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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

[iv] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (2008) (accessed  July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1888 (2009), S/RES/1888 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1889 (2009), S/RES/1889 (2009) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1960 (2010), S/RES/1960 (2010) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2106 (2013), S/RES/2106 (2013) (accessed July 21, 2015); United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2122 (2013), S/RES/2122 (2013) (accessed July 21, 2015).

[v] According to the 2014 Secretary-General’s report on women, peace and security, data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that “only 0.35 per cent of aid allocated to conflict, peace and security activities [was] marked as having a gender focus.” United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on women and peace and security,  S/2014/693, September 2014, (accessed July 17, 2015).

[vi] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013,” December 2013,  (accessed July 8, 2015); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch,” undated, (accessed July 8, 2015).

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

 [viii] Based on data from: NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, “Mapping Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: 2012-2013”; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, PeaceWomen, “Report Watch”; and Security Council Report, “Cross Cutting Report: Women, Peace and Security,” April 2014,  (accessed July 8, 2015).

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

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

[xi] Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, October 28, 2011, (accessed July 16, 2015).

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

[xiii] See UN Women, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations: Connections between Presence and Influence,”  October 2012, (accessed July 20, 2015); and United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on Women and Peace and Security, S/2011/598, September 29, 2011, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2012/732, October 2, 2012, (accessed July 27, 2015); S/2013/525, September 4, 2013, (accessed July 27, 2015); and S/2014/693, September 23, 2014, (accessed July 27, 2015). See also, Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke, Women and Peace Agreements 1325 Dataset, Distributed by University of Ulster, Transitional Justice Institute, 2010 (accessed July 20, 2015).

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

[xv] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Innovative WILPF Conference Gathers Syrian And Bosnian Women’s Rights Activists,” February 21, 2014, (accessed July 16, 205); Cynthia Enloe, “Day I of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks,” Women’s Action for New Directions,  January 20, 2014, (accessed July 16, 2015).

[xvi] “He Left Before Syria’s Women Could Speak,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 19, 2013, (accessed July 16, 2015).

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

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

[xix] “UN Human Rights Council: Call to Recognize the Status of Women's Human Rights Defenders,” Human Rights Watch Oral Statement during the Annual Day of Discussion on Women's Human Rights, June 26, 2012,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xxx] Human Rights Watch, “As if We Weren’t Human”: Discrimination and Violence against Women with Disabilities in Northern Uganda, August 2010,

[xxxi] Human Rights Watch, Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia, November 2012,, p. 5.

[xxxii] World Bank and World Health Organization, “World Report on Disability,” 2011, (accessed July 21, 2015), p. 8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xl] Human Rights Watch, Silenced and Forgotten: Survivors of Nepal’s Conflict-Era Sexual Violence, September 2014,

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

[xlii] “DR Congo: War Crimes by M23, Congolese Army,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 5, 2013,; “Revealed: how the world turned its back on rape victims of Congo,” The Guardian, undated, (accessed July 8, 2015).

[xliii] United Nations General Assembly, “Fifty-ninth session, Agenda item 77, Comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects,” March 24, 2005 (accessed July 8, 2015); United Nations Secretariat, Secretary-General’s Bulletin, “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse,” October 9, 2003, (accessed July 8, 2015); Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), “Evaluation Report: Evaluation of the Enforcement and Remedial Assistance Efforts for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by the United Nations and Related Personnel in Peacekeeping Operations,” May 2015, (accessed July 23, 2015).

[xliv] Somini Sengupta, “Allegations Against French Peacekeepers Highlight Obstacles in Addressing Abuse,” New York Times, May 25, 2015, (accessed July 8, 2015),

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

[lii] International Criminal Court, Office of the Prosecutor, Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes, June 2014, (accessed July 8, 2015).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Marchers carry a rainbow flag during the annual gay pride parade in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, June 13, 2015.

Threatening sex educators with jail may seem extreme – but it seems Poland’s ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party is willing to go there to cement power by generating fear and misinformation.

Fueling intolerance and targeting rights activists, an independent judiciary, and a free press have become hallmarks of PiS since the party gained power in 2015, including in the run-up to October’s parliamentary elections. A bill on sex education, approved by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, on Wednesday would take this a dangerous step further. It would amend the penal code to criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” In effect, sex educators, teachers, authors, and organizations providing information on reproductive health and sexuality could face a three-year prison sentence.

Last year, sex educators and LGBT and women’s rights activists told me about programs that had already been defunded, and the growing hostility directed against them. Right-wing groups in Poland have run smear campaigns, including accusing sex educators of promoting “depravity.” PiS’s actions and language have embolded them. In March 2019, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński openly criticized Warsaw’s mayor for supporting teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Educators have expressed fear about teaching. “Several times I’ve met someone and told them I’m a sex educator and they turn cold, keeping me at a distance because they are afraid of being harmed by knowing me,” one sex educator told me.

Work led by sex educators is crucial in a country where official policy means children rarely learn about their own bodies or intimate relationships. Poland’s “Preparation for Family Life” curriculum strays far from international standards on comprehensive sexuality education. Instead, it spreads misinformation, perpetuates harmful stereotypes about gender roles and sexuality, and promotes an anti-choice and anti-LGBT agenda.

A yet-to-be-established parliamentary commission will be tasked to work on the newly approved bill. Its recommendation to the Sejm should be unequivocal: the bill should be scrapped entirely.

As international bodies – including the World Health Organization and Council of Europe have emphasized – accurate, inclusive sexuality education is essential to prevent sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reduce unwanted pregnancy and maternal mortality, and help children grow up to lead healthy, safe, and productive lives. Parliamentarians should remember that access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare information, is a human right.

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

A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, where more than 11,000 women and children from nearly 50 nationalities are confined as family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling northern Syria wants home countries to take the women and children back. But most governments have only repatriated small numbers of their citizens.

© 2019 Sam Tarling

“They won’t shoot us, my darling. Mummy is right here with you, don’t worry.”

The German mother’s words, spoken in almost a whisper, did not stop her young son’s whimpers.

Desperate text and voice messages have been furtively emerging from al-Hol, a desolate camp holding about 70,000 women and children related to Islamic State suspects in northeastern Syria, a de facto autonomous region controlled by a Kurdish-led coalition until Turkey invaded from the north on October 9.

