phone, and memory cards during the search and reportedly asked for CCTV camera footage from her building. Podlesna was held and questioned by police for several hours. No charges have been filed but police are continuing the investigation, an Amnesty International representative confirmed on May 7, and Podlesna had not regained access to her telephone or computer.

“Targeting an activist over an artwork is one more ruthless tactic by the Law and Justice party to demonize LGBT rights and gender equality,” said Hillary Margolis, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Interior and Administration Minister Joachim Brudziński, a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party, announced on Twitter that police had arrested Podlesna on grounds of “profaning the image of the #Czestochowa Mother of God.” Images of the painting with a rainbow halo, often associated with LGBT activism, first appeared in late April around the town of Płock. Brudzinski referred to the act as “cultural barbarism” on Twitter.

Under Article 196 of Poland’s criminal code, a person who “offends the religious feelings of others by publicly insulting a religious object or place of worship” may face up to two years in prison.

The image of the Virgin Mary in the artwork is known as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Housed in Jasna Góra Monastery in southern Poland, the painting is considered a religious icon by many Catholics. Following public criticism, Brudzinski defended Podlesna’s arrest on Twitter, saying: “No fantasy about freedom and ‘tolerance’ gives ANYONE [original emphasis] the right to offend the feelings of believers.”

In July 2018, Brudzinski publicly thanked police for preventing an Equality March in Czestochowa from reaching the shrine at Jasna Góra, calling the march “an obvious cultural and religious provocation by LGBT communities.”

Podlesna is an independent activist and was one of 14 women attacked by far-right protesters after the women held  up a banner reading “Stop Fascism” at an Independence Day March in Warsaw in 2017. Far-right protesters were marching with racist and fascist symbols and slogans such as “white Poland.”

A February 2019 Human Rights Watch report documented attempts by Poland’s government to roll back women’s rights since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, including through smear campaigns, public rhetoric, systematic defunding, and other forms of attack on women’s rights organizations and activists, some of whom also advocate for LGBT rights.

The government and the Catholic Church in Poland have been outspoken in censuring the concepts of “gender” and “genderism” and labeling promotion of equality as “gender ideology,” which they demonize as driving hypersexuality, homosexuality, feminism, transgenderism, and an assault on traditional marriage and families.

Under the Law and Justice Party, the anti-gender crusade has gained traction, with activists and politicians using it to galvanize support for measures that curb reproductive rights, undermine initiatives to address violence against women, hinder sexual and reproductive health education, and smear women’s rights and LGBT rights activists. In speeches and in the media, government leaders, politicians, and “anti-gender” activists propagate extremist misinformation vilifying women’s rights groups and associating them with a deterioration in “morality.”

The Law and Justice government has also fought against sexual and reproductive health education in schools, and refused environmental activists entry to Poland to attend United Nations climate talks. The party has put forward changes in the laws to undermine the independence of the judiciary and interfere with media freedom. In 2016, parliament rejected a bill that would have included gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and age as potential grounds for the crime of “hate speech.”

Overly vague laws on blasphemy, such as Poland’s, threaten freedom of speech and religion, rights protected under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. International rights bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee and, jointly, the United Nations, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Organization of American States (OAS), and African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) have said that use of blasphemy or defamation laws should be limited to protection of individual rights and should not discriminate against one group over another.

Polish authorities should return Podlesna’s property, end any investigation against her under Article 196, and cease attacks on activists who support LGBT or women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“The government claims to be protecting religion and Polish values, but in reality, it is targeting its own citizens and denying their basic rights,” Margolis said. “Perpetuating the notion that gender equality and LGBT rights threaten Polish society doesn’t protect anyone – it only feeds dangerous intolerance, homophobia, and misogyny."

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Baghdad) – The Iraqi government should reject a plan that would unlawfully detain families with perceived Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation, Human Rights Watch said today. In early 2019, Iraq’s Implementation and Follow Up National Reconciliation Committee presented to Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi a proposal calling for the internment of up to 280,000 people, primarily women and their children. 

Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq. 

