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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Liesl Gerntholtz is the Acting Deputy Executive Director for Program at Human Rights Watch. 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

It was disappointing to read a recent article by a  senior police officer, Emilian Kayima, in The New Vision blaming women for being victims of sexual violence. Instead of taking on the men responsible for the violence and abuse, Kayima,  a former police spokesperson, went on a tirade against women.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault are acts of violence and abuse, period. They are about power and domination, not sexual attraction, driven by the attacker’s decision to act in an abusive way, not dependent on a victim’s action or behavior. Unfortunately, damaging sexist statements and attitudes that blame victims are common. These harmful statements may be uttered under the guise of offering women and girls general safety advice but they only reinforce inappropriate social norms that justify and normalize the abuse.

Victim-blaming compounds the trauma of sexual assault and magnifies stigma and shame. It also deters survivors from coming forward.

Still, women in Uganda have been speaking out against the violence they face. Loudly. In 2018, they marched in the streets because they felt no one was listening when there was a spate of gender-based abductions and killings. Adding their voice to the global #MeToo movement, they spoke out about the sexual harassment they face at work and at school, pushing major organizations to rethink sexism, revise their sexual harassment policies, and take action against abusers.

A few years ago, Ugandan courts took a laudable step to try to restore faith in the justice system by holding special court sessions to fast-track cases of sexual violence and clear a backlog of these cases. NGOs have also partnered with the government to support similar hearings by providing mobile courts in remote areas. Ugandan women’s courage is evident in the face of the injustices they have faced when countering sexual violence in their daily lives. They are demanding justice.  And they do so in the face of data from Uganda’s police that confirms an increase in the reported case of sexual violence.

Unfortunately, Ugandan leadership has not responded adequately to sexual violence. The misogynistic anti-pornography law of 2014 initially had provisions that sought to control women’s bodies as it essentially banned women from wearing mini-skirts (or even having brightly colored nails). This law spurred attacks on women, some of whom were stripped naked.

Women in senior positions of power in government have not been spared from sexual harassment. One member of Parliament was subjected to cyberstalking.  Another MP reported sexual harassment from her male colleagues, and even at this senior level in government, received no support. The case of the senior state attorney who said she was sexually harassed by a colleague for a decade has been widely reported in the press too.

Prosecuting sexual violence is challenging, more so in conservative societies where sex is considered a taboo topic. Police play a critical role in working with communities to deter crime, including gender-based violence. Police should be trained on best practices for understanding gender-based violence, handling complaints, and treating survivors with sensitivity. This includes treating sexual violence seriously and supporting victims instead of blaming them.

As the first point of contact in the judicial system, the police can ensure a survivor-centered approach, including by prioritizing urgent initial medical care and time-sensitive evidence collection. Working with communities to reaffirm support for survivors can go a long way to reinforce survivors’ trust in the police.

The Ugandan government, including the police, should denounce Kayima’s comments and make a strong stand against sexual violence. This means treating sexual violence as the crime it is and not excusing it based on discriminatory and misinformed attitudes. It means placing the blame on the abusers and conducting rigorous investigations into all incidents of harassment and violence. It also means building trust with the community and demonstrating that survivors can expect support if they come forward, not further victimization.

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

We write in advance of the pre-sessional Working Group for the 77th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the Committee”) relating to South Africa’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”).

  1. Protection of Sex workers (Articles 6 and 12)

Selling and buying sex in South Africa is illegal. The criminalisation of sex work has not deterred mostly poor, black and economically marginalized South African women from selling sex to make a living and support their children, and often other dependents too. Criminalisation in South Africa has, however, made sex work less safe, made sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and crimes and meant that sex workers are less likely to report trafficking for fear of recrimination. Criminalisation undermines sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposes them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers. And although the Department of Health’s national strategy on sex work and HIV is grounded in respect for the human rights of sex workers, outreach and non-discrimination, criminalisation hinders sex workers’ efforts to access health care, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report documented violence experienced by sex workers in South Africa, and their difficulties in reporting crimes and creating safe places to work. We interviewed 46 female sex workers in 10 interview sites in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng provinces. We also interviewed more than 40 lawyers, health workers and others working to provide services to this vulnerable population as well as representatives from the South African government.[1]

Sex workers described facing frequent arbitrary arrests and police profiling as well as coerced sex and extortion. They said that to avoid police harassment they were compelled to work in dangerous areas like dark parks, bushy areas behind bars, or back roads in towns where they felt unsafe. Sex workers also said that they often did not report crimes against them because they feared arrest or harassment. Some chose not to report out of fear that the police would laugh at them, blame them, or take no action. Many of the interviewees had been raped by men purporting to be clients, and almost all had been victims of robbery or serious violence, including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed.

Health workers and health rights activists interviewed said that criminalisation obstructs efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections among sex workers. Outreach workers from clinics providing services to sex workers have been arrested and police have relied on sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, discouraging them from carrying them. Some sex workers also reported that arrest and detention interrupted their essential HIV treatment.[2]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Introduce a new law to parliament that removes criminal and administrative sanctions against consensual adult sex work and related offences, such as solicitation, and current prohibited practices such as “living off the earnings” of prostitution or brothel-keeping;
  • Recommend municipal governments reform or repeal overly broad by-laws prohibiting vague offences such as loitering and being a “public nuisance” so they can no longer be used to target vulnerable groups, including sex workers;
  • Implement an immediate moratorium on arrests of sex workers, including for loitering, indecent exposure and other misdemeanours;
  • Publicly commit to strict nationwide enforcement of provisions that prohibit torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, police brutality, coerced confessions or telling detainees to sign “admissions of guilt” paperwork without fully explaining the content;
  • Ensure police training and awareness-building on human rights and sex worker rights under international and South African law, tolerance and sensitive and non-discriminatory policing is carried out regularly and rigorously. This training should include on the correct protocol of arrest and police detention and also non-discrimination concerning crimes reported by sex workers.
  1. Girls’ Access to Education (Articles 10 and 12)

Insufficient Protections for Pregnant Students and Adolescent Mothers

South Africa has had a policy on the prevention and management of student pregnancies since 2007, which states that school children who are pregnant shall not be unfairly discriminated against and cannot be expelled.[3] However, research by South African NGOs indicates that this policy has not been fully respected by schools, and schools have often discriminated against female students.[4] Research conducted by South African organisations shows that some school officials continue to exclude pregnant girls from school or ask them to shift to other schools, contradicting their obligations to respect student’s right to compulsory education.[5]

In 2018, the government initiated a consultation to develop a new policy on management and prevention of student pregnancies.[6] This new policy has not yet been released at time of writing this submission.[7] Human Rights Watch recommends that the government removes any conditional measures–currently applied through the government’s 2007 policy—that impact on girls’ education or deter them from going back to school. For example, students should not have to wait a conditional period until they can return to school.[8]

The new policy should ensure that pregnant students can stay in school while they are medically able to, and that they return to school as soon as they are ready. Schools should also provide basic accommodations for adolescent parents, including: time to breastfeed during breaks, and time off in case a student’s child is ill or to comply with other medical or bureaucratic requirements.[9]

Through its policy, the government should communicate a clear obligation on all education establishments to respect girls’ right to stay in school. Schools should not be able to block a student’s return to school.

We welcome the Department of Basic Education’s commitment, expressed in this draft policy, to focus both on prevention and management of pregnancies. The government should act on its commitment to provide access to an age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), and ensure it is-embedded in its comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum.[10] The government’s new policy should stipulate the mandatory nature of this curriculum, and should specify that learners will have access to comprehensive sexuality education from primary school, in line with international guidance.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • What steps will the government take to fully guarantee, in law and policy, pregnant students and adolescent parents’ right to education?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ retention in school?
  • How will the government ensure provincial governments’ and schools’ compliance with its forthcoming policy on pregnancy management and prevention in schools?
  • How does the government ensure that its compulsory sexuality education curriculum complies with international standards, and how does it ensure that teachers are trained in its contents, and allocate time to teach it?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Encourage the government to adopt a human rights compliant policy that guarantees pregnant girls’ and adolescent parents’ right to education and includes basic accommodations to ensure parents are supported to stay in school. The government should regularly monitor this policy to ensure schools adhere to its provisions.

