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

© 2017 Marco Tibasima for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The World Bank has approved a US$500 million education loan to Tanzania without requiring the government to end its policy of expelling pregnant schoolgirls, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors voted to provide the loan to fund Tanzania’s secondary education program.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has vigorously supported a ban on pregnant students and vowed to uphold it throughout his term. Tanzanian schools routinely force girls to undergo intrusive pregnancy tests and permanently expel those who are pregnant. The authorities have arrested some schoolgirls for becoming pregnant. An estimated 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year, although previous estimates indicate that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.

“The World Bank should be working with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the World Bank failed to use its leverage and caved to Tanzania’s discriminatory ban and practices, undermining its own commitment to nondiscrimination.”

The World Bank loan includes funds to build a system of “alternative education pathways,” a fee-based parallel system of nonformal education centers for children who drop out of formal education, and a cornerstone of Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program (SEQUIP). This program was developed as a response to the World Bank’s decision to withhold a $300 million loan for secondary education in Tanzania in part because of the government’s mistreatment of pregnant girls.

Under SEQUIP, studying in these alternative centers is the only option for girls expelled from schools for being pregnant. But these alternative education pathways cannot be portrayed as providing the equivalence of education in formal public lower secondary schools. These centers will not be tuition-free, and will provide a condensed version of the curriculum.

In its endorsement of the loan, the World Bank considered that girls who are pregnant or have a baby merely “drop-out” of school. In framing the issue this way, the World Bank disregarded independent evidence that shows that girls are expelled, humiliated by school officials and teachers when forced to take a pregnancy test or discovered to be pregnant, and rejected by their own peers as a result.

The World Bank did not address the concerns about the ban in approving the loan, Human Rights Watch said. The Tanzanian government has not adopted a policy or decree that clarifies girls’ right to stay in school during and after pregnancy or provided assurances that it will reintroduce the “re-entry” policy struck down by Parliament in 2017.

All governments should take immediate measures to ensure that secondary education is available and accessible to all free of charge and make education compulsory through the end of lower secondary school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank should not disburse the initial tranches of the loan until the government respects its obligations to guarantee equal access to free and compulsory primary education and equal access to lower secondary education for girls. The government should immediately end the discriminatory ban and adopt a ministerial decree that instructs all schools to immediately cease pregnancy testing and stop expelling pregnant girls.

Tanzania is one of two African countries that explicitly ban pregnant girls or adolescent mothers from government schools. In recent years, many African governments have made strong commitments to ensure that pregnant girls and mothers can attend school. Human Rights Watch research has found that laws, policies, and guidelines that protect pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education are key to ensuring girls are not discriminated against at school.

All African governments should adopt human rights-compliant “continuation” policies that are fully put into effect nationwide, spelling out girls’ rights so that school and ministry staff have clear guidance on how to support and provide special accommodations for young mothers at school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank’s backtracking on pregnant girls’ right to education also raises concerns about the bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination. Other groups that are subject to state-sponsored discrimination in Tanzania, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, may be at greater risk if the government sees indications that the bank is not upholding its own nondiscrimination principles.

“Contrary to the World Bank’s portrayal of the Tanzanian loan, ‘alternative pathways’ will never match what children get in formal, compulsory education,” Martinez said. “Unlike most out-of-school children who have a choice of returning to school, pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to return to school and forced into a parallel system.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Garment factory workers wear face masks as they end their work shift, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20, 2020.

(c) 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(London) – Apparel brands’ business practices in response to COVID-19 are exacerbating the economic plight of millions of garment workers in Asia, Human Rights Watch said today. Scores of clothing brands and retailers have canceled orders without assuming financial responsibility even when workers had finished making their products.

These brand actions that increase worker job losses through dismissals and temporary layoffs are contrary to brands’ human rights responsibilities outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Many supplier factories in Asia are strapped for cash and unable to pay workers’ wages and other compensation because of the brands’ actions.

