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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Participation

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

Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

(New York) – The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) needs to act more swiftly on complaints and evidence brought by women players of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by leaders of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), Human Rights Watch said today. Specifically, FIFA needs to speedily and fairly investigate all AFF members accused of facilitating abuse, and set up effective measures to ensure the safety of whistleblowers and survivors.

Afghanistan’s attorney general should ensure that all AFF officials apparently responsible for the sexual abuse of female players, as well as those accused of facilitating the abuse or covering it up, including senior members of the AFF, are subject to criminal investigation. Those found responsible should be prosecuted in each case where evidence suggests their culpability.

Female players, coaches, and whistleblowers have taken enormous risks over the past three years to collect evidence and file written complaints with FIFA against the powerful male leaders of the AFF, including the federation’s president, Keramuddin Karim. After hearing testimony regarding horrific incidents of sexual abuse, FIFA’s Ethics Committee suspended Karim for life and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million) in June 2019. Karim has not been arrested, though Afghanistan’s attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest in June. Moreover, FIFA, which holds significant influence over its member associations, has yet to conduct a full investigation of all officials who may be culpable.

“The president of the Afghan Football Federation has been kicked out of football after FIFA’s Ethics Committee found him responsible for abuses,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But a full test of FIFA’s human rights policy is whether sport is safe for women and girls in Afghanistan – and they won’t be safe until all abusers, including those who enabled crimes, are removed and protective systems for whistleblowing, justice, and remedy are in place.”

The coach of the Afghan women’s national team, Kelly Lindsey, wrote in an August letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino that the governing body has not addressed the “widespread culture of abuse” by “senior officials in ongoing positions of power” at the Afghan federation and “complicity at all levels of the AFF.”

Afghanistan’s women’s national football team was founded in 2011 and has operated from the beginning under the control – including pay, travel, and training – of the male-led federation. Sexual assault and other abuses of female players, including girls as young as 14, are reported to have taken place between 2013 and 2018 in the federation president’s office and at a training camp in Jordan in February 2018.

FIFA was alerted to sexual and other abuses as early as April 2017, and eventually opened an investigation, asking Lindsey and a former team captain, Khalida Popal, to gather evidence. Karim’s lifetime ban came after a FIFA investigation found him guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the FIFA code of ethics.”

“We are football coaches and players, not investigators – yet we did our best, knowing the lives of our players were at immediate risk and at significant cost to our safety and wellbeing,” Lindsey said. “My colleagues and I went right to the top of FIFA, we went to the Ethics Committee and told everyone who would listen that our girls were telling us they had been raped, beaten and abused. The evidence we gathered pointed clearly to a widespread culture of abuse. Yet to date there has been no evidence of any investigation into the conduct of the other AFF officials who continue to hold office while accused.”

The AFF’s general secretary, Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada, was suspended by the Attorney General’s office during an investigation into his alleged role in the abuse of women players. However, in April, he was elected to the regional governing executive committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA for comment and asked the global football governing body to confirm that full and proper investigations are underway.

FIFA replied:

We can confirm that FIFA is carefully looking into allegations that have been made against additional persons. As stated before, FIFA will not hesitate to impose sanctions if and when justified, just as it recently did in the case of the President of the association, who has been banned from football for life.

Since the investigations before the FIFA Ethics Committee are confidential, we cannot comment further on the case. For the rest, we understand that criminal investigations are underway in Afghanistan with regard to some of the matters relating to this complaint and, for its part, FIFA hopes that all those guilty of such crimes will be brought to justice by the relevant authorities and will be held fully accountable.

Where there is an ongoing risk to the safety of others, especially the safety of children or vulnerable adults, individuals who are the subject of serious abuse allegations should be immediately suspended by local law enforcement and FIFA pending full investigation.

“The crisis in Afghan women’s football shows that abusers can get in the system and then there is no way women can access justice,” Khalida Popal, now the program director for the Afghan women’s football team, told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch long urged FIFA to set up a mechanism for human rights defenders and whistleblowers to file complaints, which FIFA has now done. However, any adequate whistleblowing and investigative system should protect those who bring complaints against retaliation, and should not place the responsibility of investigating, collecting evidence, or furnishing proof on players and coaches.

FIFA should create new eligibility requirements under its Human Rights Policy for all federations, regional bodies like the AFC, and FIFA membership and leadership. These requirements should make anyone who is the subject of any ongoing credible abuse investigation ineligible for any role in a FIFA body where they can intimidate witnesses or influence the investigation. Individuals found to have engaged in serious abuses should be barred from FIFA membership and jobs.

“Whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault should be able to expect that FIFA will conduct timely and thorough investigations of all abuse allegations,” Worden said. “Going forward, FIFA needs to urgently put in place a system fit for purpose that will meet international standards of addressing sexual assault, care, and justice for survivors.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

New Home Office data has revealed that a mere 1.5 percent of rapes reported to police in England and Wales led to a charge or summons between April 2018 and March 2019, down from nearly 14 percent three years earlier. And an analysis released July 31 of rapes reported in London in April 2016 found that 6 percent made it to trial and only 3 percent resulted in conviction. This is despite a dramatic increase in the number of rape allegations reported to police during the same period.

The Home Office links the low likelihood that authorities will pursue legal action for sexual violence to the “greater complexity” of these investigations. But the data shows that many rape cases do not reach court because of “evidential difficulties,” including victims declining further action. It’s not hard to understand why, given what lies ahead if victims pursue justice.

Victims’ personal lives are subject to extreme, often humiliating, scrutiny. In England and Wales, this often includes unnecessarily invasive procedures that deter victims from pursuing justice. In a report released July 23, the civil liberties organization Big Brother Watch found that “the Crown Prosecution Service pressures police to collect masses of digital information on victims, regardless of its relevance to the investigation.” Such indiscriminate data collection – extracted from devices including mobile phones, smart watches, tablets, and laptops -- sweeps up highly personal and sensitive information such as text messages and photos, even potentially ones the user has deleted.

Big Brother Watch found that such “digital strip searches” are used almost exclusively on sexual violence victims—a modern version of putting rape victims on trial by seeking to use personal or sexual history to suggest her allegations are false or that she must have been “asking for it.”

A rally held in support of the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial in which all four defendants including Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of all charges, Belfast, March 31, 2018.

© Felix McHenry/Twitter
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said it conducts digital searches only for “a reasonable line of inquiry” and with victims’ consent. But victims report that refusal to hand over their phones to police has led to their cases being dropped, and police and victims’ advocates have raised concerns about the consent forms and digital searches. In response to recent reports, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said police should approach any digital data search “with caution,” and acknowledged that rape victims “having their innocent private lives trawled over by complete strangers” may deter survivors from coming forward.

In addition to invading victims’ privacy, the massive volume of data investigators must sift through after digital strip searches can also lead to extensive delays in processing sexual assault cases. In 2018, sexual violence victims waited an average of 77 days for a decision on whether to charge or drop a case after it was first recorded -- far longer than for any other type of crime. In cases in which a suspect received a charge or summons, it took an average of 195 days from the day the crime was first recorded, an increase of 45 days from the previous year.

Victims also describe authorities declining to prosecute rape despite forensic and other physical evidence. In June, a coalition of women’s rights groups, represented by the Women’s Centre for Justice, launched legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service for failure to prosecute rape, They allege that a “covert” policy change means CPS decision-makers are failing to build cases that merit being heard in court and instead dropping them.

The recently-released Home Office data also reveals that legal action is less likely to be taken for allegations of sexual violence than for any other category of crime in England and Wales.

Sexual violence is already underreported. Survivors and women’s rights groups have spent decades fighting to overcome courtroom and media suppositions about victims’ clothing and intimate relationships, and to combat misperceptions that complainants simply regret sexual encounters or are disgruntled and out for revenge. Now such myths are resurfacing – and even being revitalized -- for the digital age, and the likelihood of prosecutions for sexual violence only appears to be fading.

To improve the dismal track record on rape prosecutions and convictions, the government should take action to ensure police and prosecutors don’t dissuade victims from reporting the crime or pursuing justice.

The CPS should allocate sufficient resources to increase the likelihood that charges are brought and cases taken to trial. Police should be given training and tools to collect and analyse digital evidence in targeted, streamlined ways that respect the right to privacy. They should only retrieve and examine information that’s directly relevant to a case.

Both police and the CPS should ensure they have victims’ true informed consent prior to digital and other searches. Restrictions on the introduction of information—including digital information—in court about rape victims’ history or personal character should be upheld. And victims should be afforded legal aid to ensure their rights are respected and help them make informed decisions about their cases.

The government should encourage survivors of sexual violence to seek justice, not demand they compromise their dignity or privacy to do so.

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

Supporters of Iran watch the Morocco vs Iran match in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
(New York) – The Iranian government should release women detained because they are alleged to have dressed as men to circumvent a ban on women attending football matches, Human Rights Watch said today. Among the women reportedly detained on August 13, 2019 are Zahra Khoshnavaz, a prominent advocate for ending the ban on women and girls attending public sporting events, and Forough Alaei, a leading photojournalist.

