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
Video

Giving Girls a Future: Allow Pregnant Girls, Young Mothers to Attend School

Tens of thousands of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are banned or discouraged from attending school across Africa.

Ekiti State in southwest Nigeria has adopted a policy to ban the expulsion of girls from schools during and after pregnancy, an important step in ending the longstanding discriminatory practice.

Although Nigeria’s Child Rights Act protects the rights of girls to education during and after pregnancy, many continue to face expulsion because there is a lack of awareness and no policies in place to ensure their continuation in school.

Most of Nigeria’s staggering 10.5 million out-of-school children are girls. Girls face unique challenges in getting an education, including economic barriers and sociocultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in school.

Pregnancy is a barrier to girls continuing their education and governments have a duty to break this barrier by ensuring there are positive policies and regulations that help school-age pregnant girls and young mothers stay in or return to school. This is especially important given the high adolescent pregnancy rates in Nigeria, with girls between the ages of 15 and 19 accounting for 145 out of every 1,000 births.  

Ekiti State has shown leadership by adopting the “Operation Keep Girls in School” policy but needs to do more to ensure its effectiveness. This should include efforts to create awareness among school management officials, teachers, communities, and girls themselves, and to monitor all schools to ensure they are enforcing this important policy.

The federal government and other states should take necessary steps to respect the Child Rights Act and adopt policies and strategies that ensure girls stay in school, where they belong, during and after pregnancy.

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

“Angela,” 20, walks with her son near her home after returning from school in Migori county, western Kenya. She is a Form 4 student at a girls-only school. Angela became pregnant when her trainee teacher offered to pay some of her primary school fees in return for sex. Her father tried to marry her off to suitors after she gave birth, but Angela’s mother fought against this and supported her return to school. She wants to go to college and study nursing.

© 2018 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

In late 2018, Sierra Leone's First Lady, Fatima Bio, opened a national campaign "Hands Off Our Girls."   Her campaign made big promises to reduce child marriages and teenage pregnancies in the country, in part to tackle the spike in teenage pregnancies following widespread rape during the Ebola crisis. Reflecting on this campaign, President Julius Maada Bio stated: "We have wasted a lot of time in restricting the potentials of women and girls."

In light of this important acknowledgment, his government senselessly adheres to a policy that intentionally wastes the potential of many thousands of girls who are expelled from school each year because they are pregnant - which also effects the number of girls who stay in secondary school in the country.

In Sierra Leone, like in Tanzania and many other African countries, one of the most often cited excuses for not letting pregnant girls stay in school is that they will "corrupt" other girls into pregnancy. But isolating and excluding pregnant girls from school will not stop teen pregnancies because "immorality" is not the cause.

Video

Giving Girls a Future: Allow Pregnant Girls, Young Mothers to Attend School

Tens of thousands of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are banned or discouraged from attending school across Africa.

These punitive approaches, which in Tanzania and elsewhere have led to harassment and even arrest of pregnant girls, only serve to stigmatize and disempower girls, and to perpetuate gender discrimination. The fact is that many teenage girls are vulnerable to becoming pregnant because of factors such as poverty, violence, exploitation, and lack of knowledge about sexuality. Government officials might be quick to blame some of the most vulnerable girls, but authorities are incredibly slow when it comes to tackling these key factors through smart policies and programs.

The stories of hundreds of girls whom we have interviewed stand in sharp contrast to the dominant narrative by authorities and others in a position of power, such as teachers, education staff, or politicians who condemn them.

When we've asked girls - pregnant or not - what they think about their peers' pregnancies and drop-outs, most have told us that seeing other pregnant girls drop out of school is enough of a deterrent. Girls can often see that their peers have to deal with heavy stigma as a result of pregnancy. Their families reject or insult them. Most struggle to raise a child when they are children themselves.

In Tanzania, we interviewed Sawadee - she chose this pseudonym - who was in the third grade of secondary school when she got pregnant. Her neighbor - an adult man - followed her for a few years. He used to give her small gifts, which she felt she had to accept. At first, she refused to have sex with him, but her friends advised her to accept the money he was offering, as she would be better off. She got pregnant the first time they had sex, when she was only 16. Her parents kicked her out of their home, and she was expelled from school. For years, she dreamed of becoming a nurse - but getting back into education was nearly impossible: Sawadee and her daughter suffered hardship. She could only find very precarious jobs. "When I failed to get money, me and my baby didn't get a meal," she told us. Girls understand that pregnancy could mean the end of their hard-gained efforts to get a secondary or university education. Like Sawadee, they know pregnancy can destroy their ambitions.