“These are extraordinarily challenging times, yet clothing brands facing tough business decisions to ride out the COVID-19 crisis should not forsake the factory workers who make their branded products,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Brands should take steps to minimize the devastating economic consequences for garment workers in their global supply chains and for their families who depend on this income to survive.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 manufacturers and industry experts, including brand representatives, about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on factories in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, and other Asian countries; reviewed email communications from brand representatives to their global suppliers; and interviewed worker rights groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused clothing brands’ and retailers’ sales to plummet. Many have closed their retail stores to check the spread of the virus. While navigating this crisis, some brands and retailers have taken advantage of unfair purchasing practices, which Human Rights Watch highlighted in its April 2019 report, “Paying for a Bus Ticket and Expecting to Fly,” that fuel labor abuses.

In March 2020, manufacturers from various countries told Human Rights Watch that very few brands assume any of the business risks when placing orders. The former manager of a garment factory in Cambodia said that in their experience, brands typically imposed all payment terms and conditions with no room to negotiate. Big brands and retailers did not make advance payments and had longer payment windows after goods were shipped.

In contrast, the small and medium-sized brands the factory had done business with negotiated better terms, paying up to 30 percent of the purchase order price at the time of raw materials purchase and cleared remaining payments within a week or 10 days of delivery or order completion.

Advance payment and shorter payment windows allow suppliers to maintain better cash flow, affecting their ability to pay wages on time. But the vast majority of brands and retailers do not offer such payment terms – the Better Buying Purchasing Practices Index Report from late 2018 showed that 73 percent of the suppliers who took the survey said that brands and retailers they did business with did not offer advance payments or have favorable payment terms.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many global brands and retailers have made the following demands, asking suppliers to be “flexible” and “understanding”:

  • Canceling orders for goods that workers had already made.
  • Canceling orders for goods that workers were in the process of making.
  • Demanding discounts on products already shipped, dating back to January.
  • Not assuming any financial responsibility or specifying when payments would occur, even in cases where orders were already made or were in process.

A March 27 study by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and Worker Rights Consortium on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Bangladesh reported that of the 316 Bangladeshi suppliers who took the survey, suppliers said that more than 95 percent of brands and retailers refused to contribute to the cost of partial wages for workers who were temporarily suspended or severance payments for those dismissed.

According to the UN Guiding Principles, along with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance on Garments, brands should undertake human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate risks that may cause or contribute to human rights problems in their supply chains. This includes “assessing” actual and potential human rights impacts, “integrating and acting upon the findings,” “tracking responses,” “communicating how impacts are addressed,” and engaging externally to “know and show” that they are taking effective measures.

Thus far, the H&M Group, Inditex (Zara and other brands), and Target USA have taken steps in the right direction. These and likely other companies have committed to take delivery of goods already produced or in production and pay for them as previously agreed upon.

More brands should take similar steps to ensure fair treatment of workers, including payment of wages and other compensation, and minimize job loss, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly 200 institutional investors have urged companies to maintain supplier relationships as much as possible, and make timely and prompt payments to suppliers.

Some global brands are repurposing their supply chains to produce personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks, for medical purposes. Brands and governments should continue to support workers producing essential medical supplies by ensuring that they too receive adequate personal protective equipment and follow occupational health and safety guidance issued by the World Health Organization.

Producing personal protective equipment, however, will not generate sufficient alternative employment for all workers. In Bangladesh, an estimated one million workers have already been laid off or temporarily suspended – a majority of whom did not receive wages and other payments due to them under local laws. In Myanmar, 20,000 workers have already lost their jobs and one industry expert estimated that as many as 70,000 garment workers could lose jobs within a week. In Cambodia, one estimate projected that 200,000 garment workers could lose their jobs.

These governments do not have the financial capacity to provide economic relief packages like those announced by Western governments. Donors and international financial institutions should focus on developing and carrying out plans to immediately alleviate workers’ economic and social distress, and set in motion longer-term measures to provide social protection for workers, Human Rights Watch said.

“Global clothing brands, donors, and international financial institutions should combine forces and urgently undertake efforts with labor rights groups to help low-income workers during the COVID-19 crisis,” Kashyap said. “But longer-term measures are also needed – this pandemic has underscored that social protection schemes for workers and effective mandatory regulations to curb unfair commercial practices of brands in their supply chains are long overdue.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A group of students walk to school in Sierra Leone. © Purposeful

(Nairobi) – The Sierra Leone government’s decision to allow girls who are pregnant or have a child to attend school is an important step to improve education for girls in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, 2020, President Julius Maada Bio and Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh announced the immediate end to the school ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers in place since 2010.