Discrimination in Education for Children with Disabilities

An estimated 600,000 children with disabilities remain out of school in South Africa, but the government has not published accurate, disaggregated data that shows exactly how many girls and boys with disabilities are out of school.[11]

The high cost of education, including school fees and other school-related costs, continues to be a significant barrier keeping children with disabilities out of school. South Africa does not guarantee the right to free primary or secondary education to all children in law or practice.[12] Research by Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015 found that the current fee-based system particularly discriminates against children with disabilities.[13] It results in many children with disabilities paying school fees that many children without disabilities do not, as well as additional costs, such as for uniforms, food, transport, and to secure reasonable accommodations for the child’s disability.[14]

South Africa’s Schools Act mandates that the state fund public schools on an equitable basis.[15] The government in turn requires that the governing bodies of public schools—made up of teachers, parents, and other community representatives—adopt a resolution for a school to charge fees and supplement a school’s funding “by charging school fees and doing other reasonable forms of fund-raising.”[16]

Public schools may be classified as “no-fee” schools, a status granted to public schools by provincial governments, which means that those schools should not charge fees. The “no-fee” designation is based on the “economic level of the community around the school,” and on a quintile system from poorest to richest, whereby the lowest three quintiles do not pay fees in designated public schools.[17]

The government treats public special schools differently from other public schools. Special schools are still not listed in the national government’s publicly available annual “no-fee” schools lists. In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, for the first time, Gauteng province listed 5 special schools as “no-fee” out of 128 special schools in the whole province. The Western Cape province’s 2017 “no-fee” schools list excluded all special schools.[18]

Although a high number of students in special schools come from townships and predominantly poor areas of towns, many public special schools in urban areas are located in wealthier suburbs previously inaccessible to the majority of children under apartheid.[19] The income level of surrounding communities and locations means many special schools fail the “needs” or “poverty” test used to assess a school’s access to recurrent public funding or to qualify as a “no-fee” school.[20]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • How many children with disabilities remain out of school, and how many are girls?
  • What measures has the government adopted to ensure children with disabilities have access to free quality inclusive education, on an equal basis with children without disabilities, particularly in rural and remote areas? How do those measures respond to girls with disabilities needs?
  • What binding measures has the government taken to ensure provincial governments respect and fulfill the right to inclusive education of children with disabilities?
  • What steps has the government taken to ensure legislation and policy reflect the government’s obligation to provide free education, and its obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to allow children with disabilities to access education without discrimination?
  • Will the government adopt legislation providing specific protections to children with disabilities and guaranteeing inclusive education?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Urge the government to disclose robust, disaggregated data on the number of children with disabilities out of school.
  • Urge the government to ensure access to free and compulsory primary education and to secondary education to children with disabilities, including by developing a detailed plan of action for the immediate realization of free compulsory primary education, in line with its responsibilities under international human rights law.
  • Call upon the government to adopt stronger legal protections for children with disabilities to complement the South African Schools Act. This includes a clear duty to provide reasonable accommodation in public ordinary schools, accompanied by specific provisions that prevent the rejection of students with disabilities from schools in their neighborhood.
  1. Targeting of Women Activists (Articles 2(c), 3 and 14)

Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants. When police are informed of attacks or threats, they sometimes fail to conduct timely or adequate investigations into the incidents. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, women are often first to experience the harms of mining and can play a leading role in voicing these concerns, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[21] We cite activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities.[22]

In South Africa women are often the most directly responsible for children, and may be without a second parent present in the household, caretaking of others.[23] Research by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies found that threats against women in South Africa adversely affect their children and families because of the role women predominantly play as primary caregivers.[24] Women are also often first to experience the harms of extractive industries on land, water, food, health, and livelihoods.[25] In many places collecting water and gathering food are responsibilities of women and impacts on these resources affect them first. As elsewhere globally, on average women in South Africa are poorer than men and more vulnerable to sudden losses of income or food or water resources and the burden of buying more expensive alternatives. This often motivates them to play a leading role in voicing these concerns and acting as human rights defenders, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[26]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Publicly condemn assaults, threats, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of activists, and direct the police and other government officials to stop all arbitrary arrests, harassment, or threats against community rights defenders.
  • Provide adequate and effective individual and collective protection measures to individuals and communities at risk.
  • Ensure that law enforcement authorities respect and protect the right to protest, including by not using unlawful measures of crowd control beyond what is strictly necessary to prevent harm to people or excessive harm to property.
  • Direct government officials at all levels, in particular in any departments responsible for regulating mining or protests, to comply with South Africa’s domestic and international obligations to respect, protect, and promote all human rights of activists across South Africa, including the community rights defenders in mining-affected communities, to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and protest, and the rights to health and a healthy environment.
  • Ensure women activists receive equal attention and support as male activists.

[1] Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa, August 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/south-africa-decriminalise-sex-work

[2] Ibid.

[3] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 28, 2018), pp. 6 – 7. Despite its existence, schools continue to expel pregnant girls in breach of South Africa’s constitutional laws. Lisa Draga et al, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Chapter 8 – Pregnancy, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf (accessed August 28, 2018).

[4] Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27, “Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27 Submission to the Department of Basic Education in Respect of the Draft “National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” April 2018, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/EELC-and-S27-Submissi... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[5] Lisa Draga, Chandré Stuurman, and Demichelle Petherbridge, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Education Rights in South Africa – Chapter 8: Pregnancy,” 2017, http://section27.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Chapter-8.pdf.

[6] Department of Basic Education, “DBE Draft National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” 2018, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Policies/Draft%20Pregna... (accessed August 15, 2018).

[7] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, “Inclusive Education: status update,” Basic Education Committee, October 30, 2019, https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/29205/.

[8] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, https://www.naptosa.org.za/doc-manager/40-professional/46-general/105-sg... (accessed August 17, 2018).

[9] Human Rights Watch, Letter to the Department of Basic Education regarding their draft pregnancy policy, August 16, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/15/letter-south-africas-department-basi....

[10] Department of Basic Education, “Basic Education Department releases scripted lesson plans to the public to allay fears regarding comprehensive sexuality education content,” November 13, 2019, https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/CSE%20Scripted%20lesson... (accessed February 6, 2020).

[11] IOL, “Advocacy group heads to court as 600 000 disabled school kids forced to stay at home,” September 26, 2019, https://www.iol.co.za/news/advocacy-group-heads-to-court-as-600-000-disa... Human Rights Watch, “South Africa Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil....

[12] Department of Basic Education, “School fees and exemption,” undated, https://www.education.gov.za/Informationfor/ParentsandGuardians/SchoolFe....

[13] Human Rights Watch, “South Africa: Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/08/18/south-africa-education-barriers-chil... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[14] “School fees” are defined as “any form of contribution of a monetary nature made or paid by a person or body in relation to the attendance or participation by a learner in any programme of a public school,” South African Schools Act, Act No. 24 of 2005: Education Laws Amendment Act, 2005, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/a24-05_0.pdf, ch. 1 and s. 1(b).

[15] South African Schools Act, s. 34.

[16] Department of Basic Education, “School Fees and Exemption – No Fee Schools”, undated, http://www.education.gov.za/Parents/NoFeeSchools/tabid/408/Default.aspx (accessed August 9, 2018).

[17] Department of Education, “National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” General Notice 2363, October 12, 1998, http://www.education.gov.za/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ZYYtOiXHTeE%3D&tab... (accessed August 5, 2018); Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” January 16, 2015, http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/38397_gon17.pdf (accessed August 5, 2018).

[18] See for example, “Western Cape No Fee School 2017,” https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/2017%20No%... (accessed August 15, 2018)

[19] Human Rights Watch found that this is particularly the case in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces where special schools were traditionally set up to cater for white children with disabilities. Within Gauteng Province, many full-service schools are mainly in the outskirts of the city and the majority are Afrikaans speaking.

[20] Provincial Departments of Education are guided by a “Resource Targeting Table” to define needs-based allocations, “National Norms and Standards for school funding,” pp. 27-28. See Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” Government Gazette no. 38397, 16 January 2015.

[21] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

[22] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[23] “Single Motherhood in South Africa,” The Borgen Project, https://borgenproject.org/single-motherhood-in-south-africa/ (accessed February 10, 2020).

[24] Gumboh, Esther, et al., “Victimisation Experiences of Activists in South Africa,” Centre for Applied Legal Studies, April 2018, p. 21ss, https://www.osf.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Centre-for-Applied-Leg....

[25] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/envir... (accessed February 10, 2020).

[26] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/whrds-confronting_e... (accessed December 17, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch writes in advance of the 77th pre-session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women relating to Senegal’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“the Convention”). This submission addresses issues related to articles 1, 10, and 12 of the Convention.