Iran bans female spectators from football and other stadiums. The ban is not written into law or regulation, but is enforced by the country’s authorities. The ban is a clear violation of the rules in FIFA’s constitution, the Statutes, and its Human Rights Policy. Article 4 of the Statutes says discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” In June, the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino warned the Iranian Federation that it must take concrete steps to allow women in stadiums or else face sanctions.

“Iranian women should not be spending a second in prison because authorities accuse them of peacefully attempting to defy a ridiculous ban that denies women and girls equal rights to attend a football match,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should immediately and unconditionally release the women and lift the discriminatory ban on women attending sports matches.”

Women and girls who want to attend major football matches in Iran have long had to disguise themselves as men and boys to peacefully exercise that right and thwart the ban. Many have posted videos on social media to show their defiance of the ban.

Iran Wire, an online news outlet, reported on August 16 that the authorities in Iran had arrested six women, with two names unknown. The others include Leili Maleki and Hedieh Marvasti, who are both reportedly in Qarchak prison near Tehran.

The four women whose identities are confirmed are well-known advocates who have previously called for lifting the ban. Khoshnavaz’s advocacy to overturn the ban has been covered extensively in Iranian and global media, which have shown photographs of her in disguises she wore to enter the stadiums.

A source who was familiar with the arrests told Human Rights Watch that on August 13, the activists were called in for questioning at the Security Police office in Tehran, where they were held overnight. On August 14, authorities took the activists to the Vozara prosecutor’s office, where a judge issued a bond for them. However, they were not released, and later that day they were transferred to Qarchak prison. Activists have previously reported on the poor hygiene and safety conditions in Qarchak prison.

"Ignoring the wishes of a big part of society just because there could be some future problems and saying that the infrastructure is not ready, is very, very cruel and an injustice," Khoshnavaz told Euronews in an interview.

Alaei, the photojournalist, won first prize in World Press Photo 2019 for her work documenting the cruel exclusion of women from stadiums in Iran. Defense of media freedom is a central principle in FIFA’s Human Rights Policy.

For decades, Iranian women have put themselves in danger to document their exclusion from stadiums, which is a denial of women’s rights to be part of public spaces and the life of the country. Jafar Panahi’s award-winning 2006 film Offside depicts women and teenage girls arrested for trying to cheer for their teams.

Beyond the women challenging the ban by disguising themselves, women’s rights advocates from @OpenStadiums and #NoBanForWomen have written to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation for years with evidence of the country’s discrimination to demand that the federations uphold their own rules.

Infantino, the FIFA president, visited a match in Iran’s Azadi (Freedom) stadium in March 2018, during which 35 women were arrested for trying to attend. While attending a November 2018 match in the same stadium, he gave undue praise to the Iranian government for the presence of women as “a real breakthrough,” though only a select group of women were allowed to attend.

Following these events and further detention of activists in June 2019, Infantino wrote a letter to Mehdi Taj, the head of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. FIFA’s public letter set a July 15 deadline for Taj to inform him of the “concrete steps” the Iranian government was intending to take to lift its ban so that women will be allowed to attend 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Infantino expressed disappointment in the letter that Iran has reneged on its commitments to open stadiums to women.

FIFA has reported that its pressure on Iran apparently resulted in steps for change. According to FIFA, in July the Iran Federation Executive Council decided to allow women in stadiums for World Cup qualifiers and began discussing how that would be carried out, such as for ticketing and seating, with Iran authorities for the October 10, 2019 men’s World Cup qualifying match.

“FIFA has clear rules that require members to allow women to attend matches and to protect press freedom, yet FIFA has not taken meaningful action to enforce its own regulations,” Worden said. “The latest detentions show that much stronger action than a verbal warning is needed from FIFA and that it needs to impose sanctions for such blatant, long-standing gender discrimination.”

Update: On August 17, authorities released Alaei, Khoshnavaz, Maleki  and Marvasti after their families each posted a 500,000,000 rial (usd 11,000) bond.  This reflects all the women arrested on August 14, which was a total of 4, not 6, as cited above.

On August 19, FIFA issued the following statement regarding the arrests:

"FIFA is aware of reports that several women involved in activism to end the stadium ban for Iranian women were arrested and later released. We are closely following this matter. Generally speaking, FIFA calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the ban."

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A typical journey of a trafficking victim.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A typical journey of a trafficking victim.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In June, labor advocates from across the world celebrated the passage of a landmark global treaty that builds on the unprecedented gains made in the era of #MeToo. By recognizing that sexual harassment and other forms of violence and harassment have no place at work in any part of the world, the treaty made history — and revealed the important role that African countries can continue to play in the global fight for dignity at work.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 190 marks the first international ILO standard addressing the responsibility of governments and employers to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the world of work. The hard-fought victory has significant implications for the global workforce, especially women. During the negotiations for the treaty, the worker representative, Marie Clarke-Walker, repeatedly narrated stories of scores of women from different sectors, including the informal economy, enduring violence and harassment at work.