The women locked up without charge in the open-air camp spoke of armed, masked guards from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — who, as of Monday, still controlled al-Hol — snatching sons over age 12 from their tents during the night. They wrote that the medical clinic inside an annex that holds 11,000 foreigners from four dozen countries has been shut for days — a fact confirmed by aid workers. They described overflowing latrines and dwindling food and water supplies. They begged to be brought home even if prison awaited them, writing that they were terrified of being transferred to Syrian prisons, notorious for mass deaths and torture, under a deal announced Sunday in which Kurdish authorities agreed to let the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advance into northeastern Syria to stave off the Turkish assault.

But none of the texts or voice messages I have received conveyed the women’s despair as palpably as the exchange between the mother and son. The woman’s voice and the boy’s cries sounded muffled and frozen with fear, as though the fighting would sweep into the desert camp at any moment, like the dust storms that leave babies in al-Hol coated in grimy sand.

For months, Human Rights Watch and a host of other human rights defenders, including the United Nations human rights commissioner and the UN special rapporteur on countering terrorism, have issued largely unheeded appeals for governments to bring home their nationals detained in al-Hol and in two smaller camps in northeastern Syria used to house family members of ISIS suspects.

More than two-thirds of detainees in the camps are young children who never chose to be dragged to or born in the so-called caliphate. Between December 2018 and September, nearly 340 children died in al-Hol — most from preventable diseases such as severe diarrhea or malnutrition, according to the International Rescue Committee.

I have been unable to reach the camps since Turkey’s military offensive began and cannot verify all the women’s latest stories. But during three visits to al-Hol in late June, conditions were dire. Almost every child I saw was bone thin with a swollen belly, a deep cough and a shell-shocked gaze. Many dragged jugs of water larger than their own slight frames under a blistering sun. A boy and a girl struggled up gravelly paths on crutches, each with a leg amputated above the knee. Infants lay listless on the floors of tattered tents, flies on their faces.

One sunburned boy with a shock of blond hair, who looked about 5, stood alone by a mound of stinking garbage, clad in a soiled yellow shirt with the words, “Who Am I?” The answer is clear: these children are victims, not only of ISIS but of their current conditions of captivity.

The embattled Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that, until Turkey’s incursion, governed the region, has repeatedly called on all other countries with nationals inside the camps to repatriate them. In many countries, grandparents and other family members are begging their governments to let them take in and care for women and children stuck in the camps.

But most governments, including those of Western Europe, argue that most of these nationals are not their responsibility unless they can, by some miracle, leave their locked camps and cross conflict zones and borders to reach consulates often hundreds of kilometers away. These governments also balk at taking responsibility for their nationals who are ISIS suspects, including boys as young as 12, whom the SDF is holding in inhumanely overcrowded, makeshift prisons. These governments insist that security concerns and logistical difficulties preclude swift returns except, occasionally, of a few orphans.

Perversely, the refusal of Western governments to take responsibility for their nationals may result in ISIS criminals and camp members breaking free, as the SDF diverts its forces to fighting the Turkish military. Already in recent days, several Syrian ISIS suspects reportedly escaped an SDF-controlled prison and hundreds of women and children escaped Ain Issa, another camp for family members of ISIS suspects, after both were struck by Turkish artillery.

A few foreign governments, including those of Kazakhstan and Kosovo, have taken back citizens held in northeastern Syria, and in some cases, male prisoners by the planeload, demonstrating that where there is political will to bring citizens home for rehabilitation and reintegration, there is a way. The Kurdish-led coalition has also worked with local authorities in Syria to return many Syrian women and children, who make up about half of the camp’s detainees, as well as Syrian men and boys they have imprisoned separately or prosecuted, to their communities.

Once back home, former detainees can be investigated and, if appropriate, monitored or prosecuted in line with international fair-trial standards. Children should only be prosecuted in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort.

Helping these women and children come home advances two basic legal obligations: ensuring everyone’s right to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers, and ensuring justice for serious crimes committed by ISIS through fair trials for those most responsible.

As the battle rages in northeastern Syria, the need is greater than ever for countries to respond to the plight of their citizens trapped in camps and detention centers, including young children too scared to cry instead of whimper.

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

Participants protest against discrimination and gender-based violence during a rally held by members of feminist organizations and social activists in Almaty, Kazakhstan September 28, 2019. The placard reads "To jail for violence, not truth". 

© 2019 REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

(Berlin) – Women in Kazakhstan facing domestic violence receive insufficient protection and have little recourse for justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Kazakhstan government sought to prevent family violence when adopting the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence a decade ago. But it still needs to take urgent steps to address gaps in legal protections and barriers survivors face in seeking justice and support services.

“Kazakhstan should have made much greater strides in protecting women from violence, but instead women continue to suffer,” said Viktoriya Kim, assistant Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has renewed its commitments to provide help, but at the same time is sending women, and abusers, the message that abuse inside the home isn’t to be taken seriously.”

Between April and August 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 domestic violence survivors and 26 others, including women’s rights activists, shelter staff, lawyers, and a police officer responsible for protecting women from violence under a municipal department of the Ministry of Interior.

The Union of Crisis Centers of Kazakhstan, an umbrella organization of 16 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), reports that partners kill hundreds of women in Kazakhstan each year and that domestic violence takes place in one out of every eight families in Kazakhstan. Zulfia Baisakova, the head of the organization, said it receives about 14,000 calls annually regarding domestic violence, the vast majority from women. According to 2017 government statistics, 17 percent of all women ages 18 to 75 have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former husband or partner.

Human Rights Watch found that Kazakh authorities are neither adequately preventing violence nor holding abusers accountable. Police do not routinely inform women about available services and protection, such as their right to seek shelter or protection orders. Women said that police often encourage them to drop their complaints and reconcile with their abusers.

In July 2017, then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed amendments to Kazakhstan’s criminal code decriminalizing “battery” and “intentional infliction of light bodily harm,”  the articles most commonly used to investigate and prosecute domestic violence. This effectively eliminates the possibility of criminal prosecution for most domestic violence cases.

Ayana, a 32-year-old mother of four, whose real name Human Rights Watch is withholding for her privacy, described her six-year marriage as “hell.” She said that a few days after she was married in 2013, her husband brutally beat her, and beat her repeatedly until she escaped in early 2019. She said that her husband would taunt her, saying: “I understand [that I am doing something wrong], but it is just an administrative [offense] so it’s just a penalty [that I would have to pay].” Ayana said, “The government is devaluing women.”