© 2018 Private
“The Iraqi government proposal to confine alleged families of ISIS members not only violates international law but is also contrary to the government’s stated aim of reconciling populations post-ISIS,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining families not accused of any crimes is a form of collective punishment that will fuel resentment and put the lives of thousands of people on endless hold.”
In a meeting on April 7, the committee’s president, Dr. Mohammed Salman al-Saadi, shared an outline of the plan with Human Rights Watch. He said that it would affect all spouses, children, siblings, and parents of alleged ISIS members, whether the member is dead, disappeared, or in detention. Human Rights Watch raised its concerns with the proposal in letters to Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih in late April.
Interior Ministry officials have told Human Rights Watch that the plan would affect an estimated 250,000 people. Humanitarian agencies believe that there are another 31,000 Iraqis in refugee and displacement camps in northeast Syria that the Iraqi government is returning home. Government officials have said they suspect that many of these returning families might be ISIS-affiliated.
Once numbers are ascertained, the Migration and Displacement Ministry is to build or repurpose residential compounds outside of cities to house the families, al-Saadi said. Families would be provided with either fixed housing or shipping container homes, but not tents. He said that people living there would only be allowed to leave in limited circumstances, including to go to the hospital or to a courthouse.
Under the proposal, the Sunni Endowment, a government religion body, would provide for compulsory deradicalization programming. The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry would give adults vocational training, but with no employment opportunities inside the compound. The Education Ministry would provide schools, and the Health Ministry would set up clinics inside. Al-Saadi said he foresaw a role for local groups to support programming for the families.
Iraqi security forces would guard the compounds but would not be allowed to enter, al-Saadi said, addressing a consistent problem in Iraq’s camps for the displaced. Inside the compound, the Interior Ministry’s community policing department would provide law enforcement, primarily through its female staff. However, the head of the community policing department in Baghdad, Khalid Lamuhana, told Human Rights Watch that his unit currently has just 752 staff members across the whole country, including only about 20 women.
The Implementation and Follow Up National Reconciliation Committee would negotiate returns of interned families to their areas of origin. Only after an agreement is secured with local communities and the interned families have completed deradicalization would the authorities allow them to return home. Al-Saadi did not specify a time frame. He said the families would only receive permanent documentation once they are approved to leave the compound.
The government’s proposal, if implemented, would violate Iraq’s obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In the context of a non-international armed conflict, such as in Iraq, international human rights law continues to apply. International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention and requires promptly taking people in custody before a judge and charging them with a criminal offense or releasing them. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way,” and allows individuals being detained to have their detention judicially reviewed. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.
International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment for people found responsible for crimes only after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Similarly, ordering the forced displacement of civilians for reasons connected with the conflict, apart from imperative military reasons or for their protection, is also a war crime. Under international human rights law, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The plan could also violate Iraqi law, Human Rights Watch said. Iraq’s Constitution enshrines the right of every Iraqi to free movement, travel, and residence inside and outside of Iraq. Human Rights Watch knows of no laws passed that would allow the government to rescind those rights and to confine people not accused of committing a crime. Two senior judges in Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that the proposal could easily be challenged in court.
“The Iraqi government is seeking to provide safety for all Iraqi citizens,” Fakih said. “But the government needs to find a way to do that without unjustly burdening women and children who have committed no crimes.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Saudi government Absher app on a phone in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, which both allows people to pay traffic fines online, but also facilitates male guardians’ granting or denying women permission to travel.

© 2019 Amr Nabil/AP Photo
(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s mobile app Absher is used to prevent Saudi women from leaving their country without a male relative’s permission. In a question-and-answer document, Human Rights Watch explains how male guardians use the mobile app to control women’s foreign travel, and employers to control the travel of migrant workers, and examines the role of Google and Apple, which host Absher in their mobile app stores.

Saudi Arabia should immediately end its restrictive and discriminatory travel restrictions on women and migrants, Human Rights Watch said. Google and Apple should publicly call on Saudi Arabia to end the male guardianship system. They should update their terms of service to prohibit apps expressly designed to violate rights and make every effort to mitigate human rights harm before making such apps available.

“The mobile app Absher is a modern tool for an outdated and repressive system of control over women,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should end its humiliating and discriminatory requirement for women to have male guardian permission to travel abroad.”

Saudi Arabia requires women from birth until death to have a male guardian – usually a father, husband, brother, or even a son – to obtain a passport, travel abroad, marry, undertake higher education, or be released from prison.

The Absher portal is a government e-service that allows Saudis and residents to renew passports, obtain ID cards, and apply for or renew migrant workers’ visas. It is provided on a website and a mobile app available on Google and Apple mobile app stores. However, Absher also enables male guardians to refuse or allow women and children to travel abroad or obtain a passport.  

While Absher does not track women’s movements inside or outside the country, it does allow male guardians to view all the trips in and out of Saudi Arabia that their female dependents make, showing destination countries and dates of travel.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which male guardians have prevented women from travelling abroad, including to study or work. Requiring guardian permission for women to travel abroad creates barriers that makes it harder for women to get a job and to advance professionally, and heightens the difficulties for women exposed to family violence to escape abuse.

Absher also enables Saudis who sponsor foreign nationals to control whether their foreign workers, foreign spouses, or foreign children can leave the country. They can do this by specifying when they must return to Saudi Arabia on exit and re-entry visas and by approving or denying their final exit visas.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that maintains a requirement that all migrant workers must request an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. This is part of the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ legal status to their employer-sponsor, and which exposes migrant workers to abuse and exploitation.