The treaty’s passage was due in large part to the support of numerous governments, including those of African governments, who supported it in a bloc. The treaty will come into force when at least two countries ratify it. If African nations take the logical and important next step of ratification, it could help usher in a bold new era for human rights and women’s equality on the continent.

Understandably, many are unaware of the treaty’s passage, considering the excitement around the FIFA Women’s World Cup at that time. But to be clear, this advance for workers—and women’s equality—is no less monumental or dramatic than those terrific matches.

The finale of the two-year-long negotiations between representatives of governments, worker unions, and employers that make up the ILO unfolded over 11 long days in a windowless room in the UN building in Geneva. All African governments that voted, out of the 439 governments, workers and employers, supported adoption of the treaty.

Uganda and Namibia led the voting bloc of African countries — 54 altogether — and played a crucial role in shaping worker protections. They battled strongly to reaffirm the right to work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based abuses. When numerous other countries opposed the inclusion of rights-based language in the treaty, African nations joined the European Union, several Latin American countries, and the Philippines in developing an ILO standard grounded in rights.

The treaty ensures protections for a range of people impacted by violence and harassment at work, including informal economy workers, job seekers, job applicants, and interns. Speaking for the Africa regional group during negotiations, Uganda and Namibia championed protections for workers who experience violence and harassment at the hands of third parties. They cited, for example, the needs of health workers to be protected from violence and harassment by patients and their relatives.

Many, including Uganda and Namibia on behalf of the African group, pushed back against employer efforts to limit protections to violations that occur within a physical workplace. As a result, a variety of situations outside the four walls of any given workplace are covered. Protections apply to worker hostels, resting areas, and sanitation facilities, for example. African countries also joined forces with the workers to fight for strong protections against violence and harassment when commuting to and from work.

Finally, Uganda, speaking for the African voting bloc, thwarted employer efforts to whittle down important parts of the treaty through repeated caveats like “as appropriate” or “in accordance with national law and practice,” which weaken the strength of the standards.

New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, and France have already signaled their commitment to ratify the treaty. The leading governments from Africa — including Uganda and Namibia, who helped negotiate a strong treaty — should join this group. Ratifying it will show the world, and their own citizens, that they are committed to walking the walk.

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

© International Labour Organization
Many African countries are well positioned to begin ratifying soon. A 2018 World Bank report found that, of the countries surveyed, over 30 in Africa already have laws governing sexual harassment at work. These include Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia.

The ILO convention comes at an opportune time in Africa, as it pursues its 10-year plan to achieve the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Among other things, this agenda aims to generate employment for one in every four people and lift Africans out of poverty by the year 2063. Ensuring that jobs come with dignity and are free of violence and harassment is central to this vision. Ratification of the treaty would enable the creation of legal systems that protect workers in all African countries— and would mark critical progress toward realizing Agenda 2063.

Since at least half of all African countries already have some law governing sexual harassment at work, they are well positioned to combine the twin goals of achieving prosperity and protecting workers from violence and harassment. Ratifying the ILO treaty would help ensure that as the region’s economy expands, no worker in Africa gets left behind.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Girl and women ride on a bus in Tehran

© Reuters
A long-awaited bill that would allow the children of Iranian women married to foreign spouses to obtain citizenship for the first time hangs in the balance. Iran’s elected executive and legislative branches have advanced this bill, which would change the lives of thousands of Iranians. But its potential protections have been eroded by appointed bodies, revealing the increasingly steep path for reforms via legislative action in Iran. 

Iran’s Civil Code provides that children and spouses of Iranian men are granted nationality automatically, but Iranian women married to a foreign spouse cannot pass their nationality to their husband and children.

Activists and policymakers have campaigned to change this discriminatory status quo in the nationality law for over a decade, with the most recent attempt put forth by the Rouhani administration. First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri said the draft was inspired by Maryam Mirzakhani, a world-renowned Iranian mathematician and Fields Medal recipient who passed away from cancer in 2017. Because her husband is not Iranian, her daughter cannot obtain Iranian nationality. 

On May 13, parliament initially passed the draft law submitted by the Rouhani administration that would allow Iranian women married to men with foreign nationality to request Iranian citizenship for their children who are under age 18. A child with an Iranian mother who has already turned 18, can also request Iranian citizenship if they do not have a “security problem,” according to the draft bill. 