In 2009, Kazakhstan adopted the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, which defines domestic violence as “a deliberate unlawful action or inaction” that includes “physical, psychological, sexual and/or economic” violence” and applies to “spouses and ex-spouses, persons who live or have lived together (cohabitants and former cohabitants), close relatives and persons who have a child or children in common.” The law provides for short-term protection orders, intended to prohibit contact between a survivor and their abuser for up to 30 days, and for survivors’ access to shelters and other services. However, neither the Domestic Violence Law nor the criminal code specifically criminalizes domestic violence.

On September 2, 2019, in his first address to the nation since taking office on June 12, Kazakhstan's new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said that in protecting the rights and security of its citizens Kazakhstan “urgently needs to tighten the penalties for sexual violence… and domestic violence against women.”

On October 10 and 11, in letters to Human Rights Watch, both the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan and the Interior Ministry respectively stated that there is a draft law that proposes amendments to the criminal and criminal procedure codes, including through tougher penalties for sex crimes, domestic violence, and similar offenses.

Human Rights Watch found that police and staff at crisis centers operated by either the government or nongovernmental groups have not received sufficient specialized training to respond effectively to victims of domestic violence. Domestic abuse in Kazakhstan is still widely perceived as a “family matter” and is underreported to police, Human Rights Watch found. Women’s rights activists, lawyers, service providers, and survivors all said that social barriers discourage women from reporting abuse to anyone outside the home, including to other members of their own families. State policies aimed at keeping the family “intact” make it more difficult for women to escape violence.

The Interior Ministry letter said that presently 40 crisis centers are functioning throughout the country. But as Kazakhstan’s population is over 18 million, this number suggests that the total number of shelter spaces for domestic violence victims falls short of recommended standards of one shelter space per 10,000 people. Dozens of NGOs also provide services, but such initiatives are not a sustainable alternative to government services and crisis centers. Moreover, staff at nongovernmental crisis centers said that they struggle to sustain services, including shelter, due to the lack of adequate funding.

Human Rights Watch also found that government-run crisis centers do not meet international standards for services for domestic violence survivors, and that many women in Kazakhstan still do not know where to turn for help. In the crisis centers Human Rights Watch visited, researchers found insufficient security procedures and heard testimony that crisis center staff blamed survivors for “provoking” their partners and urged them to reconcile with their abusers.

The Kazakh government’s failure to adequately protect women against domestic violence and ensure their access to justice violates Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations, in particular under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The committee that oversees its implementation will review Kazakhstan’s progress during its 74th session from October 21 through November 8.

The Kazakh government should move urgently to amend the criminal code to recognize domestic violence as a stand-alone criminal offense and ensure that it carries penalties commensurate to the gravity of the violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Kazakh authorities should ensure that police respond effectively to domestic violence reports and that women facing abuse have access to support services, including crisis centers. Government service providers, police officers, medical personnel, and other relevant officials working on domestic violence should more regularly receive specialized training in preventing and responding to domestic violence.

“Women in Kazakhstan have the right to a life without violence, abuse, and harassment,” Kim said. “Kazakh authorities should ensure their safety and take urgent steps to fulfill its international obligations on domestic violence.”

For detailed findings on domestic violence in Kazakhstan, please see below.


2019 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with 16 survivors of domestic violence in three regions of Kazakhstan in May. In April and May, Human Rights Watch also interviewed women’s rights activists, social workers, psychologists, lawyers, representatives of government and nongovernmental crisis centers, and a police officer for the protection of women from violence under a municipal branch of the Ministry of Interior. Human Rights Watch conducted additional follow-up interviews in July and August. Human Rights Watch has used pseudonyms for all survivors and withheld some identifying details to protect survivors’ security and confidentiality.

The Supreme Court, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Kazakhstan responded to a Human Rights Watch request for information and data on October 10, 11, and 14 respectively. Human Rights Watch received a response from the prosecutor general’s office on October 16. Although it was too late to reflect the information in this report, it is linked here. Human Rights Watch will reply to the prosecutor’s office letter in the near future.

Impunity for Domestic Violence

In its October 11 letter, the Interior Ministry explained why “light bodily harm” and “battery” were decriminalized and said that “in all cases of domestic violence, with no exceptions, administrative cases are brought, and the perpetrators are held accountable.”

However, interviews with survivors and service providers revealed serious shortcomings in police response, including refusing to register victims’ complaints, failing to ensure that women were informed about their right to a protection order, and discouraging survivors from filing complaints. Interviewees said that low representation of women in law enforcement and judicial authorities compound problems for survivors.

Some said that the police urged them to reconcile with their abusers. Karlygash, a 30-year-old mother of three who divorced her abusive husband in 2018, said that after the divorce, her former husband beat her unconscious. She decided to file a complaint with police, but “he [neighborhood police officer] told me to forgive him [my ex-husband]. “‘This [a complaint on his record] will affect your children. If you forgive him,’ he said, ‘we’ll issue a protection order. He won’t touch or bother you.’” She did not file a complaint “for [the sake of my] children” and a few months later went back to her former husband, who continued to abuse her. She described an incident in February 2019: “He beat me with a chair. The floor, the stairs, everything was covered in blood.” The next day, Karlygash left for a shelter.

Other survivors said that police were dismissive or hostile when they tried to report abuse.

When Aigerim, 38, reported to the police in late 2018 that her husband continued to beat her despite complaints she had previously filed, the police officer told her they could not intervene or respond in any way because she did not have any visible wounds on her body. “I asked him, ‘[W]hat, are you going to wait until he kills me?’” she said.

Other women said that, although they filed complaints, police took no action to prevent or address the violence. Larissa, a 40-year-old mother of two, said that after she reported repeated abuse by her husband in the Almaty region in April 2019, the police did not appear to investigate or take steps to hold her husband accountable. “They are not looking for [my husband], not conducting any conversations [with him], do not ask the neighbors [about him] [since I filed the complaint],” she said. “In our country, domestic [violence] is not interesting to them [police].”

Zarina, 34, said that she filed a complaint against her partner in April after he beat her, and that the police informed her that her partner would serve 15 days of administrative arrest. But they released him three hours after detaining him. “My husband came home that day drunk,” Zarina said. “I called the police officer, who said he was busy and told me to call another officer, and that he would send a contact number. But he never did.” Zarina left for a shelter three days later.

Staff at both the government and nongovernmental crisis centers similarly said that police do not take domestic violence cases seriously, and do not treat domestic violence cases as a crime.