Barriers to the Right to Primary and Secondary Education (Article 10)

Human Rights Watch welcomes the government of Senegal’s commitment to expanding the provision of primary and secondary education to more young people, including by exceeding the international benchmark of allocating over 20 percent of its national budget to education.[1] However, Human Rights Watch’s research on barriers to secondary education shows that the government has made inadequate progress in the retention of girls in school, and that it does not provide free basic education.[2]

Although slightly more girls are enrolled in primary and secondary school than boys, retention rates are particularly low across both groups.[3] Human Rights Watch research found that financial barriers constituted a key barrier to girls’ ability to stay in school. Senegal’s Education Law stipulates that primary and lower-secondary education is free and compulsory for all girls and boys aged 6 to 16.[4] However, in practice, secondary school students may be required to pay close to 40,000 FCFA (US$75) in tuition fees, furniture costs and extra tuition for afternoon classes, forcing many children to drop out.[5] Our findings also show that alongside school fees and indirect costs, gender discrimination contributes to low rates of retention and completion of compulsory lower secondary education, particularly in rural areas. In some communities, parents prioritize boys’ education over girls’ education.[6] Girls are also disproportionately expected to work on domestic chores –preparing food, cleaning the household, taking care of younger siblings—which reduces the time they can dedicate to studying outside school hours.

Pregnancy as a Barrier to Education

In contrast to many other African countries, Senegal has moved from previous restrictive and punitive policies to providing a pathway for pregnant girls to continue their education. In 2007, the government adopted a “re-entry” policy for young mothers, overturning its previous position to expel pregnant girls from school. The policy stipulates that in order to return to school, girls must show a medical certificate that shows they are ready.[7]

Despite this positive policy however, many girls do not return to school as they lack financial and family support.[8] According to a joint study conducted by the UN Population Fund and the Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population (GEEP), more than 54 percent of young mothers dropped out of school between 2011 and 2014 and only 15 percent of young mothers resumed their education in that same period.[9]

Overall, teenage pregnancy rates remain very high across the country.[10] Eight percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have already given birth.[11] Girls have little access to sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptives, and teenage pregnancy frequently ends a girl’s schooling. One in ten girls and one in twenty boys aged 15 to 24 had their first sexual encounter before they were 15 years old.[12]  Although the government has made efforts to increase coverage of adolescent health services –including by setting up centers specializing in adolescents’ needs in most regional capitals—it has not guaranteed adequate coverage in rural areas.[13]

The government has been reluctant to adopt a national comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.[14] At time of writing, it was reluctant to include comprehensive, accurate and scientific content on sexuality in the curriculum due to concerns that teaching sexuality contradicts Senegal’s cultural and moral values, as well as due to pressure from religious groups.[15] Most public secondary schools in the regions where Human Rights Watch conducted research do not provide adequate, comprehensive and scientifically-accurate content on sexuality or reproduction. In most schools, abstinence remains the leading message.[16] Some of the teachers who lead extra-curricular spaces provide students with some information about contraception, on the basis that this information will only be applied once students get married.

School-Related Sexual and Gender Based Exploitation and Violence

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2017 found that many girls are exposed to sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse by teachers and school staff. Students are particularly vulnerable to these abuses on the way to school, around teachers’ homes, as well as during students’ evening gatherings, which are sometimes organized on school premises. Many cases of sexual exploitation and harassment by teachers go unreported, and school authorities fail to hold perpetrators to account.

In some of the areas where Human Rights Watch conducted research, the low retention rate of girls in secondary schools appeared to be closely linked to fear that they would be exposed to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in school, or that they would be at high risk of pregnancy because of the school environment.[17]

Human Rights Watch found that different forms of sexual exploitation and harassment remained pervasive in secondary schools in Senegal.[18] It was found that some teachers abused their position of authority to sexually harass girls and engage in sexual relations with them, many of whom were under 18. Teachers have lured girls with the promise of money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes. Female students—and to a certain extent, teachers and school officials—have characterized this as “relationships” between teachers and students. Human Rights Watch believes that this type of characterization undermines the gravity of the abuse, leads to underreporting of the problem, and blurs the perpetrators’ and victims’ perception of the severity of these abuses.

When girls have turned down teachers’ proposals, they have sometimes found that the teachers punished them for rejecting their advances by awarding them lower grades than they deserved, ignoring and not letting them participate in class discussions or exercises.[19]

Talking about sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse is considered a taboo topic for many girls. Moreover, many students do not fully understand what sexual offenses are. For example, a consultation with over 500 students in Dakar, led by the Centre de Guidance Infantile et Familiale, found that while students understand that rape is a crime and are inclined to report it, they would not recognize sexual touching, harassment, or attempted rape, as sexual abuse.[20]  Education about the full spectrum of offenses, or how to prevent and report sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse is scarce, and certainly not part of a national effort.

Inadequate Reporting Mechanisms

Girls and young women who have been harassed, exploited or abused by teachers, or other adults, have limited options to confidentially report an incident. The education system lacks an adequate confidential reporting system. Victims of abuses are reluctant to report cases within schools because of the lack of confidentiality, fear of reprisals and a feeling that no actions will be taken. Some students told Human Rights Watch they would not seek help from their principals or teachers because they felt their claims would be dismissed.[21]

We found that education officials often did not act on or report to their own supervisors cases of sexual exploitation or harassment that had been brought to their attention. For example, Human Rights Watch collected evidence that suggests that teachers who have sexually exploited students in the context of “relationships” usually do not face serious legal sanction or professional sanction. Their behavior is sometimes tolerated or at most, they are reprimanded or warned by their peers or the principal, with no further consequences. Students’ descriptions of repeat offenders, such as teachers who sexually exploit more than one student during their tenure at the school, attests to the impunity they appear to enjoy.[22]

Although the government has taken steps to tackle sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools as part of broader efforts to increase girls’ access to, and retention in, secondary education, it still needs to adopt a national policy to prevent and tackle all forms of school-related sexual violence. Programs covering teenage pregnancies, girls’ empowerment and prevention of sexual abuse remain contingent on donor’s financial support and have failed to address widespread sexual exploitation in schools.

Legal and Policy Framework

Senegalese legislation does not specifically stipulate a minimum age for sexual consent.[23] The country’s penal code does not include a specific criminal offense for anyone who has sexual relations with children under 18. Most sexual offenses cover acts of sexual abuse of children under 16. Moreover, the penal code does not include a specific offense for omitting to report a sexual offense committed against a child.[24] 

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

  • What steps are being taken to tackle barriers that lead to low retention of girls in school, including school fees, indirect costs and gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ return and retention in school?
  • What steps are being taken to increase coverage of adolescent health in rural areas, and provide girls with sexual and reproductive health services?
  • What actions are being taken against teachers and educational staff who are found to be engaging in sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse?
  • What steps are being taken ensure that schools have functioning confidential and independent reporting mechanisms that are connected to child protection committees?
  • What is being done to ensure all pupils receive a comprehensive sexuality education, which complies with international standards, is mandatory, age-appropriate, and scientifically accurate; including information on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights, responsible sexual behavior, consent, prevention of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections?

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (Article 10)

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict;[25] the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[26]

As recognized by this Committee in its General Recommendation No. 30, attacks on students and schools, and the use of schools for military purposes, disproportionately affect girls, who are sometimes the focus of targeted attacks and are more likely to be kept out of school due to security concerns.[27]

As of January 2020, 101 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. In November 2019, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child urged all African Union member states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, “realizing the dangers that the military use of schools poses.”[28] The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has also repeatedly urged all African Union member states to endorse the declaration.[29] Senegal has yet to endorse this important declaration.

As of October 2019, Senegal was contributing 1,124 troops and 36 staff officers to UN peacekeeping operations around the world. Such troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations “UN Infantry Battalion Manual” (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”[30]

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

United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.[31]

Senegal’s peacekeeping troops are deployed in the Central African Republic and Mali — both countries where attacks on students and schools, and the military use of schools has been documented as a problem.[32]

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

  • Are protections for schools from military use included in the pre-deployment training provided to Senegalese troops participating in peacekeeping missions?
  • Do any Senegalese laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?
  • Why has the government of Senegal not yet endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, and brought the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into domestic military policy and operational frameworks?

Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Against Female Talibé Children (Articles 1, 10 and 12)

Across Senegal, there are an estimated 100,000 talibés, children attending residential Quranic schools (daaras), who are forced to beg for food or money by their Quranic teachers (marabouts), who serve as their de facto guardians.[33] Thousands of these children live in conditions akin to slavery, forced to endure often extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Although the majority of talibé are boys, many girls also suffer from the same terrible conditions and frequent abuse. Media investigations show that female pupils are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse and in fact, girls are often just less visible because they are not on the streets.[34]

Sexual Abuse and Rape

Human Rights Watch documented a total of 15 cases of rape, sexual abuse, or attempted sexual abuse allegedly committed by 10 Quranic teachers or their assistants during 2017 and 2018, targeting at least ten boys and five girls, all Quranic students. Six of the perpetrators were allegedly Quranic teachers, implicated in attacks against nine children, while four were reportedly Quranic teachers’ assistants (older talibés), implicated in attacks against six children.

The 15 cases documented are not an exhaustive list. Child protection workers believe other cases likely went unreported by families and victims, due to the stigma associated with sexual abuse as well as the strong societal influence wielded by religious leaders. One prosecutor mentioned dealing with several cases of sexual abuse or rape by “a person responsible for the education of the victim,” including Quranic teachers or grands talibés, but did not provide specific evidence or information.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the investigations into many of these cases, though some victims continue to await justice. In March 2018, in the town of Karang in Foundiougne department, Fatick region, a Quranic teacher was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping one of his students, a 13-year-old girl. In another March 2018 case, in Nioro department of Kaolack region, a grand talibé just under the age of 18 allegedly raped three girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who attended his Quranic school. The grand talibé was arrested and a judicial investigation opened, but a judicial official in Kaolack said that “he was granted a provisional liberty after six months of detention, as provided by the law if the investigation is not completed within this period.”[35]

In November 2018, the local media reported that a marabout in Mbour, Thiès region, had been arrested for sexually abusing one of his talibés, a 7-year-old girl, in October.[36] A government social worker in Mbour confirmed the case and reported that the marabout himself had confessed to the act. He was acquitted in January 2019 for “lack of evidence.”[37]

Government Programs

President Macky Sall, re-elected in February 2019 to a second term, has promised since 2016 to end child begging and “remove children from the streets,” reiterating in May 2019 his intention to “definitively resolve the problem of children in the street.”[38] However, by late 2019, this rhetoric had not yet been accompanied by consistent, decisive and far reaching action to protect talibés, including girls from abuse and exploitation across the country and deter further violations.[39]

Senegal has strong domestic laws against child abuse, trafficking and exploitation, and forced child begging.  Arrests and prosecutions of Quranic teachers for such abuses have increased slightly in recent years. Nevertheless, the police often still failed to investigate cases of forced begging and exploitation, social workers failed to report many such cases, including sexual abuse and exploitation of girls, and charges against Quranic teachers continued to be dropped or sentences reduced by the judiciary in 2017 and 2018.

The long-awaited law on the status of daaras, which would increase oversight of the daaras in which much of the sexual abuse has occurred, was first drafted in 2013 and was subject to years of revision. It was finally approved in June 2018 by the Council of Ministers; but at the time of writing, it has not been brought to a vote before the National Assembly.[40]

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

  • What specific steps are being taken to ensure that female talibés are included in removal programs so that they are not primarily aimed at the more visible male talibés?
  • What actions has the government taken to address the specific forms of abuse that female talibés can face?
  • What type of sensitisation programs are in place to ensure child protection services, police and judicial institutions include abuses committed against girls?
  • What steps are being taken to increase investigations and prosecutions of Quranic teachers and other adults who perpetuate abuses against talibé children?
  • Why has the government not yet passed the draft law on the status of daaras, in order to establish a structural and institutional framework for daaras?
  • Will government programs be expanded beyond Dakar in order to reach the thousands of talibés begging in other regions, and make funding available to daaras that prioritize education and respect children’s rights?

[1] Global Partnership for Education, “Annonce de contribution du SENEGAL pour la période 2017-2020, » https://www.globalpartnership.org/sites/default/files/annonce-contribution-senegal-3e-conference-financement-gpe-2018.pdf (accessed January 28, 2020).

[2] Human Rights Watch, Open Letter for President Macky Sall on Free Secondary Education in Senegal, January 25, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/25/open-letter-president-macky-sall-free-secondary-education-senegal.

[3] UN Population Fund, “World Population Dashboard – Senegal,” undated, https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population/SN (accessed January 28, 2020).

[4] République du Sénégal, “Loi 2004-37 du 15 Décembre 2004 modifiant et complétant la loi d’orientation de l’Education nationale n. 91-22 du 16 Février 1991,” http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/SERIAL/75283/78245/F1277535961/SEN-75... (accessed February 9, 2018), art. 3 bis.

[5] “It’s not Normal: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal,” Human Rights Watch, October 18, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/senegal1018_web.pdf, p. 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ministère de l’Education Nationale, “Circulaire sur la gestion des mariages et des grossesses a l’école,” Circulaire no.004379/ME/SG/DEMSG/DAJLD, October 1, 2007, http://www.education.gouv.sn/root-fr/upload_pieces/Tome%204%20Gestion%20... (accessed February 14, 2018).

[8] “It’s not Normal,” Human Rights Watch, p. 18.

[9] UN Population Fund and Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, “Sénégal : Etude sur les grossesses précoces en milieu scolaire,” June 2015, http://senegal.unfpa.org/fr/publications/s%C3%A9n%C3%A9gal-etude-sur-les..., p. 64.

[10] UN Population Fund and Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, “Sénégal : Etude sur les grossesses précoces en milieu scolaire,” (accessed January 28, 2020).

[11] UN Population Fund, “World Population Dashboard – Senegal,” undated, https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population/SN (accessed January 28, 2020).

[12] République du Sénégal, Ministère de la Santé et de l’Action Sociale, “Plan Stratégique de Santé Sexuelle et de la Reproduction des Adolescents/Jeunes au Sénégal [2014-2018],” September 2014, https://www.prb.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/05/Plan-Strate%CC%81gique-de-Sante%CC%81-Sexuelle-et-de-la-Reproduction-desAdolescentesJeunes-au-Se%CC%81ne%CC%81gal-2014-2018.pdf (accessed December 19, 2018), p. 17.

[13] 1 Projet Promotion des Jeunes, “Le projet de la promotion de la jeunesse, Centres des conseils pour adolescents,”

http://www.conseil-ados.com/le-ppj.html (accessed February 15, 2018).

[14] Agence de Presse Sénégalaise (Dakar), « Sénégal : Harcelement sexuel a l’ecole – Le ministere de l’Education réfute le rapport de HRW, » Octobre 19, 2018, https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/201810190724.html (accessed January 28, 2020).

[15] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal,  p. 57.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Yahya Colly Thieto, officer, Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, Dakar, July 24, 2018.

[17] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal, p. 23-24.

[18] Ibid., p. 23.

[19] Ibid., p. 2.

[20] Centre de Guidance Infantile et Familiale, “Abus Sexuels, Ce que les enfants en pensent! Extrait des focus group organisés aux Parcelles Assainies et à Pikine en milieu scolaire dans le cadre du 10eme fed,” (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[21] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal,  p. 47.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] The Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that states introduce an acceptable minimum legal age for sexual consent, by taking “into account the need to balance protection and evolving capacities,” and to include a “legal presumption that adolescents are competent to seek and have access to preventive or time-sensitive sexual and reproductive health commodities and services.” States should also “avoid criminalizing adolescents of similar ages for factually consensual and non-exploitative sexual activity.” Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence,” CRC/C/GC/20, December 6, 2016, paras. 39 -40.

[24] “Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal, p. 20.

[25] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed January 23, 2020).

[26] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed January 23, 2020).

[27] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 30, Access to Education, U.N Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30 (2013), para. 48.

[28] African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, “Outcome Statement for the Day of General Discussion on Children Affected by Armed Conflict,” November 26, 2019.

[29] African Union, Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 597th meeting on May 10, 2016: “Children in Armed Conflicts in Africa with particular focus on protecting schools from attacks during armed conflict;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 615th meeting on August 9,  2016: “Education of Refugees and Displaced Children in Africa;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 692nd meeting on June 13, 2017, of the PSC dedicated to an Open Session on the theme: “Ending Child Marriages;” and Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 706th meeting on July 26, 2017, of the PSC on the theme: “Child Soldiers/Out of School Children in Armed Conflict in Africa.”

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

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

[32] Education Under Attack: 2018, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2018, http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/eua_201...