Changing the law is important to remove discrimination against children of Iranian women. Research in other countries has shown that such discrimination can harm children’s access to a range of human rights, including education, health care, housing, and employment when they become adults. Amending the citizenship law to remove discrimination would improve the access for children of Iranian women to these rights. 

Similarly, amending the law would particularly affect children born into marriages between Iranian women and Afghan migrants, who live in Iran without adequate legal protections. It is unclear how many children in Iran have Iranian mothers and foreign fathers. However, the issue has come to prominence in recent years because of a large number of registered and unregistered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men. In 2013, government reports indicated that the country had approximately 30,000 registered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men. The number of children from these marriages is most likely much higher. 

Yet, as has often happened, a rights-improving legislative change is being stymied by one of Iran’s unelected bodies. On June 15, the powerful conservative-leaning Guardian Council rejected the bill, apparently due to a “fear of security problems.” To appease the council, a month later on July 15, parliament amended the bill to condition granting citizenship to children who have been found to “not possess a security problem.” Under the new draft law, the Intelligence Ministry would determine whether there was any problem which would open the door to arbitrary disqualification of these children and a lack of due process for challenging those decisions. 

The law does not definine what constitutes a security problem—does one have to be convicted of a crime or simply to have been accused? Furthermore, there is a well-established pattern of authorities prosecuting people for peaceful activism on national security charges. This only raises further serious concerns about the grounds that the authorities will use to interpret and apply the law, particularly in eastern and western border areas where cross-border marriages are more common and authorities assert an even tighter grip over peaceful activism. 

During the past two decades, the Guardian Council has become a serious obstacle to limit or block reforms emanating from the legislative process. The council consists of twelve jurists appointed by the Supreme Leader or the head of judiciary, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. 

Among its powers is “approbatory supervision,” which it has used to disqualify an unlimited number of candidates for public offices who express what the council members consider to be dissent. The Guardian Council can also veto parliamentary bills or send them back for revisions. It has used this power to reduce the protection of rights in new laws—for example by opposing the elimination of executions for drug-related offenses. In 2017, it even tried to retroactively reinterpret a law that had already come into force to try to bar non-Muslims from running for city councils. 

As a result, many people who want to reform abusive laws will not run for office as they are certain they will not make it past the council’s scrutiny. Likewise, parliament members often avoid pushing for bills that have no chance of getting the Guardian Council’s approval.

The result is that there have been only a few recent successful legislative attempts to protect human rights, and those have come as a result of consensus building among political factions. There is still hope that some positive reform of the nationality law will ultimately succeed and benefit many children. But it is clear that it will only come despite the best efforts to block it by a regressive, unaccountable Guardian Council that prioritizes the interests of an abusive security establishment over the protection of human rights in Iran. 

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

Video

Video: Attacks on Civilians in Border Area in Colombia

Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said. 

(Bogotá) – Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 64-page report, “The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia,” documents killings, disappearances, sexual violence, recruitment of children as soldiers, and forced displacement by the National Liberation Army (ELN), Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Armed groups use threats to gain control, including against community leaders and human rights defenders, some of whom have been killed. Venezuelans who fled the humanitarian emergency in their country are among the victims.

“As armed groups fight for the void left by the FARC in Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been caught in the conflict,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans who are fleeing the humanitarian emergency in their own country are being caught in this nexus of war and desperate flight.”

Graffiti on the wall of a brothel in Convención in the Catatumbo region, where most women working were Venezuelan exiles. The EPL (Popular Liberation Army) is one of the armed groups operating in the area.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Violence and abuses have increased in Catatumbo since the FARC demobilized in 2017 as part of its peace accord with the government. The Colombian government is falling short on its human rights obligations to protect civilians from abuses and to provide victims with redress. 

In April 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including abuse victims, their relatives, community leaders, church representatives, human rights officials, local authorities, justice officials, and members of humanitarian and human rights organizations working in the area. Interviews were conducted in Catatumbo, as well as some in Cúcuta, the capital of North Santander province, and some by telephone.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed official reports and statistics, publications by nongovernmental and international organizations, and written testimony given to government officials by almost 500 victims of abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict. The total number of cases is most likely higher than that recorded by government authorities, given victims’ fear of retaliation by armed groups for exposing abuses, or Venezuelan victims’ fear of deportation.

“Those who are part of the conflict do not suffer what we, as the people in the countryside …, suffer,” said a teacher in a rural school who lost his foot when a landmine exploded just meters from the school grounds. “We are the ones paying for a conflict that they started.”