But many girls also tell us about the challenges they face at school, and in their communities, which contribute to their vulnerability. Many girls we have spoken with became pregnant because they were raped, sexually exploited in exchange for food, money or grades or coerced into sex by adultsincluding their own teachers, and at a worryingly high rate, by boys their age.

But many also get pregnant following a sexual relationship they consented to with boys - often students or others they know in their communities. The lack of sexual education - or even how to protect themselves - plays a part in this.

Education ministries have a great tool available to act and respond in an empowering way. Age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education can help students understand sexuality and reproduction and how to protect themselves from pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. But importantly, this education can help them recognize that they can use their right of consent to decide when to have sexual relationships, and understand that sexual exploitation and abuse are crimes and that no one should subject them to sexual violence. Yet, many African governments refuse to provide comprehensive sexuality education in schools. Where it is provided it is often substandard. Most provide a half-baked and often unscientific version that focuses on the biology of reproduction or a stigmatized approach to adolescent sexuality that does little to protect students.

African governments have a legal obligation to promote girls' rights to education without discrimination. Sierra Leone should immediately lift the ban and not just allow all girls access to education, but support them fully to return to school. The African Union should call on Sierra Leone, Tanzania and all African governments to safeguard all girls' potential, and stop the exclusion of pregnant girls from schools.

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

Saudi Arabia: Change Comes with Punishing Cost

Arrests, Torture, Murder Accompany Reforms

(Washington, DC) – Important social reforms enacted under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been accompanied by deepening repression and abusive practices meant to silence dissidents and critics, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 62-page report, “‘The High Cost of Change’: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms,” documents ongoing arbitrary and abusive practices by Saudi authorities targeting dissidents and activists since mid-2017 and total lack of accountability for those responsible for abuses. Human Rights Watch found that despite landmark reforms for Saudi women and youth, ongoing abuses demonstrate that the rule of law in Saudi Arabia remains weak and can be undermined at will by the country’s political leadership. 

“Mohammed bin Salman has created an entertainment sector and allowed women to travel and drive, but Saudi authorities have also locked away many of the country’s leading reformist thinkers and activists on his watch, some of whom called for these very changes,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A truly reforming Saudi Arabia would not subject its leading activists to harassment, detention, and mistreatment.”

The report is based on interviews with Saudi activists and dissidents since 2017, government statements, and court documents, as well as exhaustive reviews of Saudi local media outlets and social media.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and the country’s day-to-day ruler. His elevation coincided with positive changes, fostering a positive image for the crown prince on the international political scene.

Behind the glamor and pomp and the advancements for Saudi women and youth, however, lay a darker reality, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who could stand in the way of Mohammed bin Salman’s political ascension. In the summer of 2017, around the time of his promotion to crown prince, authorities quietly reorganized the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, and placed them directly under the royal court’s oversight.

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The authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns. They targeted prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists in September 2017, leading businesspeople and royal family members accused of corruption in November 2017, and the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates beginning in May 2018. The arrest waves were often accompanied by defamation and slander of those arrested in the country’s pro-government media.

Detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government’s policies or human rights advocacy is not new in Saudi Arabia, but what has made the post-2017 arrest waves notable is the sheer number and range of people targeted over a short period, and new repressive practices.

These include holding people at unofficial detention sites, such as so-called corruption detainees held at the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh from late 2017 into early 2018, and the prominent women’s rights activists held at what they described as a “hotel” or “guesthouse” during the summer of 2018. Allegations have emerged of rampant torture and mistreatment at those sites.

Abusive practices also have included long-term arbitrary detention – two years in some cases – without charge, trial, or any clear legal process. Some of the so-called corruption detainees arrested in late 2017 remain in detention without charge or trial, including Turki bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah and former governor of Riyadh, and Adel al-Fakih, a former government minister.

The authorities also targeted family members of prominent Saudi dissidents and activists, including imposing arbitrary travel bans. Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident, said that Saudi authorities detained his two brothers in August 2018 to silence his online activism.