“By ending the 10-year ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers attending school, the Sierra Leone government is finally addressing a longstanding injustice,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This measure gives every girl the chance to achieve her full potential and succeed in getting her education.”

Sierra Leone was among a handful of countries in Africa that explicitly banned girls who became pregnant or are mothers from its schools. In December 2019, in a case brought by a coalition of Sierra Leonean and international groups, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the Sierra Leone government to revoke it. The court also found that alternative schools for pregnant students, a largely donor-funded government program, was also discriminatory.

Teenage pregnancy is endemic in Sierra Leone. Thirty-six percent of all pregnancies in the country occur among adolescent girls. Only 38 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary schools. In late 2018, Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Bio, opened a national campaign “Hands Off Our Girls.” Her campaign focused on reducing child marriages and teenage pregnancies in the country, in part to tackle the spike in teenage pregnancies following widespread rape during the Ebola crisis. Reflecting on this campaign, President Bio stated “We have wasted a lot of time in restricting the potentials of women and girls.”

Following the decision, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) will lead a collaborative and consultative process to develop a comprehensive policy setting out its vision of “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety,” in which “all children are encouraged and supported to realize their right to universal education, without discrimination.”

The Sierra Leone government should adopt a human rights-compliant “continuation” policy to ensure that the decision is fully put into effect nationwide, and that it spells out girls’ rights so that education staff have clear guidance, Human Rights Watch said.

Some African countries already have such policy measures, stating explicitly that pregnant students are allowed to remain in school for as long as they choose to, without prescribing a mandatory absence after giving birth. The policy should also provide special accommodations for young mothers at school, for instance time for breast-feeding, time off when babies are ill or to attend health clinics, and access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools. Girls and their families should also be able to get school-based counselling services.

The government should also address the root causes of early and unplanned teenage pregnancies. The authorities should provide adolescents with access to sexual and reproductive health services, include comprehensive sexuality education at school and in the community, and ensure access to a range of contraceptive methods and safe and legal abortion.

“The Sierra Leone government should accompany this announcement with clear directives for school officials to accept, include, and support pregnant students and teen mothers in schools,” Martinez said. “It should also broadcast messages of inclusion nationally, and work with communities to ensure that girls, their families, teachers, and community leaders know that all girls belong in school."

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrators take part in the Abortion Rights Campaign's annual March for Choice, September 29, 2018.

© 2018 Niall Carson/Press Association via AP Images

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed it will allow women in England temporarily to manage medical abortions at home in light of the lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health authorities in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – and governments across Europe – should swiftly follow suit.

The welcome decision follows outrage and confusion last week after the government announced the change only to reverse it hours later.

Under the new policy women in England can take both medications necessary for medical abortion – mifepristone and misoprostol – at home during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy following a telephone or electronic medical consultation, rather than having to take the first dose at a health facility.

Access to early medical abortion at home lets women end unwanted pregnancies safely and privately, preventing the need for unnecessary surgical procedures. Until now, women in England had to visit clinics to take the mifepristone tablet – nearly impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic given the closure of many clinics and risks of infection. It also runs counter to public health advice on self-isolation.

Rachael Clarke from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which has seen a quarter of its clinics close during the outbreak, said women who are vulnerable to COVID-19, or live with someone who is, “have to choose between their own health, or their children’s health, and accessing abortion.”

In Northern Ireland, the situation is especially problematic: new regulations permitting abortion up to 12 weeks will take effect March 31, but women must still visit clinics for the first stage of medical abortion. A reported lack of clinical abortion services could leave women in Northern Ireland without access to the procedure as a result of cross-border travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

In neighbouring Ireland, where abortion was decriminalized in January 2019 but many women still travel to access services, groups have called for availability of at-home medical abortion via telemedicine, in light of the European Union’s COVID-19 travel ban. Ireland’s health secretary said the government is working to revise policy to allow telemedicine consultations for at-home medical abortion.

Expert groups including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Midwives, and British Pregnancy Advisory Service have called for the shift, saying it is safe and necessary. The UK’s National Institute for Health Care and Excellence and the World Health Organization support at-home management of early abortion where women can access information and medical consultation.

Governments in other European countries, where management of medical abortions at home is currently unavailable, should follow England and ensure early access to abortion as part of the right to comprehensive health care under any circumstances. Women’s health and reproductive rights don’t end during a pandemic.