Human Rights Watch does not currently advocate for removal of the Absher app as that could lead to unintended negative consequences for some women who may surreptitiously change travel permissions or halt text message alerts on their male guardian’s phone. Human Rights Watch has documented at least three cases in which Saudi women were able to flee the country after they obtained their father’s mobile phone password and changed the Absher travel permission settings.

Google and Apple should strongly urge the Saudi government to end the male guardianship system, including travel restrictions abroad. Companies should always assess apps to determine whether they may undermine or violate rights, with extra scrutiny for apps developed or sponsored by governments. They should also revise their terms of service to prohibit apps expressly designed to violate rights and make every effort to mitigate any human rights harm before making such apps available.

Concerned governments should press the Saudi authorities to end the male guardianship and kafala systems, including the exit permit requirement for migrant workers and residents in the country.

“Saudi authorities allow male guardians and employers to trap women and migrants in the country,” Begum said. “Such control over people’s lives facilitates domestic violence and abusive labor conditions.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In Saudi Arabia, citizens and residents can use Absher, an online government platform, to access Interior Ministry services. Absher comes as a mobile app available for iPhones and Android phones, as well as an online portal. It offers e-services including renewing passports, applying for ID cards, paying traffic tickets, applying for or renewing migrant workers’ visas, and obtaining hajj (pilgrimage) permits.

But with every Saudi woman required to have a male guardian, the guardians also use Absher to grant or deny permission for women and children to travel abroad and obtain a passport under a subsection on “dependent services.” Saudi employers and citizens who sponsor foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia can also use Absher to approve or reject requests to leave the country.

Screenshot from Ministry of Interior Travel Permission Portal.

Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry introduced e-services in 2011 and the Absher mobile app itself in 2015. The mobile app is available on the Apple’s App Store for iPhones as well as the Google’s Play Store for Android phones, and the online portal is hosted on the Interior Ministry website.

The platform name, Absher (أبشر), in Arabic carries the meaning “your request shall be fulfilled.”

1. Does the Absher app “track” women?

Not in real time, but it does maintain a historical record of travel. Saudi Interior Ministry regulations require Saudi women to receive permission from a male guardian – usually a father, husband, brother, or even a son – to obtain a passport or travel outside the country. The Absher portal allows guardians to provide permission for a single trip, for multiple trips, or unlimited travel until the passport expires. The portal also allows the male guardian to suspend a previously issued travel permission.

The portal and app effectively allow men to use modern technology to control women’s movements. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which male guardians have prevented women from traveling abroad, including for study or work. It also affects women’s ability to get jobs and can seriously hamper a woman’s professional advancement. Employers may not wish to hire women for jobs that require traveling abroad as the woman’s ability to travel would be dependent on their guardian’s cooperation. Women who already have jobs may find themselves unable to move further in their careers due to travel restrictions.

Several highly publicized stories of Saudi women escaping the country have shed light on one of the most serious problems of the male guardianship system: requiring guardian permission for women to travel makes it difficult for women exposed to family violence to escape abuse.

The Absher system sends automatic text messages to male guardians when they perform certain functions such as approving a dependent’s travel, or if a document such a passport has been renewed or requires renewal.

The Absher portal also displays a travel log function that allows male guardians to view all the trips in and out of Saudi Arabia that their female dependents make, showing destination countries and dates of travel. Other than the travel log, Absher does not track women’s movements inside the country or abroad.

Starting in 2012, the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Passports sent automatic text message alerts to male guardians if their dependents traveled in or out of the country. However, after a backlash, the authorities announced in early 2014 that they had suspended the notifications. Human Rights Watch interviews with Saudi women and activists confirm that Saudi authorities no longer send these notifications.

2. How did the situation change when the Absher app was introduced?

Prior to the Absher app, Saudi authorities issued a travel permission card or paper from the Interior Ministry that Saudi women presented at passport control when leaving the country. The card, obtained by a male guardian in person at a General Directorate of Passport office, stipulated the number of trips and for how many days their guardian had approved their travel. Guardians could also decide to allow unlimited travel for female dependents until their passport expired. Saudi women say that in later years, the travel permission as stated on the card would also be reflected electronically for border officials, which meant that women who wanted to flee the country would be less likely to be able to use a forged permission card.

Some Saudi women told Human Rights Watch that the introduction of Absher improved the situation for women whose guardians had refused to grant travel permission because they did not want to bother to go to a passport office and complete the paperwork. The Absher portal, whether the website or mobile app, allowed guardians to approve travel requests easily, so they could no longer cite the need to go to the ministry as an excuse not to grant permission.