[33] “There Is Enormous Suffering: Serious Abuses Against Talibé Children in Senegal, 2017-2018,”Human Rights Watch, June 11, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/06/11/there-enormous-suffering/serious-abuses-against-talibe-children-senegal-2017-2018

 [34] Kieran Guilbert, “Girls in Senegal's Islamic schools prey to abuse while boys beg on streets: activists,” Reuters, March 7, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-senegal-education/girls-in-senegals-islamic-schools-prey-to-abuse-while-boys-beg-on-streets-activists-idUSKBN16E1FX (accessed January 29, 2020)

[35] Human Rights Watch, There Is Enormous Suffering, p. 44.

[36] “Mbour : un maître coranique, accusé d’attouchement sexuel…accuse Satan,” SeneNews, November 24, 2018, https://www.senenews.com/actualites/mbour-un-imam-accuse-dattouchement-s... (accessed December 1, 2018).

[37] High Court of Mbour, Thiès Court of Appeals, "Etat Des Affaires Jugées dont les Victimes sont des Talibés," 2019 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[38] Le Quotidien, “DIALOGUE NATIONAL- Macky Sall s’engage à appliquer les résultats : ‘il n’y a plus d’enjeux pour moi, il y aura de la transparence. Je reste ouvert, disponible et engagé,’” May 28, 2019, https://www.lequotidien.sn/dialogue-national-macky-sall-sengage-a-appliq... (accessed May 28, 2019).

[39] “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets: A Roadmap for Ending Exploitation, Abuse of Talibés in Senegal,”

Human Rights Watch and PPDH, December 16, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/12/16/these-children-dont-belong-streets/roadmap-ending-exploitation-abuse-talibes

[40]  Human Rights Watch and PPDH, These Children Don't Belong in the Streets, p. 3.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Afghanistan women’s football team.

(New York) – Two recent cases in Afghanistan highlight the failure of authorities to prosecute sexual assault implicating powerful people, Human Rights Watch said today. The Afghan government should take immediate steps to provide justice, support victims, and protect witnesses.

The Afghan authorities have failed to arrest senior officials of the Afghan Football Federation indicted for sexually assaulting female players and for participating in a cover-up of the abuse. In another recent case, provincial officials in Logar province are seeking to end an investigation into the sexual abuse of hundreds of schoolchildren and have threatened the activists who reported the abuse. 

“Prosecuting sexual violence has long been difficult in Afghanistan, but the problems are magnified when the suspects are powerful people,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “These two horrific cases are a litmus test of the Afghan government’s commitment to ending impunity for sexual violence.”

In November 2019, an Afghan advocacy group disclosed evidence that government officials in Logar province, including teachers and police, had sexually assaulted hundreds of boys at state schools. In response to a Guardian report on their findings, the activists received threats on Facebook, some from local officials. A spokesman for the Logar police threatened to punish the activists. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, detained two activists who had reported the abuse. The NDS later released a video in which one of the men, clearly under duress, apologized for the report. The activists were released and subsequently left Afghanistan.

While the Afghan Attorney General’s Office has initiated an investigation into the Logar allegations and 18 people have been arrested, no police or senior officials alleged to have been responsible for abuse were included in the arrests. Activists have told Human Rights Watch that provincial officials are seeking to terminate the investigation, regardless of whether it has made progress. A number of diplomatic missions in Kabul have raised concerns about political pressure to cut short the investigation. Afghan authorities have not put into place any measures to protect survivors and witnesses from retaliation.

“Hundreds of children may have been sexually abused in Logar, yet government officials are threatening to end the case and providing survivors no support,” Gossman said. “Afghanistan’s donors should use their leverage to press the government to prosecute all those responsible and to protect witnesses.”

Afghan authorities have also failed to make progress in the investigation of multiple cases of alleged sexual assault of women football players by the former president of the Afghan Football Federation, Keramuddin Karim. A November 2018 report in the Guardian detailed allegations by 20 female players of repeated sexual assault by Karim going back to 2016. Following media reports, the Afghan government undertook an investigation. On June 8, 2019, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football’s global governing body, handed Karim a lifetime ban. On June 9, the Afghan attorney general issued a warrant for Karim’s arrest. However, Karim has yet to be arrested. Most of his accusers have left Afghanistan after receiving threats. Some report that these threats have continued.

“The Afghan government is failing women every day that Keramuddin Karim is not arrested,” Gossman said. “The authorities also need to be investigating football federation officials who facilitated the abuse or helped cover it up.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A billboard by the Alabama Department of Public Health in Eutaw, Greene County, raises awareness of recommended adolescent vaccines, including the HPV vaccine.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
When Abba M. learned that a sexual partner had exposed her to the human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, she did “a bunch of Googling.” The 21-year-old Alabama resident knew very little about it.

Turning to her friends proved unhelpful. Most, like Abba, had never learned about the virus in school. “HPV isn’t really a thing,” a friend told her. “You have it, but you don’t have it, so don’t worry about it.”

To the contrary: HPV is something people, especially girls and women, ought to worry about. In fact, it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in America, and it leads to around 35,000 cases of cancer annually. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills around 4,200 U.S. women each year.  

Mortality rates are higher for black women, poor women, and those who lack health insurance.

Abba is just one of many Alabaman girls and women I’ve spoken with over the past year, in my role with the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, who knew little or nothing about HPV and the vaccine that can lower their risk of cervical cancer. Previous research in 2017 and 2018 also showed that women in Alabama lack information on HPV and reproductive health, contributing to the state’s high cervical cancer mortality rates.

Only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate the teaching of sex education in schools. And while voluntary teaching of sex ed in Alabama is allowed, it must be abstinence-focused. By not providing students with comprehensive knowledge about their sexual health, many schools are omitting information that could save lives.

The HPV vaccine, first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, protects against most HPV infections that can lead to abnormal changes in cervical cells and eventually cancer. It is an effective cancer-prevention tool when administered before a person becomes sexually active.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that all adolescents ages 11 and 12, boys and girls alike, receive two doses of the vaccine, although it can be given to children as young as nine. It was originally approved only for those 26 or younger, but in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for adults up to the age of 45.

But despite its life-saving potential, the vaccine is underutilized. HPV vaccine rates trail far behind those of other recommended adolescent vaccines, and approximately 50 percent of girls ages 13-17 have completed it. Vaccination rates are even lower for U.S. boys, though men experience HPV-related cancer rates nearly as high as women’s. In Alabama, HPV vaccination rates are much lower than national rates, and according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, around 20 percent of adolescents have completed the series.

One factor contributing to low vaccination rates is the stigma that sexually transmitted infection still carries. Another culprit is medical providers’ failure to strongly recommend the vaccine and bring awareness to its important role in cancer prevention.

And then there are our nation’s schools, which have a responsibility to protect students. They should be educating students on how to prevent HPV and additional steps they can take to lower their risk of cancer. Yet many don’t.

Young people deserve schools that will help them thrive. Students seeking to make sense of a deadly but preventable virus shouldn’t have to turn to Google or misinformed friends.

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

Ximena Casas is the Women’s Rights Researcher for the Americas region. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Ximena worked for Planned Parenthood Global as the Associate Director for Regional Advocacy Strategy where she managed the Latin American Regional Advocacy and Policy projects and was the region’s specialist on international jurisprudence on reproductive rights. She previously worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), where she worked on litigation strategies to advance the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights of Latin American women. Before CRR, she was the Americas associate at Human Rights Watch. She has substantial experience in international human rights litigation, particularly before the Inter-American System and the Universal system, research, and advocacy. She has specific knowledge of international human rights law, humanitarian law, and gender law. She is an expert in non-discrimination and gender equality, with strong experience in intersectionality and sexual and reproductive rights and health.
Ximena grew up in Colombia and has experienced extensive travel and fieldwork through the Latin American region. Ximena earned her law degree from Rosario University Bogotá, Colombia, her Masters in Law at Columbia University in New York, where she graduated with honors for superior academic achievement and had a full scholarship at the Human Rights Fellowship Program, and her diploma on Human Rights and Gender at Universidad de Chile. She speaks English and Spanish.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protests broke out in the Maldives recently after the rape of a 2-year-old girl. She had apparently been attacked by her father, grandfather, and great grandfather, all of whom were arrested. Her 82-year-old great grandfather had previously been investigated over allegations of sexual abuse of children but faced no charges because of his age. Numerous other cases have since surfaced around the island country of authorities failing to prosecute cases of child sexual abuse.

A 12-year-old girl who was allegedly raped by three men in Varanasi, India. Police did not believe her account and beat up her father.

© 2012 Human Rights Watch

And this failure is sadly repeated across South Asia. In Afghanistan, after activists documented the widespread sexual assault of schoolboys in Logar province, all the wrong things happened: some of the people who had exposed the crimes were detained and others received death threats, while powerful officials – including police officers – among the alleged perpetrators have yet to be charged with a crime.