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

Pedestrians wearing masks walk by New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital in New York, Monday, March 16, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/John Minchillo

Update: On March 28, New York Govenor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring all New York hospitals to allow women to have a partner in labor and delivery rooms. NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai hospitals stated that they would comply with the order, though Mount Sinai’s updated policy still bars any visitors from postpartum recovery rooms, which are not included in the order.

In response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai health care systems in New York City earlier this week instituted policies barring a partner or companion from being present during labor and delivery and in postpartum hospital rooms. This is likely the start of many such policies, as hospitals face the crushing strain of COVID-19 but also try to stay open for routine needs like childbirth. It’s also among the first of many terrible choices hospitals may have to make as they try to manage and reduce the harms of this crisis, but it is a policy that leaves women without any support from a person they know and trust during childbirth.

I can’t help but think of my own experience giving birth last July. After several days of in-patient monitoring for severe pre-eclampsia, a serious and sometimes fatal complication, I was induced six weeks early. Although I was overcome with fear, having my partner by my side throughout the process provided the reassurance and support I needed.

According to the World Health Organization, all pregnant women, including those who are infected with COVID-19, have “the right to high quality care before, during, and after childbirth.” The WHO specifically states that a “safe and positive childbirth experience” includes being treated with dignity and respect and having a companion present during delivery. Studies have shown that having a companion present during labor can improve the health outcomes of women and the quality of care they receive as well as ensure childbirth is a safe experience for them. In the United States, a country with high maternal mortality rates, especially for Black women, this is particularly important.

NewYork-Presbyterian has stated that this policy is “a necessary step to promote the safety of our new mothers and children.” Its director of obstetrics, Dr. Dena Goffman, stressed the need to identify and isolate newborns who may have contracted the virus from their mothers to prevent outbreaks among newborns in the hospital. But this risk can be managed. Having a partner present during delivery does not have to create any more risk than having a nurse in the room, as the partner would wear a mask, gloves, and gown. In times of crisis or not, partners play a critical role, ensuring pregnant women have the support they need during childbirth.

Without a partner present, who will provide care and attention during childbirth when an already overstretched staff cannot? Who will intervene with health care staff on behalf of pregnant women, and alert staff to any complications during labor or postpartum recovery?

These are extraordinary times. But as hospitals take steps to ensure all patients, including pregnant women and newborns, and health care staff are safe from COVID-19, it’s critical that they also seek to minimize the impact on women’s rights. That means seeking the participation of pregnant women to develop alternatives that ensure the safety and well-being of all patients.

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

Cho Ju-bin, center, leader of South Korea's online sexual blackmail ring called "Nth room," is surrounded by journalists while walking out of a police station as he is transferred to prosecutors' office for further investigation in Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2020. © Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP

Last week, online sexual violence against women drew widespread public attention in South Korea when police arrested the operator of multiple sexual abuse chat rooms on messaging apps like Telegram. The disturbing case involves the alleged coercion and blackmailing of at least 58 women and 16 girls beginning in late 2018. Authorities have detained 18 additional perpetrators and arrested over a hundred other chat room participants.

According to news reports, an estimated 260,000 participants, including overlapping members in different chat rooms, paid up to 1.5 million won (US$1,200) for access, “proving” themselves by posting misogynistic content. The chat room operator obtained explicit sexual and sometimes violent footage of victims, such as nude photos, by luring women and girls under false pretenses, including offering employment, and gathered their names and contact details, then used the images to blackmail them into producing increasingly cruel and dehumanizing footage.

The case, commonly referred to as Telegram Nth Room, has sparked widespread public outrage. Millions of Koreans signed petitions calling for police to reveal the identities of the chat room operator and all other participants.

The government responded swiftly. In a rare decision, police identified 24-year-old Cho Joo-bin as the chat room operator earlier this week, and the prosecutor’s office announced the investigation will be public. President Moon called on police to thoroughly investigate the chat room, and promised additional measures to tackle the evolving nature of digital sex crimes. In a press release, the Ministry of Justice apologized for its historically “lukewarm response” to digital sex crimes and promised tougher efforts. The commissioner general of police committed to thoroughly investigating the Telegram Nth Room case, creating two new bodies, the first dedicated to cooperating with overseas law enforcement authorities and technology companies, and the second a prosecution-led task force that incorporates expertise in child and youth crimes and recovering illegally obtained gains from criminals.