3. Some say that Absher app helped women escape. Doesn’t this make it a good thing?

Some Saudi women contend that Absher is preferable to the old card-based system, because women can more easily and surreptitiously change travel permissions and halt text message alerts on their male guardian’s phone than forge travel permission cards under the old system. Human Rights Watch has documented at least three cases in which Saudi women successfully fled Saudi Arabia after they obtained their father’s mobile phone password and changed the Absher travel permission settings while he was away from the phone.

It is unclear how many women have managed to escape by changing the settings on their guardian’s phone. Many other women escape when already abroad, whether in a third country traveling with their family or refusing to return after they have traveled to study or work abroad.

But those who flee by changing their guardian’s phones settings can be prosecuted if they are forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. A Saudi security expert told Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, in August 2016 that “getting access to the guardian’s account is an electronic crime.”

4. Are there other problems with the app?

Yes. An unreported issue is that Absher, also under the same category of “dependents service,” enables Saudis who sponsor foreign nationals living in the country to decide whether their foreign workers, spouses, or children can leave the country. They can do this by issuing exit and re-entry visas that specify when they must return to Saudi Arabia by, or by exercising control over their final exit visas.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that requires all migrant workers to request an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. This is part of the kafala (sponsorship) system, under which migrant workers’ legal status is tied to their employer-sponsor. Human Rights Watch has documented how the kafala system exposes and facilitates abuse and exploitation of migrant workers.

The Absher portal also perpetuates the power of Saudi citizens, through their visa sponsorship, over their foreign spouses or children who have residency in the country. Arab News has reported that Saudis could cancel a foreign spouse’s residency visa and issue an exit visa, putting the spouse at risk of arrest unless they leave the country. This had been such a problem during divorce cases that in 2016 the Justice Ministry issued a decision that judges could allow foreign nationals to stay in the country pending the completion of their divorce case with their Saudi spouse. But that decision did not change Saudis’ control over foreign spouses while they remain married.

5. Why do Google and Apple allow this app on their app stores? What are their responsibilities?

Google and Apple maintain policies for apps hosted on the Play Store and App Store that prohibit inappropriate or objectionable content such as pornography, hate speech, bullying and harassment, illegal activity, etc. Google does not pre-screen apps before allowing them to be uploaded onto the Play Store; while Apple does some pre-screening, but it is unclear how thoroughly they ensure that apps comply with their rules against harassment or abuse before they are posted.

The companies largely rely on individual users to flag inappropriate content that violates Play Store or App Store rules rather than pre-screening app content. Representatives of both Google and Apple have publicly said that the companies would review Absher to determine if it violates their terms of service. Business Insider, a business website, said in March 2019 that Google has communicated to US Representative Jackie Speier that it would not remove the Absher app from its platform. Neither company has publicly affirmed whether the app conforms to their terms of service.

The non-binding United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles) say that businesses should carry out human rights due diligence, including assessing actual and potential adverse human rights impacts of their business activities, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how they address the impact. The UN Guiding Principles specify that businesses should seek “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations.”

In the case of Absher, which facilitates discrimination against women and is used to limit freedom of movement of women and foreigners in Saudi Arabia, Google and Apple have a responsibility to mitigate abuses associated with Absher.

Women’s rights activists told Human Rights Watch that Absher’s removal would directly harm Saudi women who have benefitted from the relative ease with which they or sympathetic family members can surreptitiously change their travel permissions without their male guardian’s knowledge.

For this reason, Apple and Google should urge Saudi authorities to end discriminatory practices including the removal of all travel restrictions on leaving the country for women and migrants instead of merely removing the Absher app from their platforms, Human Rights Watch said.

6. If Google and Apple stopped hosting the Absher app on their app stores, would the problem be solved?

No. The travel restrictions Saudi Arabia imposes on Saudi women are based on Interior Ministry regulations and would remain in place even if companies made the Absher mobile app unavailable. Likewise, a Saudi employer’s control over foreign migrant workers’ ability to leave the country would continue. The Absher online portal would remain in place on the Interior Ministry’s website and become the primary enforcement vehicle for the travel restrictions.

7. What should Google and Apple do now?

Google, Apple, and other companies operating or offering products and services in Saudi Arabia should strongly advocate to the government that they should end discriminatory practices, including by abolishing the discriminatory male guardianship system and the travel restrictions on women and migrants that clearly violate rights. Such discriminatory practices impede these companies from fulfilling their human rights responsibilities. These calls would also add a significant voice to advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

While Google and Apple should not facilitate any human rights abuses through apps hosted on their app stores, Human Rights Watch does not currently advocate removing the app from their stores because it could lead to unintended negative consequences for some women.

Companies should always assess apps to determine whether they may undermine or violate rights, with extra scrutiny for apps developed or sponsored by governments. They should also revise their terms of service to prohibit apps expressly designed to violate rights and make every effort to mitigate any human rights harms before making such apps available.