Authorities broke up a child pornography ring in Pakistan’s Kasur district in 2015, but without proper follow-up, the abuses have continued. A child rights group has documented more than 3,800 cases of child sexual abuse across Pakistan, but the numbers are likely much higher because of underreporting.

Numerous sexual abuse cases have been reported recently in Bangladesh, including offenses committed by religious leaders and teachers. Nineteen-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi was burned to death after filing a complaint of attempted rape against her religious school principal.

And despite strong legislation, India’s official crime records show that more than 100 children were sexually abused every day in 2018. The government’s good polices have been undermined by a failure to enforce them.

South Asian leaders, instead of establishing robust child protection systems, reforming the criminal justice system, and ensuring that victims and their families receive legal and psychosocial support, seem content to scream for rapists to be hanged or summarily executed. But the death penalty has proved no deterrent. What is needed is political will to protect survivors and witnesses, and to appropriately prosecute those responsible. Conviction rates are low in part because police and prosecutors are susceptible to outside pressures. All too often, if the accused is an influential political or religious leader or has their backing, the justice system looks away. South Asia’s children deserve better.

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

A branch of River Island seen on Oxford Street in London, United Kingdom, December 4, 2019. 

© 2019 Dinendra Haria/Sipa via AP Images

Last week, River Island, a United Kingdom fashion brand, signed onto a global effort to be more transparent about the factories that produce its products.

In December 2019, Human Rights Watch, together with the Clean Clothes Campaign, launched a campaign that asked apparel brands to #GoTransparent and sign the Transparency Pledge. River Island changed its stance on transparency, joining 39 other companies that have aligned with the Transparency Pledge. The pledge was created in 2016 by a coalition of nine organizations and global unions, including Human Rights Watch, in an effort to set supply chain disclosure standards.

In an email to Human Rights Watch, River Island said that signing the Transparency Pledge was “an important step … to ensure fair and safe working conditions in factories worldwide” and “enables industry collaboration to prevent serious global issues such as Modern Slavery.”

River Island’s decision to join the transparency movement is a boost for the rights of apparel workers. Over the past few years, consumers have sent a clear and consistent message to apparel brands: they want and expect transparency. When companies publicly disclose the list of factories where their products are made, they show they know their supply chain. And public disclosure helps protect workers. When workers know which brands they are producing clothing for, they know whom they can complain to in case of workplace abuses.

Consumers want to know that the brands they are buying clothing from are thinking about the human rights implications of their business practices. Beyond transparency, consumers want to know that the workers producing their clothes have access to redress and other basic rights. Concerned consumers can push brands to go even further in adopting ethical business practices.

Consumers should call on companies like American Eagle Outfitters, Armani, Carrefour, and URBN to join the global transparency movement and follow in the footsteps of River Island.

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

We write in advance of the 77th pre-session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and its review of the Republic of Yemen’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

  1. Protection of Education and Equal Access to Education During Armed Conflict (Article 10)

The armed conflict in Yemen has had a grave impact on the accessibility of education for girls. UNICEF states that 2 million children are currently out of school; half a million of these children are estimated to have dropped out since 2015, and another 3.7 million are at risk of dropping out as the humanitarian crisis escalates.[1] Girls are especially vulnerable to dropping out of school for financial and safety reasons, which increases the likelihood of early marriage, abuse, and exploitation. As a result of the recruitment practices of armed groups nationwide, children, especially girls, are displaced in large numbers and vulnerable to sexual violence.

Primary education is compulsory under Yemeni Law from age 6 to 14.[2] However, guaranteeing this has become increasingly difficult during armed conflict. It is estimated that one in five schools can no longer be used as a “direct result” of the armed conflict in Yemen.[3] Many public servants, including teachers, have reportedly gone over two years without regular salary payments, disrupting the school programs and schedules for millions of children.[4] The lack of a steady source of income has made it difficult for families to afford sending their children to school, as well as provide the transportation, supplies, and other materials their children need to receive a full education. If families can only afford to send some children to school, there is a higher chance that boys will be prioritized over girls for safety and cultural reasons.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous incidents of parties to the conflict using schools for military purposes, as well as attacks on schoolchildren and education infrastructure, including attacks on or near school buildings and school buses:

In January 2016, Houthi militia turned a school for blind students in Sanaa into a target by basing themselves in the facility’s compound.[5] A Saudi-coalition bomb struck the compound on January 5, 2016, and although it did not explode, the school was damaged and four civilians were injured. At the time of the attack, at least 10 children all under the age of 12 were sleeping in the building when the bomb struck.

On December 23, 2016, a Saudi-coalition cluster munition attack struck an area near a girls’ school and a boys’ school in Saada city in northern Yemen, killing two civilians and wounding six, including a child. Students were told not to return to school the day after the attack, as the schools had to be checked for any explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions.[6]

On January 10, 2017, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike near a school in northern Yemen killed two students, including an 11-year-old girl.[7] Two girls, ages 8 and 12, were wounded in this airstrike. The school provided primary education for about 900 children. Students were either on their way to school, or getting ready to head there, when the airstrike occurred.

A Houthi-controlled warehouse that stored volatile material near the residential Sawan neighborhood in Sanaa caught fire and detonated on April 7, 2019, killing at least 15 children, 10 of whom were girls, and injuring more than 100 children and adults during class time.[8] The blast destroyed and damaged two schools, where 10 girls and a boy died. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but the Houthis’ decision to store volatile material near homes and schools, despite the foreseeable risk, contributed to the death and injury of dozens of schoolchildren and adults.

The military use of schools by the parties to the conflict has also disproportionately impacted girls’ access to education. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reported in 2019 that local militias and gangs were known to cut off access to school for girls in particular and even threaten school administration members with bombings if girls were allowed to continue to attend.[9]

In October 2017, Yemen became the 70th country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, thereby committing to protect students, teachers, and schools during conflict, including by implementing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict. By endorsing the declaration, Yemen committed itself to a number of measures aimed at strengthening the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, and schools, including by: collecting reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities, providing assistance to victims of attacks, investigating allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecuting perpetrators when appropriate, developing and promoting “conflict sensitive” approaches to education, and seeking to continue education during armed conflict.

A report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented in September 2019 that some Yemeni forces have begun to withdraw military personnel from some schools, in line with the commitments of the Safe Schools Declaration.[10] However, the report found that at least 20 schools were still in use by Yemeni armed forces, Houthis, and United Arab Emirates and Sudanese-backed forces. A Safe Schools Committee within the Ministry of Education was also established in February 2019.[11]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • Are protections for schools and universities from military use included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Yemen’s armed forces?
  • How many schools were either partially or wholly used for military purposes by government security forces during the reporting period, and for what time?
  • What steps are being taken to address and remedy the disproportionate harm to girls’ access to education as a result of hostilities and military use of schools?
  • How many students are deprived of educational facilities as a result of hostilities, the military use of their school, or the need for their school to be repaired or reconstructed, provided access to education elsewhere?

2. Child Marriage (Article 16)

Current trends suggest that child marriage is on the rise in Yemen. According to the UNFPA, the average age for girls to get married is about 15 years old.[12] More precise estimates are difficult to ascertain in this context.

Economic instability and poverty in Yemen are among the prevailing reasons for children to enter marriages. Girls who enter marriages at a young age face greater risks in pregnancy, including difficulties during childbirth that can result in death. Child marriage also often ends a girl’s education and can expose her to domestic violence.

Yemen currently has no minimum age for marriage. Attempts have been made in Parliament to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18; for example, one of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (2013-2014) was a draft of a new constitution that included a ban on child marriage.[13] In April 2014, the then-minister of social affairs and labor and the minister of legal affairs presented a draft Child Rights Law to the then-Cabinet establishing 18 as Yemen’s minimum marriage age for adoption and then review at Parliament.[14] However, the status of Parliament is currently “expired” as its six-year term has ended and power remains split between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Houthis.[15]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to resume Parliamentary discussion on setting a minimum age for marriage?
  • What mechanisms are there in place to ensure accurate registration of births, deaths, marriages, and divorce?
  • How is the government working to change the cultural acceptance of child marriage and promote education for girls and women?
  • Do girls currently in marriages have access to legal redress and child protection services?
  • Are there retention strategies in place to ensure that girls who enroll in school are able to remain in school?
  • Are there monitoring systems in place to identify girls most vulnerable to child marriage?