Intensified government attention to digital sex crimes is important, as major gaps in law, enforcement, and support for victims remain. In 2018, women’s rights activists protested widespread covert filming of women and girls via hidden cameras in locations such as toilets and changing rooms and circulation of this footage, driving some important efforts by the government to crack down on digital sex crimes. But South Korea’s laws still permit many perpetrators to avoid serious penalties, and police and prosecutors too often ignore or mishandle these cases, retraumatizing victims and denying them justice.

Although the Telegram Nth Room case represents a new and especially disturbing form of digital sex crime, it is part of a broader trend that urgently demands a comprehensive response in South Korea and elsewhere. Governments should carefully reform criminal laws to protect women from violence and protect their right to privacy while also protecting freedom of expression. Police, prosecutors, and judges need to ensure survivors’ rights are at the forefront of all justice responses, and governments should ensure survivors have access to mental health support, legal assistance, and civil remedies.

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

An activist seen holding a placard that reads, "protect safe, legal abortion" during a Stop the Bans rally in Dayton, Ohio, May 19, 2019.

© 2019 Sipa via AP Images

Officials in the US states of Ohio and Texas are using the coronavirus as a politically expedient excuse to halt abortions – a move that threatens women’s and girls’ health and rights.

On March 20, the Ohio Attorney General’s office reportedly ordered clinics that provide abortions to stop “non-essential” and “elective” surgical abortions. Earlier in the week, the Ohio Department of Health issued a directive to stop nonessential surgeries, to save the protective equipment healthcare professionals needed to care for COVID-19 patients. The directive never mentioned abortion services.

Ohio’s abortion clinics are fighting back, and Planned Parenthood’s Ohio affiliates are keeping their doors open for this procedure.

In Texas, the governor confirmed that an order to halt non-essential surgeries would include most abortions.

Access to routine health care will be challenging across the US because of COVID-19, but abortion care should not be delayed – especially in states like Texas and Ohio that already severely restrict access to abortion. During this pandemic, people will become pregnant who do not want to be and their right to choose an abortion should not be restricted.

Abortion is essential health care. Always. Even in a pandemic. Being able to choose when, or if, to continue a pregnancy allows women and girls to reach their full potential. It is also an internationally recognized and constitutionally protected right. A woman’s ability to make this choice affects every aspect of her life, and that of her whole family.

The pandemic may also add to concerns people have about becoming pregnant. Some may fear COVID-19 could harm a pregnancy or worry they won’t have a job or access to good prenatal care. These concerns may become more pressing as the pandemic continues, as people possibly lose access to contraception due to disruptions in health care and social services.

State health departments have a challenge to protect public health, and it makes sense to try to save protective equipment for health care workers. But authorities can do this by helping pregnant people access timely abortion care using pills that end pregnancy. Trying to stop abortions puts people’s health and lives at risk. As US medical professionals work around the clock, officials in Ohio and Texas have better things to do than play politics with women’s bodies and lives.

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

Grammy award-winning hip hop recording artist Lecrae assembles a portable wash station in College Park, Georgia, March 19, 2020. The wash stations were distributed by Lecrae and volunteers with Love Beyond Walls, a non-profit, throughout Atlanta in areas with a high density of homeless persons. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Ron Harris
Today is World Water Day, but as the world braces for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little to celebrate. The need for good hygiene like handwashing is key to protecting public health and responding to the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized this, noting that the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting health during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

But for the 780 million people around the world who lack access to an improved water source and 2.5 billion who lack access to proper sanitation, this guidance is a stark reminder of how vulnerable they are to COVID-19 and other illnesses.

For example, in Canada, boil-water advisories are disproportionately present in First Nation communities on reserves. Many families previously interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported skin problems which they, and some of their doctors, believed were associated with water conditions in their homes. Some reported limiting hygiene habits as a result of these concerns over water quality. And in Venezuela, handwashing and social distancing will be difficult to implement in a country where water shortages are routine, supplies are expensive, and people struggle to find food. Limited availability of water in public hospitals makes it difficult for even health professionals to wash their hands – making responding to COVID-19 all the more challenging.
Prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are also at elevated risk. Human Rights Watch has documented how in prisons, for instance in Egypt and the United States, unreliable water access and deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions make the virus’ spread all the more likely.