8. What should other governments do about Absher and travel restrictions for Saudi women?

Governments should press the Saudi authorities to end the male guardianship system. They should, in particular, publicly identify all areas in which, despite Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights reform rhetoric, Saudi Arabia continues to fall short on women’s rights and advocate positive changes. Governments should take the position that the travel restrictions for Saudi women are a pernicious aspect of the male guardianship system and urge the Saudi government to remove the restrictions immediately.

Governments should also urge the Saudi authorities to abolish the kafala system. In particular, they should press the Saudi authorities to lift the exit permit requirement for all migrant workers and residents in the country.

9. What does international human rights law say about the right to leave a country?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” This is an established principle under international human rights law and any restrictions can only be individual, for a legitimate reason, and proportionate – as, for instance, during a criminal investigation. Saudi Arabia violates this standard in the way it restricts Saudi women who wish to travel abroad, as well as migrant workers and foreign residents who wish to leave the country.

The discriminatory nature of the travel restrictions also breaches Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which oversees the implementation of the treaty, in March 2018 called on Saudi Arabia to “To abolish practices of male guardianship … and ensure that it entitles all women to the right to obtain a passport and travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, choose their place of residence, gain access to health care services and leave detention centres and State-run shelters without having to seek a male guardian’s consent.”

Screenshots from Ministry of Interior Travel Permission Portal:

Screenshot from Ministry of Interior Travel Permission Portal.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A salesman covers the face of a mannequin with a niqab cafe veil at a women's clothing shop in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 29, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has ordered a ban on face coverings in public as one of a number of emergency measures imposed following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds. The ban, which took effect April 29, prohibits any face covering “that may hinder one’s identify [from being] ascertained,” and cites such coverings as a potential security threat.

In ordering the ban, Sirisena joins a growing number of countries which, in the name of national security, target Muslim women who wear the veil. Under international human rights law, governments may restrict rights to freedom of expression or religion, including wearing of religious attire or display of religious symbols, but only when such restrictions are proportionate and on reasonable grounds.

A government’s impulse to take dramatic security measures is understandable in the wake of mass violence, but the face ban disproportionately restricts the rights of women who wear the burqa or niqab, a veil leaving only the eyes visible. For Muslim women who feel uncomfortable being uncovered in public, a ban can cut off access to public transit, education, employment, and social services, isolating them and barring them from opportunities to be part of society and benefit from critical services.

The ban also adds to stigma against Muslims, who have already reported feeling threatened in Sri Lanka, a majority-Buddhist country, after the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks and authorities identified the perpetrators as members of a domestic Muslim militant group. Angry crowds have threatened and assaulted mostly Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been evicted from their homes.

No clear links have emerged between face coverings, including face veils, and the attacks. Authorities could implement less restrictive security measures such as allowing covered women to unveil in private spaces for checks by female security officers. Just as women should not be forced to wear the niqabburqa or other religious dress, nor should they be punished for choosing to do so. Laws that do either are discriminatory

Rather than targeting Muslim women who wear the veil, Sri Lanka’s government should focus on investigating those responsible for the bombings and bringing them to justice.

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

Bangladeshi garment workers join a rally during a Labor Day protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh on May 01, 2019.

© 2019 Kazi Salahuddin/Sipa USA via AP
Last year, I huffed my way up a steep, narrow flight of stairs to meet a man who owned a small garment workshop in western India. The workshop — with about 20 male workers sewing — was hot and stuffy in the punishing Indian summer. But it looked like it was snowing.

The workers and tables were covered in fine cotton fiber-dust, which causes or exacerbates respiratory diseases, and they weren’t wearing masks. The buzzing of sewing machines was deafening.

The owner pointed out the window to what remained of a nearby building that had burned down, shrugging about the danger of fire hazards. The workers — all migrants from other parts of India — earned a daily wage and lived in the workshop to save on rent.

This is a snapshot of the underbelly of the global apparel industry. The owner said he produced branded clothes for global apparel companies. He proudly showed me the dresses and blouses his workers had sewn. Some were for big-name brands and retailers in the United States that do not disclose their supplier factories online.

Subcontracting to small workshops like this — which typically happens without the company’s permission — is a common practice in the apparel industry. At Human Rights Watch, we’ve found scores of these subcontractor factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh. Workers in these factories often endure far worse working conditions than those in larger factories.

I’ve spoken to sourcing experts who have worked for decades with numerous global brands. They say many apparel companies make poor estimates of consumer demands and timetables for orders, don’t monitor factories’ capacities, make last-minute design changes, use buying agents whose practices they don’t rigorously monitor, and set unrealistic low prices. Bad purchasing practices contribute to unauthorized subcontracting and other practices that put workers and the companies themselves at risk.

Brands and retailers could take numerous steps to curb these risks. Some do, some don’t. Consumers are starting to demand to see what the brands are doing. The more they hear from concerned consumers, the more likely the companies are to act.