Decriminalization, Problematic Penalties, Poor Enforcement

Prior to July 2017, prosecutions of domestic violence under the provisions of “battery” and “infliction of light bodily harm” of the criminal code could be sanctioned with a maximum fine of 226,900 tenge up to 453,800 tenge (approximately US$677-$1,354) and arrest of 45 and up to 60 days. In July 2017, then-President Nazarbaev signed amendments decriminalizing “infliction of light bodily harm” and “battery.” They were re-introduced as administrative offenses carrying lesser fines of 25,250 tenge to 101,000 tenge (approximately US$65-$260) and administrative arrest of up to 20 days.

In 2015, the criminal code had been amended to suspend provisions providing a legal basis for arrest from January 2017 until January 2020, so those sentenced to short-term criminal detention could not be lawfully held, including for domestic abuse. The Interior Ministry said in its letter that people convicted were not held in detention due to a lack of appropriate holding facilities.

Kazakh officials who supported and initiated the 2017 move to eliminate the offenses from the criminal code have contended that, because these offenses were subject to private prosecutions, they hindered access to justice for domestic violence victims. The Interior Ministry echoed this reasoning in its letter. Under Kazakhstan’s law, private prosecutions can only be initiated by an injured party, who then bears the burden of gathering the evidence necessary for prosecution as well as all the related costs. Such prosecutions can also be terminated if an abuser reconciles with the victim.

The Kazakhstan government’s intention in removing the two offenses from the criminal code may indeed have been grounded in seeking ways to reduce the burden on women in pursing private prosecutions. However, the result was to remove what was virtually the sole possibility for criminal prosecution in most domestic violence cases. Domestic violence is a serious crime, and as required by international law, governments should prosecute it as a criminal offense with the burden of evidence gathering and initiation of a legal case resting with the state prosecutorial authorities, not the victims.

The Interior Ministry’s letter stated that transferring “infliction of light bodily harm” and “battery” to the administrative code facilitated “ensuring accountability for a maximum of offenders.”

According to data provided by the Supreme Court, in the first nine months of 2019, administrative courts received 19,331 cases involving unlawful actions among family members (art. 73 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, covering such actions as swearing, damaging property, disturbing the peace within the home and the like). Of these, 4,308 were sanctioned with up to three days of arrest, 59 with fines, and 3,322 with warnings.

For the first nine months of 2019, Kazakhstan’s administrative courts received 12,146 cases of “infliction of light bodily harm” and appeared to issue penalties in 4,057 cases: 2,687 with fines; 1,363 with arrest; and 7 with warnings. Administrative courts received 5,266 cases of “battery” and issued penalties in 1,264 of these cases: 696 with fines; 564 with arrest; and 4 with warnings.

However, there is no stand-alone administrative offense of domestic violence, and the data provided for “light bodily harm” and “battery” does not indicate how many of these cases involved domestic violence.

There is also no stand-alone criminal offense of domestic violence, so it is likewise impossible to determine whether the Interior Ministry’s data on criminal cases related to “light bodily harm” and “battery” prior to decriminalization includes cases of domestic violence.

Even in cases of the lesser administrative offenses, Human Rights Watch documented poor police enforcement. In addition, survivors and service providers said that the administrative penalties do not offer adequate protection from domestic violence. Karlygash, whose former husband repeatedly beat her in the last four years of their seven-year marriage, including when she was pregnant, said that she never filed a complaint against him. “[I]t did not make any sense,” she said. “[The police would] lock him up for 15 days, then they will let him go, and that is it. And after that he would be really angry.”

Several women said that the threat of a fine is not an effective deterrent against abuse. They said their abusers were aware they could be fined for beating them, but that they “did not care.”

Gulim, a 26-year-old mother of one, said that after she filed a complaint against her husband for beating her in 2019, an Almaty court fined her husband 37,000 tenge (US$99) to be paid to the state. Gulim felt she was denied justice: “Why [does he have to pay] the state? I don’t understand. I was the one beaten up. Turns out it is profitable for the government [to fine him], compared to just locking him up.”

A system of fines in Kazakhstan effectively permits an abuser to pay for the right to abuse, and sends a message that the government will tolerate abuse unless and until there is very serious or lethal violence. Several other women whose abusive husbands faced administrative fines said that the money to pay the fine came out of the family budget, thus penalizing the whole family.

Ayana said that, after her husband received an administrative penalty for abusing her, he told her on the telephone, “[B]ecause of your complaint, now I have to pay 100,000 tenge (US$258) and I would rather have it to spend on my children.” Ayana said, “Really, it is better for me if he spends this money on [our] children.”

A police officer interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that, in her experience, when women learn that the fine is to be paid from the family budget it prevents them from reporting the violence and filing a complaint.

Protection Orders

The Interior Ministry said in its letter that for the first nine months of 2019, police issued 58,011 protection orders and held 3,084 abusers accountable for violating protection orders.

Under Kazakh law, protection orders are issued by police and designed to ensure protection from an abuser for up to 30 days by prohibiting contact between the abuser and victim. But women’s rights activists and lawyers said that many women in Kazakhstan do not know they are entitled to protection orders and that such orders are ineffective because the police do not enforce them.

Elina Enikeeva, a lawyer at Sana-Sezim, an NGO in Shymkent that provides psychological counseling and legal aid to domestic violence survivors, said: “[P]rotection orders are not a working mechanism. Police do not issue them, [and they] do not inform survivors [of their existence].”

Aigerim, a 38-year-old mother of three, said that when she reported beatings by her husband to her neighborhood police officers in 2018, they did not provide information about her right to a protection order. It was only after she consulted a more senior police official that she learned she could request one. “I asked them [the neighborhood police officers] why they didn’t offer me one,” Aigerim said. “One of the officers said, ‘Oh? You needed one?’”

The law on prevention of domestic violence requires police to check the person’s adherence to the protection order’s provisions at least once every seven days. In Aigerim’s case, even after she was issued a protection order, her husband stalked her for a week, in violation of the order. Police knew about it but did nothing to enforce the order and hold her husband accountable.

Police failure to initiate and enforce protection orders jeopardizes their purpose and helps to foster a climate of impunity. Zhanara Nurmukhanova, the president of the Taldykorgan Regional Women’s Support Center, said: “[Abusers] do not take protection orders seriously, do not show up for preventive conversations [with police].”

Economic, Social Barriers to Help, Justice

Almost all the lawyers, women’s rights activists, and survivors interviewed said that social pressure, fear of recurrent abuse, stigmatization, and economic dependence prevent survivors from seeking protection, assistance, and justice. The Interior Ministry said in its letter that many women do not report domestic violence or drop their complaints because of psychological pressure by abusers and because they are economically dependent on abusers.