Asylum seekers, refugees living in camps and slums, and people without shelter, are similarly vulnerable. In the US, for instance, the approximately 550,000 people living on the streets struggle to access showers and facilities to wash their hands, especially in cities like Los Angeles, which have extremely high concentrations of people without homes. Homeless shelters in these cities have crowded conditions, conducive to the spread of COVID-19. And globally, more than one billion people live in slums or informal settlements, where access to adequate water and sanitation is scarce.
International human rights law mandates governments to ensure sufficient, safe, and accessible water and the highest attainable standard of health at all times. But the current crisis makes action all the more urgent. Governments should immediately implement measures to ensure access to clean water for all communities as a critical matter of public health and human rights.

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

Symbolic burning of a funeral wreath during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 KazFem Photo/Eiri Dusenova

(Berlin) – A Kazakhstan court has convicted two activists who were prosecuted for peaceful acts of free expression during an International Women’s Day march in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kazakh authorities should vacate the convictions.

On March 11, 2020, in closed hearings, Almaty’s specialized inter-district administrative court found Irina Pukhnatova, better known as Arina Osinovskaya, and Fariza Ospan guilty of administrative charges of petty hooliganism for the symbolic burning of a funeral wreath in a public place. The act took place during a March 8 women’s rights rally against all forms of violence against women and gender discrimination. Osinovskaya was also convicted for violating the law on organizing and holding peaceful demonstrations. Both were penalized with administrative fines. They plan to appeal.

“Instead of protecting its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, the Kazakh government is using the judicial system to repress and convict women activists who were standing up for the rights of all women,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh authorities should immediately halt the prosecution, vacate the conviction, and stop using the law to stifle freedom of assembly and expression.”

Fariza Ospan at the Almaty march during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 KazFem Photo/Eiri Dusenova

Kazakhstan’s authorities have, for years, routinely used the repressive law on peaceful assembly, adopted in 1995 and last amended in 2004, to ban or restrict public demonstrations and protests. The Kazakh parliament is currently considering a new law, but local human rights activists have expressed concern that the draft will allow unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly to persist.

Several feminist groups organized the March 8, 2020 protest in the center of Almaty. One of the co-organizers told Human Rights Watch that they informed the Almaty city administration in December 2019 of their intent to march in the city center on March 8, stating their readiness to coordinate the route with the authorities and asking them to ensure the participants’ safety. On January 6, Almaty city authorities responded by saying that the applicants’ “statement” did not meet the demands of the law and that they were returning it to address the deficiencies.

The response also stated that it was recommended to hold all nongovernmental social and political events outside of the city center, citing a 2005 decree by the local government. Because Kazakh authorities regularly stifle freedom of assembly by rejecting requests on grounds of technical “deficiencies” or by claiming that the proposed protest sites are unavailable, the organizers decided to proceed with the planned march without resubmitting an application.

Osinovskaya told Human Right Watch that the march itself was peaceful, although city administration officials intervened twice by shouting into loudspeakers that the march was unsanctioned.

On March 10, 2020, Ospan posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons to report to the police station on March 11. On March 11, Osinovskaya also posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons. The hearings for both women took place on March 11. Ospan told HRW that from the moment they arrived at the police station they were accompanied by police officers, including over lunch and even to the toilet, until the actual court proceedings began. Although the judge initially granted Osinovskaya’s motion to allow media and independent monitors into the courtroom for her hearing, it was held behind closed doors, with no media or monitors allowed inside. Ospan’s hearing was also closed.

According to information Human Rights Watch received from reliable sources, at least three other women activists are the subject of police inquiries following the march.

The Almaty March 8 rally was a protest against gender-based violence and inequality, including domestic violence, which is not criminalized as a standalone offense under Kazakhstan’s laws. Domestic violence in Kazakhstan, including deaths at the hands of an abusive husband or partner, is a serious concern for local and international organizations. A new draft law on combating domestic violence, currently in the lower chamber of Parliament, does not criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense.