A recent survey by the Consumer Goods Forum and Futerra across seven countries revealed that 55 percent of consumers want more information on social, health, environment and safety issues in the manufacturing process. Here are three concrete demands consumers can make:

First, they should ask where clothing and footwear brands make their products. Such disclosure helps workers report abuses to brands when the brand’s own monitoring systems fail to detect them. Only a handful of U.S. companies do this today. For more than a decade, Nike and Levi’s have been publishing the names, addresses, and other details of factories that produce their wares. Others who do so include New Balance, Disney, Gap, Fruit of the Loom, PVH, Under Armour, and VF Corp.

Second, consumers should ask brands and retailers to publish their policies on responsible purchasing. Demanding to see a policy will spur companies that don’t have one to create one.

Third, consumers should press brands and retailers to disclose how they are ranked on their purchasing practices by their suppliers. Better Buying, an industry monitoring group, allows suppliers to anonymously rank brands’ purchasing practices and publishes reports. Brands and retailers should cooperate with Better Buying and publish a summary of their scores.

Garment companies’ business practices have long been shrouded in secrecy. But consumers and investors have the power to insist on greater openness, and better treatment for the workers who make their clothes.

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

Caster Semenya of South Africa, Charlene Lipsey of the United States and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain compete in the Women's 800 metres semi finals during day eight of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium on August 11, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. 

© 2017 Getty Images/ Andy Lyons
(New York) The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has dismissed South African athlete Caster Semenya’s challenge to international athletics regulations which would see her compelled to undergo medical treatment or be forced out of competition. The regulations, issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), require women athletes, like Semenya, with higher than typical natural testosterone levels to have unnecessary medical interventions if they wish to compete. The three-judge panel, by a 2-1 vote in the case brought by Semenya and Athletics South Africa, found that while the new regulations discriminate against Semenya, they are not “invalid.”

“Women with intersex variations have the same right to dignity and control over their bodies as other women, and it’s deeply disappointing to see CAS uphold regulations that run afoul of international human rights standards,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, deputy executive director for program at Human Rights Watch. “In scrutinizing and excluding women competitors based on their natural hormone levels, the IAAF regulations stigmatize, stereotype, and discriminate against all women.”

The April 2018 regulations target women athletes with some intersex variations, sometimes called “differences of sex development” (or “DSD”), that cause higher than typical natural testosterone levels. The regulations deny these women the right to participate in the female category for running events between 400 meters and the mile unless they submit to invasive testing and medical intervention to reduce their testosterone levels. There is no clear scientific consensus that women with intersex variations who have higher than typical natural testosterone have a performance advantage in athletics.

The regulations, the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development), require women who have a naturally occurring blood testosterone level higher than five nmol/L to undergo medically unnecessary hormone therapy to reduce their testosterone levels if they want to qualify to compete in the female category. If women refuse to be tested or to undergo hormone therapy, the regulations state that they may only compete in the male category or in a hypothetical, not-yet-created intersex category – both of which would expose women’s private characteristics to the global public.

Intersex traits or variations are naturally occurring sex characteristics that vary from social norms of what is considered “female” or “male.” They appear in up to 1.7 percent of the population. The vast majority of people born with intersex variations are healthy and do not need to undergo medical treatment unless they wish to alter their bodies.

In dismissing Semenya’s case, the CAS judges recognized that the regulations are discriminatory but, failing to apply international human rights standards, deemed them a “proportionate” response to IAAF’s concerns about eligibility for female categories. Nevertheless, they expressed “serious concerns as to the future practical application” of the regulations, regarding how IAAF would assess individual athlete’s compliance with the regulations, recognizing the questionable evidence of actual significant athletic advantage for women athletes with higher than typical natural testosterone in certain events, and flagging the issue of possible side effects of hormonal treatment on these athletes. The judges noted that further assessment of these concerns may result in these regulations being deemed invalid in the future.

On March 22, 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution noting that the IAAF regulations “are not compatible with international human rights norms and standards, including the rights of women with differences of sex development” and expressing concern at “the absence of legitimate and justifiable evidence for the regulations.” The Human Rights Council also found “no clear relationship of proportionality between the aim of the regulations and the proposed measures and their impact.”

In October 2018, United Nations experts on health, torture, and women’s rights wrote to the IAAF about the regulations:

The regulations reinforce negative stereotypes and stigma that women in the targeted category are not women—and that they either need to be ‘fixed’ through medically unnecessary treatment with negative health impacts—or compete with men, or compete in ‘any applicable intersex or similar classification’, which can call into question their very definition of self.