Raushan Khudaishukurova, a social worker at Sana-Sezim, said that the majority of survivors who approach the organization for assistance ultimately reconcile with their abusers “because of the situation [they are] in: relatives are against [their] divorce, [the survivor] does not have a job, her children [need a father].”

Stigma and Family Rejection

The belief that women are subservient to their husbands and the risk of stigma prevent survivors from reporting domestic abuse and seeking services and support. Several women who attempted to leave abusive relationships said that their own families or their spouses’ families had encouraged them to return and reconcile with their abusers.

Anara, 25, said that when she was one-month pregnant with her second child in 2016, her partner “beat and choked” her and “ran at me with a knife” after she denied him sex. She called a relative, asking for help, but the family member responded saying: “No! You got married. [If you die,] you will die there!”

That night, Anara fled with her young son to her relative’s place. “When I showed my bruises [to her], she said, ‘It’s not a big deal. It happens when you have a husband.’ I didn’t even think about reporting to the police and did not seek any medical help.”

Botagoz, a 37-year-old mother of one, said her partner started beating her two months after they began living together in 2018. When she told her sister-in-law about the violence, she said, “Endure, endure.” When Botagoz’s mother and sister found out about the beatings, they asked Botagoz’s in-laws to give Botagoz “a chance,” since it was her first ‘marriage,’ meaning they thought she did not know how to be an obedient wife.

Elina Enikeeva, a lawyer at Sana-Sezim, said that persistent perceptions about women’s roles and the importance of maintaining family at all costs make escaping abuse all the more difficult. “Often relatives [of the survivor] do not take her back,” Elikeeva said. “[They think] it’s shameful, that she is spoiled goods.’”

Several other survivors said that even after they left their abusive husbands or were divorced, their former partners believed they were entitled to a relationship, including subjecting them to violence.

Aigerim said that her husband has been stalking her since she filed for divorce in March. “He calls, screams at me, won’t give me any peace,” she said. “[He screams,] ‘You’re still my wife. I have the right to admonish you and beat you.’”

Dependence on Abusers

Many interviewees said that women remain in violent relationships in part because of their reliance on their husbands or their husband’s families for food and shelter. Most women interviewed said they worked outside of the home before marriage and had to quit their jobs, either because their husbands pressured them or to care for their children.

Saule, 38, whose husband brutally abused, raped, and humiliated her beginning in 2017, said that when they moved to a different city, her husband forced her to quit her job. Saule said she endured his abuse because of “fear [of my husband] and [because] I had nowhere to go.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Nurgul suffered a concussion after her husband threw her against the wall during one episode of violence in late 2018. She said that she did not seek medical help and stayed at home, because she did not know where to seek shelter with her children.

The police officer said that most women either do not report domestic violence or drop their complaints before or during prosecution because “they have nowhere to go.”

Crisis Centers and Services for Survivors

According to 2017 data of the Statistics Committee of the Ministry of National Economy, Kazakhstan has 30 crisis centers, in 13 of the country’s 14 regions, as well as in cities of Almaty and Astana (name at time of writing), with 18 of them offering shelter space. Information provided by the Interior Ministry on October 11 stated that presently there are 40 crisis centers, but did not indicate how many shelter spaces there are. The October 14 letter from the Labor and Social Protection Ministry stated that as of 2018, Kazakhstan had 29 crisis centers, of which 10 are state-funded with the capacity for 2,500 people and 19 are non-state funded centers with a total of 900 spaces. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection also noted that starting in 2017, it provided funds to regional budgets, as well as to the city budgets of Almaty and Astana (as per the letter) to support social service organizations run by the government or nongovernmental groups.

Kazakhstan’s Domestic Violence Law guarantees survivors’ access to social services, including to shelter at government-run crisis centers. The Interior Ministry said in its letter that police cooperate with service providers and had referred more than 24,000 women for consultations already in 2019.

Under the law, available services should include psychological and legal consultation and temporary accommodation to women fleeing abuse for up to six months, although it stipulates that temporary accommodation is only available to survivors based on the feasibility of the service provider organizations. The law requires service providers to maintain confidentiality and ensure the safety of the survivor. However, it also requires reporting domestic abuse to the police while protecting personal data, even when survivors refuse to file a complaint.

Some government-run crisis centers staff said that it is difficult to protect survivors’ personal information while simultaneously involving police in cases reported to them. Mandatory reporting of identifying information to police contradicts guidance on service provision for domestic violence, which calls for confidentiality and information-sharing only with a survivor’s informed consent, with exceptions only where the health, life, or security of the survivor or others is deemed to be at risk.

Human Rights Watch visited three government-run centers and three run by NGOs. Staff members expressed a desire to provide adequate support and protection to survivors of domestic abuse with the information and resources at their disposal. Yet Human Rights Watch found that staff in the government-run crisis centers lacked sufficient training to provide services for victims of domestic violence.

Staff blamed women for provoking their partners and pressured them to reconcile with their abusers to keep their families intact. One crisis center employee said that the violence is often “a woman’s fault, she pushes her husband to alcohol addiction, she does not listen to her husband, or has a difficult personality.” Another employee at the same crisis center said the staff’s approach “was usually to send [survivors] back to their husbands.”

Anara, 25, sought shelter at a government-run crisis center with her three children in 2019, after her abusive partner repeatedly called and threatened to kill her. She said that staff at the crisis center insisted on informing a relative of her whereabouts, despite Anara’s objection. She had to speak with the director to stop the center’s employees from revealing her location. “Here [at the crisis center], reconciliation is their prime goal,” Anara said. “That’s not what I want.”

Another survivor at the same crisis center said that she stopped attending counseling sessions after the psychologist advised her to return to her abusive husband. She recalled the counselor telling her, “Don’t make your children orphans. Women are themselves at fault. You talk to [your husband]. He’ll say in writing that he won’t beat you.’”

Human Rights Watch also documented several instances in which staff at government-run centers invited survivors’ abusers or relatives to the shelter, reportedly with the aim of trying to reconcile them or “find the reason for the abuse.” Kazakhstan’s domestic violence law allows police to “conduct preventive conversations” with abusers “in the formal premises of the entities of domestic violence prevention,” which appears to have been interpreted to include crisis centers. This provision is at serious odds with effectively protecting the rights of survivors and with prioritizing their safety, confidentiality, and well-being, in keeping with international standards.