3.     Violence Against Women and Girls (Articles 1, 2, 3, and 12)

Violence against women has increased about 63 percent since the conflict escalated in 2015.[16] Prior to the conflict, women faced discriminatory laws that increased the vulnerability of females to violence, but during the current conflict, warring parties’ actions have led to the displacement of women and girls in large numbers, and exacerbated discrimination and violence against them.[17]

Gender-Based Violence

Yemen has no law designed specifically to protect women from gender-based violence, only the general protection provided in the Penal Code that criminalizes infliction of physical harm. Provisions in the Personal Status Law create conditions that can facilitate marital rape and domestic violence. Article 40 of the Personal Status Law, for example, as revised in 1998, requires a woman to be obedient to her husband. Article 40 does not permit a woman to leave the matrimonial home without her husband’s permission except in very narrow circumstances. The provision requires that women allow their husbands to have sexual relations whenever the husbands require.[18] Marital rape is not criminalized.

Likewise, provisions in the Penal Code also increase the vulnerability of women to violence. Article 232 of the Penal Code allows for reduced and lenient sentences for men convicted of so-called “honor killing.” It provides that a man who murders or injures his wife, mother, daughter, or sister or her partner after finding them in the act of committing adultery should receive a maximum prison sentence of one year or a fine.[19] In addition, where a family member has killed a female relative in the name of “honor,” he can be pardoned by his family.

Other legal provisions that criminalize zina (sexual intercourse outside of marriage) and “immoral acts” have a discriminatory impact on women.[20] For example, under “immoral acts,” a woman can be prosecuted for the offense of khilwa if found in the company of a man who is not her relative. Such provisions undermine women’s rights, including to equal protection under the law.[21] Criminalizing consensual sex between adults also increases women’s vulnerability to rape and other sexual abuse as women are likely to be deterred from reporting such crimes, fearing their own prosecution for zina or “immoral acts.”

Female Genital Mutilation 

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in some governates of Yemen, where the figures can be as high as 84 percent of women and girls who are cut. By 2013, research demonstrated that 19 percent of all women and girls nationwide had undergone some form of FGM. Ninety-nine percent of women who are victims of FGM are mutilated within the first year of birth, with 93 percent mutilated within the first month.[22]

Because of the fragile healthcare system prior to the conflict and the collapse of the healthcare system amidst the fighting, particularly emergency care, in many rural areas of Yemen, FGM can lead to death or long-term health consequences. The Yemeni government keeps no official data on deaths associated with FGM, so the number of Yemeni girls who have lost their lives due to the practice remains unknown.[23]

A law banning FGM was debated during Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference in 2014. Conference members concluded that those who carry out FGM should be subject to criminal prosecution. In response to this and other National Dialogue recommendations, in April 2014 a Child Rights bill that criminalizes FGM and stipulates prison sentences and fines for offenders was submitted for ministerial review. However, the bill was pending before the cabinet when the hostilities escalated and there was a change in the government.

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to make all forms of violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, a criminal offense?
  • What steps are being taken to repeal or amend laws that facilitate violence against women, including those related to “honor killings” and zina (sexual intercourse outside marriage)?
  • Are there mechanisms in place by which victims can report violence to government officials and receive a response?
  • What legislative steps are being taken to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) for children and non-consenting adult women?
  • How does the government define FGM?
  1. Abuse Against Migrant and Yemeni Women and Girls in Detention (Articles 1,2 and 12)

Yemeni government officials have tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in the southern port city of Aden.

Past videos and photos of the detention facility show hundreds of men and boys in a crowded concrete hangar, with women and girls sitting on a stone floor. Former detainees reported that the facility was overcrowded, with dire sanitation conditions and little access to medical care. The provision of food was inconsistent, and guards would occasionally withhold food. Former detainees said guards sexually assaulted women and girls regularly.

One woman, from Harar, Ethiopia was arrested by Yemeni soldiers with a few dozen other Ethiopian men and women. When they arrived in Buraika, she was separated from her husband. The male guards made the women take off their abayas and headscarves and checked their bodies and hair. They took them to a room with about 100 other women. Guards would beat them regularly, she said, when the women would wail or yell. The guards did not provide much food, and the supply was not consistent. Every night, the guards would take one or two women with them, she said. Most women were eventually forced to go with the guards. If a woman refused to sleep with the guards, they would retaliate by withholding food for two days, she said. She knew five girls – a 12-year-old, two 15-year-olds, and two 17-year-olds – who were held in the facility with her and who had been raped.[24]

Dozens of Yemeni women were also being held without charges in secret Houthi prisons, where they are often subjected to torture and mistreatment. Their families are not aware of their whereabouts.[25]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to ensure migrant detainees are held in conditions that meet international standards?
  • Are specific protections for women and girls held in migrant detention centers included in the trainings, rules, policies, and manuals for detention center staff? 
  • What mechanisms are there in place to identify children in detention?
  • Under what conditions are children held in detention?
  • How do authorities and detention center staff ensure children have access to appropriate food and medical care and can communicate with their families?
  • What supervision mechanisms are there in place to monitor the conduct of detention center staff members?
  • Are there channels by which detainees may report instances of abuse or mistreatment and receive response?
  1. Women’s political participation (Article 3)

Women could always be found at the forefront of political and academic activist spaces in Yemen, although the context of turmoil and violence since 2015 has significantly impeded their access to formal political and peacebuilding channels.[26] For example, women’s participation in politics in the National Dialogue Conference during the transitional period in 2013 resulted in many achievements for women’s rights, albeit frozen now. The draft constitution received significant input from female politicians, which was reflected in the draft constitutional provisions banning child marriage and a 30 percent quota for women in governing bodies and institutions.

The conflict has stalled further progress or discussion on the new constitution, and women have been marginalized from further participation. During peace talks in 2015, women were excluded from participating.[27] Only one female delegate was present at the negotiation table at the Yemen peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018.[28] A handful of women from three different groups were also present at the 2019 talks, but their presence did not translate into a formal seat at the negotiation table.[29]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What mechanisms are in place to ensure active political participation of women in political and legislative bodies?
  • What steps are being taken to ensure inclusive representation of women in peace talks at the international level?  

[1] UNICEF, “As School Year Starts in Yemen, 2 Million Children Are out of School and Another 3.7 Million Are at Risk of Dropping Out,” September 25, 2019.

[2] “Yemen Education and Literacy,” November 27, 2016, http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/ye?theme=education-and-literacy.

[3] UNICEF, “As School Year Starts in Yemen, 2 Million Children Are out of School and Another 3.7 Million Are at Risk of Dropping Out,” September 25, 2019.

[4] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020: Yemen, January 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/yemen.

[5]  “Yemen: Houthis Endangered School for Blind, Coalition Airstrike Shows Added Risks For People with Disabilities,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 13, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/13/yemen-houthis-endangered-school-blind.

[6] “Yemen: Saudi-led coalition Airstrike Near School, 2 Students, Administrator Killed; 3 Children Wounded” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/yemen-saudi-led-coalition-airstrike-....

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Yemen: Warehouse Blast Kills Schoolchildren, Houthis Stored Volatile Material in Residential Area” Human Rights Watch news release, May 9, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/09/yemen-warehouse-blast-kills-schoolch....

[9] “Safeguard Yemen’s Future: Protect Education from Attack.” Briefing Paper, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. February 2019. http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/safegua....

[10] OHCHR, “Situation of Human Rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014; Report of the detailed findings of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen,” September 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/GEE-Yemen/A_HRC_42_CR....

[11] “Safe Schools Declaration News #5,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, December 18, 2019, https://mailchi.mp/protectingeducation/ssdnewsletter5.

[12] UNFPA Yemen, “Child Marriage on the Rise,” October 4, 2016, https://yemen.unfpa.org/en/news/child-marriage-rise;  “Child Marriage is Stalling Sustainable Development,” World Economic Forum, October 18, 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/10/sustainable-development-goals-hin...

[13] Anne K. Bang, “Unfulfilled Hopes. The Quest for a Minimum Marriage Age in Yemen, 2009-2014,” CMI Report, 2016. https://www.cmi.no/publications/5817-unfulfilled-hopes-minimum-marriage-...

[14] “Yemen: End Child Marriage, Enact Law Establishing Minimum Age; Punish Violators” Human Rights Watch news release, April 27, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/27/yemen-end-child-marriage.

[15] Al-Haj, Ahmed, “Yemen President Returns Home for a Rare Parliament Session,” Associated Press, April 12, 2019, https://apnews.com/f4b6604060f047478561089ee4a8990b.