Limited immigration controls and better-paying jobs attract Venezuelans to the Catatumbo borderlands. At least 25,000 Venezuelans live in Catatumbo, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Desperate and often undocumented Venezuelans have been among those forcibly displaced and killed, and Venezuelan children have been recruited as soldiers.

In Catatumbo, more than 40,000 people have been displaced from their homes since 2017 – the majority during 2018 – according to government statistics. Some have been forcibly displaced. People have fled after armed groups threatened them for allegedly cooperating with competing armed groups or the government. People have also fled after being threatened for refusing to join an armed group.

OCHA reported that 109 people it considered civilians were killed by armed groups in 2018 alone. Armed groups have killed nine human rights defenders and community leaders, according to investigations by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“Community leaders play a fundamental role to give voice to abuse victims and help reinstate the rule of law in remote areas of Colombia,” Vivanco said. “The Colombian government should increase its efforts to protect them and ensure that those responsible for these murders are held to account.”

Armed groups have been implicated in kidnappings and disappearances, as well as rape and other sexual violence.

Children as young as 12 have been forced to join an armed group after members threaten to kill them or their families, or they join for money. Human Rights Watch reviewed testimony in a dozen cases in which families fled after an armed group threatened or attempted to recruit a child.

Armed groups are also reportedly planting antipersonnel landmines in rural areas of Catatumbo, where the FARC had also previously used landmines. Four people have died and 65 have been injured by antipersonnel landmines in Catatumbo since 2017.

Colombian authorities have thus far failed to ensure justice for abuses committed by armed groups. As of April 2019, there were over 770 cases related to murders that occurred in Catatumbo since 2017. There have been convictions in 61 cases. Only two armed group members have been charged with murder, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The office has not charged anyone for threats, recruitment of children as soldiers, or enforced disappearances, which, under Colombian law, may be committed by both state and private actors. Two armed group members have been charged for forced displacement, but no one has been convicted; 480 cases remain pending.

Assistance to the displaced, provided for under Colombian law, has been slow and insufficient, said humanitarian workers in the region. Hundreds of people have lived in temporary shelters improvised by communities. Some shelters lacked furniture or running water. Authorities have also failed to adequately address risks to human rights identified by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.

In October 2018, the Colombian government created a Rapid Deployment Force to increase the number of military officers in Catatumbo by 5,600. Residents, human rights officials, and humanitarian workers have reported abusive behavior by soldiers directed at civilians, including accusing them of being complicit with guerrilla groups and questioning them at military checkpoints, exposing them to retaliation by armed groups. In April 2019, a soldier killed a demobilized FARC member.

To comply with its obligations under international and Colombian law, the Colombian government should put in place human rights-respecting strategies for the military and police to protect civilians. It should provide further support to prosecutors investigating abuses by armed groups and seek international support to aid people who have been displaced. It should also carry out a comprehensive assessment of the number of Venezuelans living in Catatumbo and their needs, and ensure that all Venezuelans can work legally in Colombia, including in safer parts of the country.

“The government’s efforts to increase its presence in Catatumbo through deploying the military needs to go hand-in-hand with broader efforts – like support for criminal investigations and humanitarian assistance – to protect the rights of farmers and Venezuelan exiles there,” Vivanco said.

For selected cases documented by Human Rights Watch, see below.

Beatriz (pseudonym) was raped in mid-2017. That day, she was at her job as a cook for agricultural laborers. Her husband was working on the same farm. At around 5 p.m., a group of uniformed men, their faces hidden under balaclavas, arrived, shouting why “the fuck” hadn’t the couple left since they had been “warned.” They asked if anyone else was on the farm. Beatriz’s husband said no, to protect the other workers.

The guerrillas sent men to look. Four, who had the ELN logo on their clothes, stayed. Two of them sexually assaulted Beatriz as the others made her husband watch. Beatriz lost consciousness and woke up two hours later in her husband’s arms. They fled to a nearby city, and, she said, only reported the incident several months later because of the shame and psychological trauma.

Dalila (pseudonym) lived between two mountain ridges where armed groups operate. The groups often fight among themselves, she reported to authorities, and the walls of her house are full of holes from the shootouts. One afternoon in early 2018, three men arrived at her house. They were armed and wearing uniforms, but Dalila said she did not know to which group they belonged. They told her they were going to take her oldest children, who were 17 and 14. Dalila said she told them they would have to kill her first. The men said she had a few hours to leave. She sent her two sons to another municipality where her sister lived. Dalila went back to sell her animals and fled to a nearby city. 

Alejandro Rodríguez (pseudonym), 34, is a primary teacher at a rural school in Catatumbo. Around 1 p.m. on February 5, 2019, Rodríguez went to look for a soccer ball that a student had kicked off school grounds, about 15 meters from where the students were playing. Rodríguez stepped on something that exploded, likely a landmine. Neighbors helped him get to the nearest town, several hours away. He lost his foot.