Raushan, 27, said that she sought help at a government-run crisis center for a second time after she decided to divorce her husband in 2019. When she returned to the center, she discovered that employees had invited her mother-in-law and her husband, who were already there. “Employees of the crisis center pressured me to reconcile with my husband,” Raushan said. “They told my husband to show me his hands, saying, ‘Look [at his hands], he works hard. [This situation] is all your fault! If you do not return to your husband within six months, [the state] will take your kids away from you.’”

In some cases, Human Rights Watch found that women were not aware of their right to crisis center protection and did not know where to go for help.

Zarina, a 34-year-old mother of four, said that she only fled her abusive partner after her sister found out and told her about a hotline [for shelter]. “I had no idea there were places like this [crisis centers],” she said. “Where would I have gone otherwise?”

Lyazzat, a 48-year-old mother of one, said that after her husband fractured her rib in 2019, she hid out in her brother-in-law’s house for three days because she did not know where else she could go. Lyazzat was able to move into a shelter after she discovered a hotline for victims of abuse in a magazine in her brother-in-law’s home.


The government of Kazakhstan should:

  • Urgently introduce criminal provisions to ensure domestic violence is a stand-alone crime and can be handled with a public prosecution, with appropriate punishments commensurate with the gravity of the abuse;
  • In the meantime, enforce the existing law and prosecute abusers for assault and causing bodily harm to the fullest extent of the law;
  • Ensure that police initiate, enforce, and monitor protection orders;
  • Develop and implement mandatory training on domestic violence prevention and response for law enforcement officials, health care workers, and employees of government-run crisis centers in line with international standards and best practices;
  • Ensure that social services for survivors are comprehensive, professional, and inclusive by systematically training staff at shelters, crisis centers, and service provider organizations;
  • Conduct public awareness campaigns to educate the public about domestic violence, how and where to get services, and how to seek redress;
  • Ensure that survivors of domestic abuse have immediate and straightforward access to protection, including through ensuring sufficient shelter spaces, including in rural areas;
  • Ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention);
  • Invite the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on violence against women for a country visit to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s international partners, including the United States, the European Union, and its member states, should press the government to address domestic violence, including calling on the authorities to make it a stand-alone crime. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences should request a visit to Kazakhstan.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A hard-hitting BBC television documentary, Sex for Grades, has uncovered rampant sexual abuse, harassment, and bullying of students at two prestigious universities in Nigeria and Ghana, and launched what will hopefully be a new movement.  

In #SexforGrades – which saw female journalists work undercover – the BBC reported on disturbing behaviors by professors that put girls and young women at risk of sexual exploitation and harassment. It highlighted abusive, coercive, and utterly unprofessional conduct.

But this is not just a problem in universities: school-related sexual violence is common in education systems in many other places. Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases of sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse of students in schools elsewhere.

I have interviewed scores of teenage girls and young women in countries including Senegal, Tanzania and Ecuador who were sexually abused at school. In Senegal, and other countries in West Africa, “sex for grades” in secondary schools, and particularly in universities, is so normalized that the practice is often called “Sexually Transmitted Grades.”

Current estimates of the scale of sexual violence in schools suggest that millions of students could be affected.

Meanwhile, the global #MeToo and other movements – like #Nopiwouma in Senegal – have uncovered how women and girls face sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse in many spaces – not only in education. The #MeToo movement has helped give young women the courage and the platform to speak out, as #SexForGrades is now poised to do too.

But we do know that teenage girls are often still unable to speak out when these abuses happen, usually because the teachers and school staff who sexually exploit them normalize their actions. They also pressure girls into silence. Many girls know that they will be blamed for their teachers’ crimes, and that their grades or participation in secondary school will be affected. Our research shows that even if students become pregnant after being raped or coerced into sex by their teachers, officials usually deny the abuse. Additionally, there are few safe avenues or procedures for students to confidentially report these crimes.

Governments cannot continue to do nothing as girls and young women’s lives and education are undermined or brought to a halt. Preventing school-related sexual violence – from secondary education through university – is the state’s responsibility. Ending it should be imperative.

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

Aminetou Mint Ely [center, holding phone], president of the Association of Women Heads of Family and staff of a support center for survivors of gender-based violence, run by the association, Rosso, Mauritania, February 7, 2018. 

© 2018 Candy Ofime/Human Rights Watch

(Tunis) – Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani should prioritize women’s rights during his administration, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the new president. In particular, he should take steps to reduce the high incidence of gender-based violence and ensure that victims have access to justice.

After extensive research on the ground in 2018 and 2019, Human Rights Watch found that the lack of strong laws on gender-based violence and of institutions to provide assistance to victims, along with social pressures and stigma, dissuade women and girls from seeking help and remedies when they are abused. The authorities provide inadequate medical, mental health, and legal support services to victims, letting nongovernmental organizations fill the protection gap as best they can with limited means. In addition, survivors of rape who complain to authorities risk prosecution for engaging in sexual relations outside marriage if they cannot convince the court that they were raped.

“President Ould Ghazouani should set a new tone for his presidency by demonstrating zero tolerance for gender-based violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mauritania’s women should not have to suffer rape and other forms of violence in silence.”

The authorities in Mauritania should stop prosecuting or detaining men and women in cases of sexual relations outside of marriage, known as zina. Human Rights Watch said the government should also decriminalize this offense, to harmonize Mauritanian laws with international conventions protecting the right of privacy and personal autonomy.

Ould Ghazouani should press parliament to pass a pending 2016 draft bill on gender-based violence. He should ensure that the law defines rape in terms broader than the definition in the current draft, and that it criminalizes all other forms of sexual violence.

The president should also support eliminating from the penal code all punishments that amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, such as death by stoning or flogging – even though Mauritania has an effective current moratorium on carrying out such punishments.

The government should allocate more funding to assisting victims of violence, such as by establishing short-term and long-term shelters, and by creating specialized prosecutorial units to pursue sexual violence cases.

Mauritania should also remove all its remaining reservations to articles 13(a) and 16 of the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which relate to eliminating discrimination involving family benefits and requiring equality in marriage and family matters.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani

Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Nouakchott, Mauritania

Re: Women’s Rights and Gender-based Violence

Dear President Ould Ghazouani, 

Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization that documents human rights violations and advocates for change in over 90 countries. Over the past two years, we have engaged constructively with the Mauritanian government over key issues that included women’s rights and freedom of speech. We met with the ministers of justice, interior, social affairs, childhood and family and with the president of the national human rights commission to discuss our findings and recommendations. 