Other abusive practices have included extorting financial assets in exchange for releasing detainees, outside of any legal process, and seeking the death penalty for acts that do not resemble recognizable crimes. Saudi prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against a reformist religious thinker, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas, and against a well-known cleric, Salman al-Awda, on charges stemming solely from his peaceful political statements, associations, and positions. Both were detained during the September 2017 crackdown.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly used commercially available surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of government critics and dissidents. Citizen Lab, an academic research center based in Canada, concluded with “high confidence” that in 2018, the mobile phone of a prominent Saudi activist based in Canada was infected with spyware. It allowed full access to a victim’s personal files, such as chats, emails, and photos, as well as the ability to surreptitiously use the phone’s microphones and cameras to view and eavesdrop.

The repressive side of the crown prince’s domestic record, however, was not given the international scrutiny it deserved until October 2018, when the violent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate shocked global opinion and led to a broader examination of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

To demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is truly reforming, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should introduce new reforms to ensure that Saudi citizens enjoy basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as an independent judiciary and due process of law.

The authorities can signal this commitment immediately, Human Rights Watch said, by releasing from detention everyone detained arbitrarily or on charges based solely on their peaceful ideas or expression, dropping all charges against dissidents that do not resemble recognizable crimes, and providing justice for abuses such as torture or arbitrary punishments.

“It’s not real reform in Saudi Arabia if it takes place in a dystopia where rights activists are imprisoned and freedom of expression exists just for those who publicly malign them,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

What do Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam have in common?

The answer is tragic.

A young woman who was trafficked at age 17 by a friend’s mother who promised her a well-paid child care job and then sold her to a family in China as a “bride.” Once purchased, she was confined and subjected to sexual slavery, but managed to escape after several months and return home to Myanmar. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

There’s compelling evidence that all have become source countries for a brutal business – the trafficking of women and girls for sale in China as brides.

In China, the percentage of women has fallen steadily since 1987. Researchers estimate that China now has 30 to 40 million “missing women,” an imbalance caused by a preference for boys and exacerbated by the “one-child policy,” in place from 1979 to 2015, and ongoing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. This gender gap has made it difficult for many Chinese men to find wives and has fueled a demand for trafficked women from abroad.

Human Rights Watch documented bride trafficking in Myanmar, where each year hundreds of women and girls are deceived through false promises of employment into traveling to China, only to be sold to Chinese families as brides and held in sexual slavery, often for years. Most were pressured to become pregnant as quickly as possible; some were compelled to undergo forced fertility treatment. Those who had children and were lucky enough to escape could usually only do so by leaving their children behind. Several of the women we interviewed had been trafficked more than once.

Since Human Rights Watch began researching trafficking to China more than three years ago, reports have indicated that it is also occurring in additional countries and that their number is growing. These countries urgently need to act to prevent trafficking, work with Chinese authorities to recover women and girls who are victims, and assist survivors, who often grapple with devastating trauma and struggle to meet their basic needs. Concerned governments should raise this issue vigorously and often, including with their local Chinese counterparts, demanding prompt action by the Chinese government to end this trade.

And other Asian countries should watch carefully to make sure they’re not the next to be added to this list.

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

Lebanese women have long been leaders in the country’s protest movements. Here, women shout slogans and wave the Lebanese flag during a demonstration in down town Beirut on October 19, 2019.

© Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The leading role played by women in Lebanon’s protests should come as no surprise. Lebanese women have long been leaders in the country’s protest movements. Indeed, they have often borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance that today’s protesters wish to topple.

For example, while Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s recognized religions, all of them discriminate against women. Autonomous religious courts administer these laws with little or no government oversight and make it more difficult for women than for men to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, to ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, and to secure financial support or settlements from a former spouse.

Under religious personal status laws, Lebanon allows child marriage – including for girls as young as 9. Girls who marry early are more likely to leave school and risk marital rape, domestic violence, poor work opportunities, exploitation, and health problems from early childbearing. But the Lebanese government has yet to change the law or set a standard minimum marriage age of 18.

Lebanon’s outdated nationality law also discriminates against women married to foreigners, by denying citizenship to their children and spouses, but not to the foreign spouses and children of Lebanese men. The law affects families’ legal residency and access to work, education, social services, and health care. It even leaves some children at risk of statelessness. Reforming the law has been a demand of local women’s rights groups for decades. Politicians claim that letting women married to Palestinians confer their citizenship to spouses and children would disrupt Lebanon’s sectarian balance. But official data suggests this is not just discriminatory, but false too.