Marchers in Almaty celebrating International Women's Day, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 KazFem Photo/Darina Batskih
As protests increased in Kazakhstan in 2019, the authorities routinely denied government critics or political opposition permits for peaceful meetings, regularly dispersed demonstrations, sometimes using force, jailed people who tried to publicly express views in opposition to the government policies, and arbitrarily detained picketers.

Most recently, on March 1, 2020, dozens of activists were detained ahead of unauthorized protests in the city of Nur-Sultan and in Almaty. The peaceful protests had been called following the suspicious death in pretrial detention of an activist, Dulat Agadil. The protests were called by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a group banned in Kazakhstan, the unregistered Democratic Party, and the youth movement Oyan, Kazakhstan! (Wake Up, Kazakhstan!), formed to advocate for reforms.

President Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev promised on several occasions in 2019 that he would initiate a new protest law and encouraged local authorities in the meantime to lift restrictions on protests.

The draft law “on the procedure for organizing and conducting peaceful meetings in the Republic of Kazakhstan” proposed by the Ministry of Information and Public Development on February 2, 2020 for online public discussion has been criticized by local human rights organizations and human rights defenders.  

The draft law, which went to Parliament’s lower chamber’s review on February 10, remains restrictive and still gives the authorities power to approve or reject requests to hold events, depending on the size and form of the gathering. The authorities would still be able to determine an event’s location and its maximum size, and to propose alternative locations, times, and dates. The authorities would be able to end the event if a larger number of people participated than announced, among other reasons. The draft also introduces new restrictive regulations on journalists covering the protests.

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Kazakhstan’s Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006. 

Arina Osinovskaya at the Almaty march during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 KazFem Photo/Darina Batskih

During the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Kazakhstan, which took place in November 2019 and whose outcome was adopted on March 12, 2020, several other countries and international organizations called on the government to criminalize all forms of violence against women and girls and to guarantee freedom to assemble peacefully.

“The Kazakh government should revise the draft protest law and bring it line with international standards to ensure that no one is prosecuted for expressing their views,” Williamson said. “Kazakhstan’s international partners should publicly urge the government to end the crackdown on peaceful protests, its organizers, and participants.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Dubai's skyline, United Arab Emirates. 

© 2015 REUTERS/Karim Sahib/Pool

(Beirut) – Emirati authorities should immediately and transparently investigate the prison conditions of a 21-year-old imprisoned Emirati woman who is reported to have recently attempted suicide, Human Rights Watch said today. Sources close to the woman say that prison authorities subjected her and a second Emirati woman prisoner, 37, to solitary confinement for at least three weeks and denied them adequate medical care.

The woman, Maryam al-Balushi, and the second prisoner, Amina al-Abdouli, are serving five-year sentences in al-Wathba Prison on state security charges. Sources close to the women told Human Rights Watch that Emirati authorities placed them in solitary confinement from about February 17, 2020 to at least March 11, 2020, when news of al-Balushi’s apparent suicide attempt was made public. Both women began a hunger strike around that time. It is unclear whether al-Abdouli remains isolated. Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law and can amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“United Arab Emirates prison officials have a track record of mistreating prisoners, including with prolonged solitary confinement,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Maryam al-Balushi’s apparent suicide attempt makes clear that UAE authorities cannot brush aside what is going on inside the country’s prisons.”

In a voice recording leaked out of the prison in late January, al-Balushi said that new charges of spreading false information, harming the UAE’s reputation, and causing problems with nearby states were brought against her and al-Abdouli because they had previously sent voice recordings in which they described the conditions of their arrest and detention in 2015. Such charges could lead to new sentencing, thereby prolonging their detention, which was to end in 2020.

State security forces arrested both women on November 20, 2015. In a February 2019 letter to UAE authorities regarding the two women, three United Nations special rapporteurs raised allegations of incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, the use of forced confessions, dismal prison conditions, and denial of appropriate medical treatment. UAE authorities denied the allegations on March 4, 2019.

The special rapporteurs’ letter said that UAE authorities reportedly charged al-Balushi in February 2016 with “financing terrorism” because she had donated money to help a Syrian family in 2014. The authorities charged al-Abdouli in October 2014, almost a year after her arrest, with “inciting hatred against the State and disturbing public order; undermining the reputation of the State institutions and publishing false information to endanger the State’s relations with its allies” because of comments she made on Twitter. These vaguely worded criminal charges are often used in the UAE to curtail freedom of expression and clearly violate international standards.