We are writing at the beginning of your presidency to urge you to take decisive steps to improve women’s rights and to tackle the prevalence of gender-based violence nationally. 

In 2018, Human Rights Watch in consultation with Mauritanian NGOs conducted extensive research on gender-based violence and published its findings in a report entitled “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” issued on September 5, 2018. We found that:

  • Taboo, societal pressure, and stigma surrounding gender-based violence deters women and girls who are affected from breaking the silence;
  • Women and girls who report rape incidents to the authorities risk prosecution for engaging in sexual relations outside marriage (also known as zina);
  • Survivors must navigate a system that discourages them from making complaints and provides inadequate victim-support services; and 
  • Civil society organizations, that have limited means, too often inadequately fill in the existing protection gap throughout the country that should be filled by the government. 

Human Rights Watch has shared its findings with the Mauritanian government and urged it to:

  • Cease prosecutions and detentions for so-called zina cases and decriminalize the offense; 
  • Adopt a law on gender-based violence in line with international standards; and
  • Allocate adequate funding to create specialized prosecutorial units, implement periodic gender-responsive trainings of law-enforcement officials, ensure greater access to medical care and forensic examinations for survivors, open shelters throughout the country equipped to house and provide direct support services to survivors, and increase financial support to civil society organizations currently supporting survivors. 

In May 2019, Human Rights Watch researchers returned to Nouakchott to interview one of the survivors and activists whose experience and expertise informed our research for the report. We met again with Rouhiya (name changed to protect her identity), a young woman who was sexually abused repeatedly by her father and was pregnant as a result of rape by him at the time of her initial interview. Absent shelters in Nouakchott and absent government support, Rouhiya remains forced to live in her abusive home, taking care of her newborn, with a father who continues to be physically violent. Women’s rights activists we spoke to continue to deplore the lack of government action and lawmakers’ refusal to adopt a gender-based violence law that would provide a framework for accountability and protection, and institutionalize support services for survivors, such as Rouhiya. 

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that the National Assembly rejected the draft gender-based violence law in December 2018, for the second time. The draft law, supported by the ministry of justice and approved by the Senate in 2016, included key input from civil society leaders, aimed at creating a new protection framework for survivors. It especially provided key definitions and criminal sentences for rape and sexual harassment, authorized civil society organizations to bring cases on behalf of survivors, allowed judges to issue restraining orders against alleged perpetrators and obligated the government to create shelters with short and long-term accommodation options. Despite these positive features of the draft law, we regret that the bill does not repeal provisions of the Penal Code criminalizing consensual sexual relations, defines rape and sexual assault too narrowly and maintains references in the penal code to forms of punishments amounting to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, such as death by stoning or flogging. While your newly formed government defines Mauritania’s new policy orientations, we urge you to demonstrate your commitment to women’s rights by making such law reform a priority. 

We would welcome a meeting with you and with senior members of your administration to further discuss our recommendations on women’s rights and more specifically on the draft gender-based violence law and remain at your disposal for any questions or clarifications. We would be grateful to hear back from you concerning the availability of yourself and of other pertinent officials to meet with a Human Rights Watch delegation. 

A response to our request can be directed to my colleague, XXXXXXX, Middle East and North Africa coordinator, via email at  XXXXXXX. 


Sarah Leah Whitson

Executive Director

Middle East and North Africa Division

Human Rights Watch

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© International Labour Organization
If one dreamed up an ambitious global #metoo success story, it might involve governments around the world enthusiastically supporting legal norms and action on sexual harassment with active support and cooperation from businesses and workers.

Sound too good to be true? It is exactly what happened in June with the adoption of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Violence and Harassment. These new international standards could improve the world of work globally – and the next step is for countries to ratify and implement this landmark treaty.

Since September, media outlets have published countless reflections on the second anniversary of #MeToo going viral. Publications have collated useful timelines of high-profile cases and analyzed whether the movement has made a difference in workplaces around the world.


#MeToo Movement’s Second Anniversary

Activists from Around the Globe Reflect on Successes, Challenges

There have been many successes. The shift in public discourse, the newfound attention to an issue long normalized into invisibility, and the growing number of sexual violence survivors feeling empowered to speak up have shattered the status quo.

Resignations and prosecutions of those accused of abuse have taken place around the world, including Egypt, India, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Sweden, and the United States. There are new sexual harassment laws in 15 US states, and more legal resources for survivors who wish to come forward.

But more change is needed. There has been backlash, for example through the use of defamation suits against those who turned to social media to make claims of abuse. In the past few weeks, Sandra Muller, whose tweet sparked France’s #metoo or #balancetonporc movement, was fined for defamation, and an Indian high court ordered Facebook and Instagram to reveal the identity of the person running an anonymous account sharing #metoo stories in India’s art world.

A 2018 World Bank report found that 59 out of 189 economies had no specific legal provisions covering sexual harassment in employment. And the ILO has found that existing laws often exclude the workers most exposed to violence, for example domestic workers, farmworkers, and those in precarious employment.

If the potential of #MeToo is to be fully realized on a global scale, governments must do their part to protect workers from sexual violence. Ratification of the Violence and Harassment Convention is a historic opportunity for countries to pledge their commitment to ending this scourge.

The treaty sets out minimum obligations for how governments should prevent and protect people from violence at work. This includes ensuring robust national laws against harassment and violence at work and prevention measures such as information campaigns. It also requires enforcement—such as inspections and investigations, and access to remedies for victims, including complaints mechanisms, whistleblower protections, and compensation.

Countries that ratify agree to align their national laws to the treaty’s standards and will be periodically reviewed for their compliance by the ILO.

The treaty is not limited to direct government action. It obliges governments to require employers to have workplace policies addressing violence and harassment, risk assessments, prevention measures, and training. Employers should take on these responsibilities whether their governments ratify the treaty or not.

Worker organizations had been pushing for the Violence and Harassment Convention for years, and the #MeToo social media explosion in October 2017 injected energy and urgency into the treaty negotiations that began in 2018 . Marie Clarke Walker, the lead negotiator for the workers, noted that it enabled her to push back against naysayers with, “You can’t say these things are not happening. It’s all over the media.”

There is reason to be excited. The treaty provides clear and specific guidance on an area of law that has remained murky and underdeveloped in many countries, just as the public is clamoring for reform.

Already, 10 countries–Argentina, Belgium, France, Iceland, Ireland, Namibia, Philippines, South Africa, Uganda, and Uruguay–have announced their intention to ratify the treaty without delay.