When we interviewed him in April, he said that nobody from the government had visited the area in the two months after the incident to see if there were other landmines near the school. He said he had moved to an urban area to receive medical treatment. In his rural community, he had heard shots nearly every day and children feared going to school, Rodríguez said.

Henry Pérez Ramírez, a 46-year-old community leader, went to check his crops early in the morning on January 26, 2016, and did not return, said his wife, Elibeth Murcia Castro. A man later told her that days before he had overheard Pérez Ramírez speaking on the phone with a FARC member. The FARC member had asked him questions about where the Colombian armed forces were operating and had requested a meeting on January 26.

Murcia Castro said Pérez Ramírez had previously received threats from the FARC member. She and her family desperately looked for him, and she filed complaints with judicial authorities and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, but his whereabouts remain unknown. “What I want the most is to find him,” she told us. “And not be like this, with this uncertainty, not knowing if he’s alive or if he’s dead.”

Enrique Pérez (pseudonym), 14, arrived with his mother in Catatumbo in February 2019. They left Trujillo state in Venezuela because, he said, his parents could no longer feed the family adequately. Some days, they only had one meal, and sometimes it was every other day. He had been a student in Venezuela but dropped out to work in the coca fields, under the blazing sun. At times, Venezuelans work only for a plate of food, he said. He said that he works alongside Colombian and Venezuelan children as young as 8, and that he would love to go back to school but must work.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video

Video: Decriminalize Sex Work in South Africa

South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of women and obstructing efforts to end the HIV pandemic by treating sex work as a crime, Human Rights Watch and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) said in a report released today.

Rofhiwa Mlilo is a 40-year-old single mother who sells sex for a living in a small town in South Africa. Unlike the alternative of picking fruit on local farms, sex work provides her with enough money to support her two children.

Mlilo, whose name I have changed for her protection, would prefer if her job selling sex was protected by law so that she could be sure to make it home safely to her children every night. Instead, she lives in constant danger of being harassed, arrested, or detained by police. The police abuse forces her into the shadows, where sex workers often face violence from male solicitors and less protection against HIV.

South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of thousands of women like Mlilo by treating sex work as a crime, we and a partner group have found. But it doesn't have to be this way. Our findings give credence to a growing recognition around the world that decriminalizing sex work is an essential step toward gender equality.

We have researched illegal sex work in ChinaTanzaniaCambodiaSouth Africa, and the United States, where workers are often forced to conduct business in dangerous back streets, parks, and abandoned buildings. Whether interviewing sex workers in wealthy US cities or small South African towns, we consistently find police abuse to be one of criminalization's main cruelties. Sex workers often face harassment, extortion, and rape, and vulnerability to violence—at the hands of both police officers and men who purport to be customers. Women tell us that because they cannot trust members of law enforcement, they are deterred from reporting attacks by men who pretend to be clients but who abuse, rape, and sometimes even try to kill them.

Sex workers have also told us that being arrested and detained by police has interrupted their access to health care, including essential HIV treatment. This is particularly dangerous in South Africa, which has the largest HIV epidemic in the world.

But South Africa is not the only nation whose policies put sex workers in danger. I see many similarities between the United States, my current home, and my native South Africa, where I grew up after apartheid and in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. Both are influential countries whose constitutions are relatively strong on human rights, but whose communities are plagued by endemic violence against women. Sex work is illegal in both countries. Nevada is the only US state where the exchange of sex for money is allowed.

Fortunately, South Africa and the United States are both sites of growing movements to decriminalize sex work once and for all. US activists are gaining traction with a groundbreaking bill introduced in New York's legislature. In another sign of progress, Senator Kamala Harris recently went on record during her presidential campaign to support decriminalization. Meanwhile in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated this year that he's open to rethinking laws that make sex work illegal.

In both countries, there is also the risk that half-measures could derail the road to progress. Politicians are increasingly drawn to the "Nordic model," which they see as a compromise between sex worker activists who want "decrim" and middle-class voters who think sex work should be banned. This model, first used in Sweden, makes buying sex illegal but does not prosecute the seller, the sex worker. It aims to end sex work by killing the demand for transactional sex.

But in practice, the "Nordic model" has a negative impact on sex workers. It makes it harder for sex workers to unionize, run their own brothels, open a bank account for their business, and find safe places to work. It also leaves in place the stigma around sex work that leaves so many women vulnerable to violence and police abuse.