[16] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020: Yemen, January 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/yemen.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Law No 40. of 1998 regarding Personal Status (hereafter Personal Status Law) (in Arabic) at http://www.yemen-nic.info/db/laws_ye/detail.php?ID=11351 (accessed January 28, 2020).

[19] Law No. 12 of 1994 regarding crimes and punishments (hereafter Penal Code), as amended by law no.16 of 1995 and Law No. 24 of 2006, article 232 (in Arabic) at http://www.yemen-nic.info/db/laws_ye/detail.php?ID=11424 (accessed January 28, 2020).

[20] Article 12 lists zina as one of the crimes that would fall within the classification of hudood (hadd singular) crimes that are crimes as prescribed under Sharia. Article 263 provides that where zina is committed by an unmarried man or woman they are to be punished by a maximum of 100 lashes and a court may also on the basis of ta’zir (discretion) sentence them to a maximum of one year in prison; if the person was married when committing zina, it is punishable by stoning to death.

[21] Chapter 3 of the Penal Code refers to “scandalous” acts in breach of modesty, which is defined under article 273 as “a scandalous act in breach of modesty are all acts contrary to public decency or modesty, nudity, revealing intentionally their genitals or indicating a breach of modesty and contrary to etiquette.” For instance, article 275 states in cases of scandalous acts with a female that they could be imprisoned up to one year or a fine if the act was committed without the female’s consent but if she consented then the two of them could be sentenced to a maximum of six months or a fine not exceeding 1,000 riyals (US$5).

[22] “Yemen: National Health and Demographic Survey 2013,” Ministry of Public Health & Population

& Central Statistical Organization, Republic of Yemen (July 2015), https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR296/FR296.pdf.  

[23] “Killing My Daughter Haunts Me: Female Genital Mutilation in Yemen,” unpublished Human Rights Watch research, 2014.

[24] “Yemen: Detained African Migrants Tortured, Raped: Grant Access to Asylum Procedures; Hold Abusers Accountable,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/17/yemen-detained-african-migrants-tort....

[25] “Yemeni Group: Houthi Rebels Hold, Torture Female Detainees.” AP News, Maggie Michael. January 17, 2019, https://apnews.com/0b4af81e4c1a4e5abce813d5eacdd975.

[26] Afrah Nasser, “Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization.” MERIP, no. 189 (Winter 2018). https://merip.org/2019/03/yemens-women-confront-wars-marginalization/.

[27] Ibid

[28] Afrah Nasser, “Yemen: Women, War & Political Marginalization,” Atlantic Council  (blog), January 25, 2019. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/yemen-women-war-politic....

[29] Ibid.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An ongoing legal case in London could provide the impetus for significant reforms to improve human rights protections for workers in the garment industry. The UK legal action doesn’t relate directly to clothing companies, but it sounds a warning that brands and retailers should be prepared to demonstrate effective human rights due diligence.

In September 2019, the UK law firm Leigh Day began a claim against the British American Tobacco (BAT) company for profiting from abusive purchasing practices on tobacco farms. The claimants, Malawian farmers who are part of BAT’s supply chain, contended that they were paid such low amounts that they could not afford to work their tobacco fields without using child labour. As a result, a global company’s legal responsibility for its purchasing practices and labor abuses in its supply chain will receive strong scrutiny.

The garment industry has long been riddled with bad purchasing practices. In a 2019 report, “ Paying for a Bus Ticket and Expecting to Fly,” we added to a growing body of work discussing how brand purchasing practices fuel labor abuses and unauthorized subcontracting.

Brands may themselves fuel unauthorized subcontracts and factories’ non-compliance with international labor standards and local labor laws through a combination of factors. These include low purchase prices, poor forecasting of their needs, insufficient lead times for production, unfair financial penalties and other contractual terms for suppliers, and poor oversight over buying agents.

Women workers stitch clothes in a factory in Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone outside Yangon, Myanmar. Women workers’ concerns about gender-based discrimination or harassment at work do not lend themselves to being accurately captured through social audits.

© 2018 Minzayar Oo/Panos

Unauthorized subcontracting is among the most dangerous risks for workers and brands. The workers in small factories that secretly produce for large brands often don’t suspect they are part of a shadowy operation. These factories usually operate out of sheds or dodgy buildings with poor fire and building safety. The brands’ claims that they didn’t authorize production without showing the steps they are taking to stop causing or contributing to unauthorized subcontracts through their own purchasing practices are not convincing.

Similarly, another intractable challenge in the industry— excessive and forced overtime— can have a direct impact on workers’ safety. There are numerous examples of workers being forced to work excessively long hours and sleeping inside factories because it’s too late to travel home safely. There are also examples of migrant workers living on factory floors because they don’t earn wages that allow them to rent decent housing and still afford other basic expenses.

These problems can only be resolved if brands act on their responsibility to ensure that workers earn a living wage. Without living wages, workers are less able to resist factory demands for excessive overtime.

Many brands contend that one brand or retailer alone cannot change industry-wide problems. Some also point to unscrupulous suppliers. The need for collective brand action and the role of suppliers is no doubt relevant. But in the ultimate analysis, nothing prevents a brand from cleaning up its buying practices to reduce its complicity in abusive cost-cutting by factories.

Brands should make a modest beginning toward more meaningful action on the living wage front and carry forward three concrete steps in 2020.

First, brands should map out living wage estimates in each of their sourcing destinations based on those developed by reliable organizations like the Global Living Wage Coalition and the WageIndicator Foundation, or commission studies to develop estimates where none exist. Further, for every sourcing destination, brands should know and show that they are aware of the shortfall between statutory minimum wages, living wage estimates, and average take-home pay for a regular workday. Producing and publishing such living wage estimates for every sourcing destination will also equip workers to collectively bargain for better wages using such estimates.

Second, brands should adopt strong costing tools that project fair prices and combine them with internal oversight to flag and disallow purchasing teams from placing orders below a certain purchase price for every garment style. This is especially needed to ensure that purchasing teams don’t place orders at prices that do not support the payment of living wages.

Third, new worker-driven monitoring tools show that it’s possible to get workers to independently verify their wages. For example, the WageIndicator Foundation’s project in Indonesia, Gajimu, has been collecting garment workers’ wage slips and interviewing garment workers. Workers’ average wages are published online and can be filtered by factory.

Ensuring that brands rely on worker-driven wage monitoring is important. Brands’ monitoring teams should look to incorporate such assessments so they don’t solely rely on discredited social audits. Combining independent and creative worker-driven wage verification with purchasing practices reform will keep up the pressure on factories to ensure that they pass on the benefits of the purchasing reforms to workers.

The era when companies could get away with claims and advertisements about sustainable and ethical operations in their supply chains is slowly being chipped away by strategic legal actions like the one in the UK. Brands and retailers should be on notice.

Aruna Kashyap is senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A new report published today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Center for Transgender Equality, and 22 other United States-based human rights organizations finds that 52 percent of Americans and two-thirds of voters age 18 to 44 years support decriminalizing sex work.

Decriminalizing sex work means ending laws that make it illegal to sell and buy consensual, adult sex or related activities like advertising sex work or renting a room to a sex worker. Actual criminal behavior such as child prostitution or sex trafficking would, of course, remain illegal.

Decriminalization campaigns in Washington, DC and New York have both gained traction in recent months after decades of efforts by sex worker activists.

Congresswoman Ayana Pressley (D-MA) has called for decriminalization as part of her effort against mass incarceration in the US. She has noted that criminalization especially harms Black women and trans people who turn to sex work because of poverty and discrimination. Criminalizing their work only worsens their situation.  

But Pressley is still in a minority. Candidates running in US state and national elections this year should support decriminalizing the voluntary sale and purchase of sex and ending the violence criminalization encourages against women and gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Today’s report includes testimony from sex workers about the abuses they experience at the hands of police, including coercive sex in exchange for no arrest, stalking, and discriminatory profiling. “One time, I was walking and holding hands with my boyfriend and the police arrested me,” said Bianey Garcia, a trans sex worker from New York. She has been arrested four times but only once while performing sex work. She believes each other arrest resulted from her being trans.

Human Rights Watch has researched the effects of criminalization in several places including China, Tanzania, South Africa, and in several cities in the US. These reports show that when faced with arrest or police abuse, sex workers are less likely to report crimes committed against them or the trafficking of others, ultimately making them more unsafe.  

We all have a human right to autonomy over our bodies. Arresting and fining or imprisoning people for consensual sex doesn’t make any sense and makes some of the most vulnerable Americans even more so. Elected officials should listen to voters and begin decriminalizing sex work in the US.

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