In September 2019, the annual report of the UN high commissioner for human rights stated that his office had received reports that the women’s conditions had worsened after information was shared with the UN.

Isolation can be psychologically damaging to any prisoner, causing anxiety, depression, and anger, among other effects. Its effects can be particularly detrimental for people in psychological distress.

The stress of a closed and heavily monitored environment, absence of meaningful social contact, and lack of activity can exacerbate psychological distress and have long-term adverse effects on the mental well-being of prisoners. People in solitary confinement frequently attempt suicide or require emergency psychosocial support.

Sources close to al-Balushi told Human Rights Watch that since her arrest at age 19, her health had seriously deteriorated and that she has been suffering from kidney problems that cause her immense pain. Sources say the prison authorities have denied al-Balushi access to the prison clinic since at least December 2018 and that she has not received adequate medical treatment for her condition.

“The UAE authorities are doubling down by punishing detainees for reporting on prison conditions,” Page said.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees in the UAE, especially in state security-related cases. These include arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities. 

The denial of adequate medical care in UAE prisons and detention facilities also appears to be widespread. In November 2019, Human Rights Watch documented the long-running denial of regular and uninterrupted access to lifesaving treatment for prisoners living with HIV in Dubai’s al-Awir prison.

In May, Human Rights Watch reported the death of a detainee who had cancer, Alia Abdel Nour, following years of mistreatment and denial of adequate medical care by security forces and prison officials at al-Wathba prison. UAE authorities ignored repeated calls by European Parliament members, United Nations experts, and members of her family for her release on health grounds.

Over the past year, there have also been increased concerns for the deteriorating health of two unjustly detained rights activists, Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser bin Ghaith, who are being held in dismal prison conditions and denied access to health care in Al Sadr and Al Razeen prisons, respectively.

“The apparent attempted suicide of a young Emirati woman in an isolated prison cell is yet another blow to the UAE’s image as a tolerant and progressive country,” Page said. “If the UAE wants to demonstrate any semblance of respect for the rule of law, it should immediately allow international, independent monitors access to its prisons as well as private and regular visits with its prisoners.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Harvey Weinstein arrives at a Manhattan courthouse for his rape trial in New York, February 20, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

A Manhattan judge this week sentenced the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. Handing down a sentence appropriate for the harm Weinstein caused is significant.  This level of accountability – not one that rape survivors can typically expect – sends a strong message to the women he assaulted, other perpetrators, and the broader #MeToo movement.

The initial public accusations against Weinstein in 2017 sparked a global explosion of the #MeToo hashtag, originally coined by activist Tarana Burke, with survivors sharing personal stories. The movement’s momentum, which continues today, amplified public debate and activism to end sexual harassment and violence in many countries, including Afghanistan, France,  IndiaMexico, Nigeria,  South Korea, and Tunisia.

While the high-profile cases of sexual harassment and violence exposed have so far largely focused on rich, famous, and powerful men in the entertainment industry, government, and journalism, #MeToo has also highlighted other sectors where this abuse is endemic – and invisible. This includes low-wage sectors such as domestic work, the hospitality sector, and agriculture.

The #MeToo movement has tested laws on sexual harassment globally, in some cases winning redress for survivors, such as in Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and in other cases exposing legal gaps that fuel impunity. For example, a 2018 World Bank report found that 59 out of 189 countries had no specific legal provisions prohibiting sexual harassment in employment.

One exciting advance is the adoption in 2019 of a landmark global treaty establishing international standards to end violence and harassment at work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention sets out minimum steps that governments should take to ensure their laws properly protect workers.

Governments that ratify the treaty are obligated to identify high-risk labor sectors, introduce training and awareness-raising, and regulate employers to ensure workplaces have policies against sexual harassment. Governments should also have in place whistleblower protections, accessible ways to make complaints, support for victims, and sanctions for abusers – including civil and criminal remedies.

The conviction and sentencing of Harvey Weinstein shows that in the right circumstances, the law can work, even against very powerful men. The ILO treaty will help ensure governments combat the scourge of sexual harassment and violence in other workplaces, too. Ratifying and implementing the treaty is the best way to ensure that more women can work in dignity and safety. 

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