As a South African who has lived through the end of apartheid and witnessed continuing inequities, I am not naïve. Decriminalization won't solve every problem for women like Mlilo, who turn to sex work to feed their children. But the fact remains that South Africa and the United States will be safer places for women once they stop undermining the autonomy and dignity of people who want to earn a living on their own terms.

Liesl Gerntholtz is acting program director at Human Rights Watch. The new report on sex workers was a joint effort between Human Rights Watch and the South Africa-based Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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

Video: Decriminalize Sex Work in South Africa

South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of women and obstructing efforts to end the HIV pandemic by treating sex work as a crime, Human Rights Watch and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) said in a report released today.

South African authorities are compromising the safety and wellbeing of women and obstructing efforts to end the HIV pandemic by treating sex work as a crime, Human Rights Watch and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) said in a report released today. South Africa should decriminalise the exchange of sex for money by consenting adults.

“Sex workers in South Africa face arrest, detention, harassment, and abuse from police, which also deters them from reporting rape or other brutal attacks against them,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, acting deputy executive director for programme at Human Rights Watch. “All over the world we and other rights groups find the same patterns of abuse where sex work is criminalised.”

The 70-page report, “Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa,” documents violence experienced by sex workers in South Africa, and their difficulties in reporting crimes and creating safe places to work. Sex workers also reported being sexually exploited by police and forced to pay bribes to officers.

“The South African government has missed opportunities in the past to change the law,” said Nosipho Vidima, human rights officer at SWEAT. “Sex workers need the Department of Justice to take action now to decriminalise.”

Researchers interviewed 46 women who are sex workers. All but three were single mothers, many of whom supported three or more people with their work. While sex workers with other gender identities also experience violence, most sex workers in South Africa are women. Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than 35 government officials and nongovernmental experts in health, law, and sex workers’ rights.

Sex workers described facing frequent arbitrary arrests and police profiling. They said that to avoid police harassment they were compelled to work in dangerous areas like dark parks, bushy areas behind bars, or back roads in towns where they felt unsafe. Sex workers also said that they often did not report crimes against them because they feared arrest or harassment. Some chose not to report out of fear that the police would laugh at them, blame them, or take no action.   

“I’ve been arrested three times this year…Once I was in jail for two days; other times I paid fines or bribes,” said Rofhiwa Mlilo (a pseudonym), a sex worker from Makhado town in Limpopo province. “You can’t report to the police. Even with armed robbery the problem still stands – they will not take you seriously. They say you’re trying to sell to that person.”

Many of the interviewees had been raped by men purporting to be clients, and almost all had been victims of robbery or serious violence, including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed. Zandile Makuyaa, a Makhado-based sex worker and mother of two young children, said that she was raped in 2017 and still has scars on her arms and chest from where the attacker beat her with an electric cable. “If I were not a sex worker, I would have reported [the crime to the police],” she said.

Sex workers also said they faced widespread stigma and sometimes harassment by other residents of their towns.

© 2019 Rebecca Hendin for Human Rights Watch

The report highlights deep inconsistencies between different government bodies in their approaches to sex work and services for sex workers. The most notable difference was between the national department of health, which makes efforts to support sex workers with access to health care, and the criminal justice system, which takes a punitive approach.

South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world – 19 percent of the global number of people living with HIV reside in the country. It also has the world’s biggest treatment program, 80 percent of which is funded by the government. The disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on sex workers and their clients, partners, and children led the country’s department of health, together with partners in both the government and civil society, to create a National Strategic Plan on HIV for Sex Workers. In accordance with guidance from the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, South Africa’s health officials have called for the decriminalisation of sex work since at least 2007.

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

“South Africa’s laws on sex work undermine the government’s own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations,” Gerntholtz said.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development should introduce a new law to parliament that removes criminal and administrative sanctions against voluntary, consensual adult sex work, and supports sex workers’ constitutional rights including the right to work under the protection of labour laws.

The South African authorities should also reform or repeal overly broad laws and bylaws prohibiting loitering and related offenses used to criminalise and harass sex workers. The South African Police Service should investigate abuses by its officers against sex workers, including sexual exploitation, extortion, and harassment, and place a moratorium on arrests until a new law is passed.

Those who engage in sex work are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. Under criminalisation, these fundamental rights are routinely violated, and sex workers are denied the equal protection of the law.

Criminalisation of the sale or purchase of sex by consenting adults creates conditions in which violence and other abuse is tolerated, Human Rights Watch and SWEAT said. Decriminalisation creates safer working conditions for sex workers and maximizes their protection and dignity.

“South African sex workers deserve to live in dignity and provide for their families without fear and shame,” Vidima said. “Decriminalising sex work is the clear way forward.”  

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am