Global and national trade unions, such as the International Trade Union Confederation, and feminist groups, including the hallmark 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, are gearing up to push other countries to join them.

This treaty offers governments an unprecedented new tool—backed by the United Nations, trade unions, and many employers—to fight against the harassment and violence plaguing workers around the world. Ratifying and enforcing it as soon as possible is the right thing to do.

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


#MeToo Movement’s Second Anniversary

Activists from Around the Globe Reflect on Successes, Challenges

(New York) – The global #MeToo movement has sparked significant social, cultural, and legal change, but many challenges remain, Human Rights Watch said, on the eve of the second anniversary of the #MeToo hashtag going viral on social media.

Human Rights Watch issued a video, “The Global Power of #MeToo,” in which activists from Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Lebanon, Uganda, and the United States discuss the successes of the #MeToo movement and the need for further action to prevent sexual harassment and violence and ensure accountability for abuse.

“The #MeToo movement is thriving, and what exploded as a tidal wave on social media has translated into robust public debate, shifting social norms, and concrete changes in laws and policies,” said Nisha Varia, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the biggest changes is the growing space and support for survivors to speak up and break the silence around sexual harassment and assault.”

In a landmark development that could change sexual harassment laws and practice globally, governments, employers, and worker representatives in June adopted new international legal standards on violence and harassment at work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention sets out minimum obligations for how governments should address harassment and violence at work.

This includes passing national laws, putting in place prevention measures, and committing to monitoring and enforcement. The treaty obliges governments to require employers to have workplace policies addressing violence and harassment, risk assessments, and training. It also requires access to remedies for victims, including complaint mechanisms, whistleblower protections, and compensation.

Countries that ratify agree to align their national laws to the treaty’s standards and will be periodically reviewed for their compliance by the ILO. Already, 10 countries – Argentina, Belgium, France, Iceland, Ireland, Namibia, Philippines, South Africa, Uganda, and Uruguay – have announced their intention to ratify the treaty.

“Governments should ratify and carry out the new ILO Violence and Harassment convention as soon as possible,” Varia said. “The #MeToo movement has exposed deeply entrenched norms that enable abuse, and urgent action is needed to ensure that all workers are guaranteed their safety and dignity.”

Despite progress, there has also been backlash, Human Rights Watch said. There has been resistance against some reforms and the use of defamation suits against those who turned to social media to make claims of abuse. Sandra Muller, whose tweet sparked France’s #metoo or #balancetonporc movement, was fined for defamation in September, and an Indian high court ordered Facebook and Instagram earlier this month to reveal the identity of the person running an anonymous account sharing #MeToo stories in India’s art world.

The activists featured in the video include:

  • Chidi King, Equality Director of the International Trade Union Confederation based in Belgium, helped negotiate the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention;
  • Eulogia Familia, vice president of Confederación Nacional de Unidad Sindical, is leading campaigns against workplace sexual harassment in the Dominican Republic;
  • Ghida Anani, director of ABAAD (Resource Center for Gender Equality) has been leading efforts to change Lebanon’s penal code on sexual violence;
  • Rosebell Kagumire, editor of, has been outspoken on the rights of women and girls in Uganda and across Africa;
  • Roushaunda Williams, Local 1 shop steward for UNITE HERE, successfully pushed for laws protecting hotel workers from sexual harassment in Chicago and the US state of Illinois; and
  • Toufah Jallow spoke out against Gambia’s ex-dictator, and by sharing her personal story, sparked a national #MeToo movement.

“While much has been accomplished, survivors still confront victim-blaming and the threat of retaliation for speaking up,” Varia said. “There is still a tremendous amount of change needed to win the fight against sexual harassment and assault.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The global #MeToo movement has sparked significant social, cultural, and legal change, but on the eve of the second anniversary of the #metoo hashtag going viral on social media, many challenges remain.

Activists from Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Kenya, Lebanon, and the United States discuss the successes of the #MeToo movement and the need for further action, to prevent sexual harassment and violence and ensure accountability for abuse.

The activists featured in the video include:

• Chidi King, Equality Director of the International Trade Union Confederation based in Belgium, helped negotiate the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention;
• Ghida Anani, director of ABAAD--Resource Center for Gender Equality, has been leading efforts to change Lebanon’s penal code on sexual violence;
• Rosebell Kagumire, editor of, has been outspoken on the rights of women and girls in Uganda and across Africa;
• Roushanda Williams, Local 1 shop steward for UNITE HERE, successfully pushed for a law protecting hotel workers from sexual harassment in the US state of Illinois; and
• Toufah Jallow spoke out against Gambia’s ex-dictator, and by sharing her personal story, sparked a national #MeToo movement.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Lorena (a pseudonym) was arrested after having a miscarriage on suspicion of having an abortion. She’s facing criminal charges. © 2019 Amy Braunschweiger for Human Rights Watch

Today, on International Day of the Girl, we have an opportunity to reflect on what life could be like if girls around the world had access to safe and legal abortion.

I’ve done research in countries with some of the world’s harshest abortion laws. I’ve met girls and young women whose lives were derailed by an unplanned pregnancy during adolescence.

“Lucely,” from the Dominican Republic, became pregnant at age 16. “Everything ended right there,” she said. Abortion is banned in all circumstances in the country, so she couldn’t get a safe and legal abortion. She tried using a home remedy to end the pregnancy, but it didn’t work. She gave birth, and without a support network to help her, she dropped out of school.

Too many girls find themselves in similar situations, forced to choose between clandestine – and often risky – abortions or continuing an unwanted pregnancy. Globally, nearly four million adolescents ages 15 to 19 have unsafe abortions each year, and 16 million give birth, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Worldwide, a staggering 120 million adolescent girls and young women under 20 have faced sexual violence. This year, an 11-year-old girl was forced to give birth in Argentina after she was raped by a 65-year-old man. Authorities repeatedly ignored her requests for an abortion.

Young adolescents have a higher risk of health complications and death from pregnancy than adults. WHO report complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls and young women 15 to 19. Pregnant girls and young mothers are sometimes kicked out of school, or pushed to marry at an early age. Research has shown that women who marry at early ages are more likely to experience intimate partner than women who marry as adults.

If governments guaranteed access to safe, legal abortion, a girl facing an unwanted pregnancy for any reason would have the chance to consider her options and decide whether she was ready to become a mother, and how her choice would affect her health and her future. She would be able to choose to delay motherhood and receive a safe abortion if that’s what she wanted.

Every girl should have that choice.

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