The IAAF had issued earlier regulations in 2011 that were very similar to the 2018 regulations. The Indian runner Dutee Chand successfully challenged the regulations at the Court of Arbitration, leading to a 2014 judgment that the 2011 regulations “discriminate against women and discriminate based on a natural physical trait.” The court rightly noted that, “such discrimination is, unless justified, contrary to the Olympic Charter, the IAAF Constitution and the laws of Monaco” and stated that “if the [testosterone] regulations cannot be justified, specifically as a reasonable and necessary response to a legitimate need, then they should be declared invalid.”

In issuing new guidelines in response to the 2014 judgment, the IAAF included an explanatory note saying that “persecution or campaigns against athletes simply on the basis that their experience does not conform to gender stereotypes are unacceptable” and that the regulations are not “intended as any kind of judgement on or questioning of the sex or the gender identity of any athlete.”

The 2011 IAAF regulations relied on deeply problematic stereotypes such as having a “deep voice” to identify athletes with intersex variations. The 2018 regulations that Caster Semenya has unsuccessfully challenged omit such stereotypes but make no mention at all of the criteria for identifying these athletes – leaving the system open for abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

Following an earlier examination of her eligibility based on a suspected intersex variation, Semenya stated: “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”

“For women athletes with atypical testosterone levels, being compelled to undergo a medical examination can be as humiliating as it is medically unnecessary,” Gerntholtz said. “Identifying relevant athletes through observation and suspicion means women athletes’ bodies are open to public scrutiny, while no such inspection is applied to men.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A worker inside a garment factory in Tamil Nadu, India. India passed a law governing sexual harassment at the workplace in 2013. The Indian government can play a leadership role in advocating for a binding ILO Convention on violence and harassment at work, while simultaneously revamping efforts to implement the law in country.

© 2013 Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty
No-one was within earshot, but Roja (not her real name), a garment worker, spoke in whispers as we walked in a park on a Sunday, her day off, in Mysore city in southern India. She described how her line supervisor constantly called her after work asking for sexual favors, promising lighter work or leave time. When she went to the factory management to complain, they sneered at her complaint, trivializing it as normal, and took no further action.

Roja is not alone. Human Rights WatchInternational Labour Organization and others have reported sexual harassment in garment factories across a number of countries.

Many global apparel brands tout the steps they take to ensure garment workers in their supplier factories are treated well. Yet these measures, which rely heavily on social audits, tend to fall grossly short. At the same time, brands avoid steps that would truly empower workers to raise and address workplace abuses, like standing up for workers’ freedom of association.

Social audits are factory inspections, often carried out by third party auditors. These social audits, however, do not capture and address sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence at work. Such factory-based monitoring is not geared toward creating a safe environment for victims to report their experiences.

Human Rights Watch conducted a preliminary analysis of 50 third party audit reports of factories—most of them from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Six large auditing firms issued the reports between 2016 and 2018. In each of the 50 reports, the auditors had interviewed workers in a combination of group and individual interviews, all on-site.

These audits are supposed to detect workplace abuses, including sexual harassment at work. But few workers were willing to speak out about a deeply stigmatized issue in front of others, or on the factory premises where managers know precisely who is speaking and can retaliate.

So it is not surprising that in these 50 reports, analysis of sexual harassment was either completely missing or at best cursory. Furthermore, none of the reports from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh discussed how well the laws governing sexual harassment at work were being implemented. India and Pakistan have had laws since 2013 and 2010, respectively, and Bangladesh’s High Court Division of the Supreme Court issued guidelines against sexual harassment at work in 2009.

Only one report from India made a passing reference to the existence of a legally mandated “POSH [prevention of sexual harassment] committee” in the workplace. And even in that single report, it was unclear what training these committees received, how gender-sensitive they were, whether workers were protected against retaliation, or how the committees worked with unions.

Many brands and other industry groups also underestimate the importance of democratically elected worker committees or unions. In February, a European brand representative was telling me about her company’s “innovative” new program on gender in Bangladesh. This program had no connection with local unions and well-reputed nongovernmental organizations that work on women’s rights in Bangladesh.

When I encouraged her to integrate worker-driven solutions through democratically elected representatives into the program, I sensed her obvious impatience. She claimed that no-one, not even workers, liked unions. They were apparently a “headache”. A representative from another leading European brand acknowledged to me that brands did not focus much on monitoring workers’ freedom of association.

Yet, many global brands say they take seriously retaliation against workers who make complaints. In the apparel industry, workers’ freedom of association is central to ending retaliation. Factory workers find strength in numbers.

Union leaders are legally protected from unfair dismissals, enabling them to better help workers resolve problems in the factory. Moreover, workers and their representatives are in and out of the factories every day, and are among the most reliable routine monitors of workplace conditions.

Roja said she was poor but still had dignity. She hoped for brands to take stronger action to assist workers like her, and not to punish them further by taking their business and jobs elsewhere.

Brands serious about innovations and sustainable solutions beyond social audits should publicly report on the number of factories where workers are unionized, the number of collective bargaining agreements, and the business incentives they offer to factories that respect workers’ freedom of association.

They should encourage women’s participation in unions and design programmes with strong anti-retaliation components.

These are the steps that will help enable women workers not to silently endure and whisper about sexual harassment and other abuses but instead to speak out for their rights.

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

Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans during a protest in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh on Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

© 2019 AP
Time will tell whether Bangladesh’s garment industry has its Wonder Woman. Last month, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) elected its first female president: Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group. In the lead-up to the elections, Huq pledged that if elected, “rebuilding the image” of the garment industry would be her top priority.

The Bangladesh garment industry needs a makeover, no doubt. Huq appears well-placed to spearhead reforms. To do so successfully, she needs to fix several of the industry association’s missteps and firmly embrace workers’ rights.

Huq promised to make Bangladesh famous for being “competitive” rather than the “cheapest.” In this mission, she will not find better allies than labour advocates and workers. Brands, suppliers, and labour groups—and in fact, everyone—should unite to reject the notion that cheap equals competitive.

A growing number of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have publicly called out the duplicity of many global brands that say they support workers’ rights but then drive down manufacturing prices without factoring in labour and social compliance costs. This practice thrives in environments where brands and suppliers do not need to accurately account for these expenses.

By treating labour costs as negotiable, global brands drive abusive cost-cutting measures that hurt workers and expose the brand to greater human rights risks in its supply chain. According to a 2016 International Labour Organization survey, the highest number of suppliers who felt compelled to accept orders below production costs came from Bangladesh. This directly affects workers’ wages and other working conditions.

In 2016 and 2018, workers carried out two massive wildcat strikes protesting for better wages. Bangladesh authorities brutally suppressed these protests using excessive force, and brought fabricated criminal cases against those who weren’t even at the protests. Thousands of poor Bangladeshi workers, mostly women, found themselves fired or blacklisted by factories for participating in protests.

We need to break this cycle of worker despair, government repression, and factory outbursts against protesting workers. But this requires two measures—first, trust-building, and second, a solution that combines innovative collaboration with technical know-how.

Winning workers’ trust and seeing them as partners is important for the garment industry’s stability. Huq should call on all garment factories to reinstate workers they fired without following fair procedures after the December 2018 protests, and compensate those who choose not to return. She should also publicly urge all garment factory owners or managers who brought criminal complaints against protesting workers to seek out-of-court settlements wherever possible.

If Huq really wants to make Bangladesh famous for being “competitive,” not the “cheapest,” here are some thoughts.

Huq’s vision for collaboration among smaller suppliers is important. She should champion other transformative collaboration that can bring about deeper rights reforms. This entails harnessing the combined force of initiatives that seek to fairly calculate labour costs, improve fire and building safety, freedom of association, and transparency. These include the legally binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety that includes brand responsibility to facilitate financing for fixing fire and building safety problems; Fair Wear Foundation’s (FWF) labour costing tools; Better Buying’s anonymous supplier ranking survey; Brac’s transparent factory mapping exercise; Wage Indicator’s transparent reporting of workers’ wages; and the ACT initiative’s efforts to begin working in Bangladesh.

Huq should leverage Accord brands’ responsibility to facilitate financing for remediation and promote the use of costing tools like those developed by Fair Wear Foundation. The FWF’s labour costing tools allow manufacturers to accurately calculate wages and benefits and present it to brands. She should encourage all suppliers, including the ones where workers protested in 2016 and 2018 and those producing for Accord brands, to use FWF’s Bangladesh costing tool.

Using such costing tools for Accord suppliers would be an important move toward ensuring that brands that say they are committed to workers’ safety, freedom of association, and collective bargaining actually pay for these protections.

Huq may consider initiating proposals for a new initiative like the Gajimu project in Indonesia, which interviews workers off-site and gathers factory information about wages and publicly reports on them. This would allow everyone to see whether these costing tools are having demonstrable impact on workers’ wages.

All global brands sourcing from Bangladesh should partner with Better Buying, a new index for brand purchasing practices, inviting suppliers to rank their business practices anonymously. Human Rights Watch has called for all brands to at least summarise the scores they receive from Better Buying, indicating to consumers whether their practices are average, below, or above average.

Huq could encourage expanding the details included in a map of factories created by Brac, an international development organisation. These include indicating which factories are using tools to accurately assess labour costs; provide factory-wise wage information determined by a Gajimu-like project; and show which factories have democratically elected unions and collective bargaining agreements.

These efforts will help set the stage for the Action Collaboration and Transformation initiative, which seeks to combine collective brand reform on purchasing practices with industry-wide collective bargaining agreements in Bangladesh.

Huq has at her disposal many tools to reshape Bangladesh’s garment industry. She should use them to firmly advance workers’ rights.

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