In his national address this week, Lebanese President Michel Aoun acknowledged the need for reforms, including establishing a unified personal status law. Lebanon’s parliament and new government should prioritize this, and also act to end all discrimination against women. Lebanon’s religious plurality should be its strength, not a means to divide society and marginalize women.

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

A rape victim participates in a sit-in protest in New Delhi, May 10, 2016.

© 2016 Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

In response to “stranger danger” fears, India has become the ninth country to adopt a sex offenders’ database, with personal details of those convicted for rape and sexual assault. The year-old database contains 500,000 names and will be used for “regular monitoring and tracking” by the police, the government says.

Strong efforts at every government level are critical to prevent sexual abuse and prosecute culprits-and officials cited a serial offender to justify this database. But latest crime figures show that in almost 95 per cent of the 38,947 rapes recorded in 2016, the accused was known to the victim. In the absence of better law enforcement and adequate safeguards, the database will do little to advance change.

The government is under pressure from public demands to better address rampant sexual violence. But instead of populist or short-term technological solutions, it needs to do the hard work of breaking entrenched structural barriers that survivors face in reporting these crimes and obtaining justice.

In my 2017 report for Human Rights Watch, “‘Everyone Blames Me’: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India,” I found that sexual assault survivors, particularly from marginalised communities, still face formidable obstacles when reporting to police. They often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals, are subjected to degrading medical exams, such as the “two-finger test,” and have little protection from retaliation by the accused. They face significant barriers to obtain healthcare, counselling and legal aid. The government has yet to put in place effective mechanisms to prevent child sexual abuse. The challenges are even greater for women and girls with disabilities.

Studies by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union show public sex offender registries in the US have done more harm than good. They frequently lead to harassment, ostracism and violence against former offenders and impede their rehabilitation.

The Indian database for each entry includes the name, address, photograph, fingerprints and details of Aadhaar card, which carries biometric data. For now, the government says, only law enforcement officials will have access. However, officials confirm that in future, the database will include people who were charged, but never convicted. Making this database public has not been ruled out.

The government’s invite of bids from companies to develop this database said it would include details of all those arrested, charged or convicted of sexual offences, including children. Information on the convicted offenders would be public while law enforcement agencies would have access to the rest. It proposed categorising the individuals as “low,” “moderate,” or “high risk.” Whether or not a person gets added can depend on archaic laws open to misuse. The government’s recent move to acquire an automated facial recognition system to identify criminals-and ostensibly improve policing-exacerbates concerns regarding privacy, surveillance and civil liberties.

Rape is under-reported in India, largely because of social stigma, victim-blaming, poor response by the criminal justice system, and the lack of any national victim and witness protection law. Rape survivors are highly vulnerable to pressure from the accused and police not to report. Child victims are even more vulnerable to family and societal pressure.

The government says the database will not compromise privacy, but the absence of laws to protect privacy and data in India raise further concerns. With vigilante violence on the rise, a data breach or rumours of inclusion in the registry is especially dangerous. Little is known about the dissemination of database information and whether it could perpetuate discrimination. Would a private employer seeking a background check on a prospective employee get this information?

To address sexual abuse, the government should work closely with women’s and children’s rights groups to reform the criminal justice system and promote a survivor-centred approach, focusing on evidence-based solutions. A sex offender registry is not the answer.

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

“I do not know exactly or remember how I got into the new house…When I woke up, I saw a man but not my friends anymore. I don’t know exactly, but later I guessed that was a Chinese house. I did not know where to run away…I realized that I was trafficked. From that time on, I planned to learn basic Chinese [language] and find ways to run.”—Young Kachin woman, trafficked at age 17, escaped after six months. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch
China has a bride trafficking problem. The country’s longstanding one-child policy and preference for boys created a huge gender imbalance. The difficulty many Chinese men now face finding wives, combined with a lack of protections in China, is driving a brutal business of selling women and girls from neighboring countries.

The Chinese government’s main response for many years seemed to be simply to ignore growing allegations about authorities’ complicity in these crimes. But the problem is becoming too big to ignore; the government’s stonewalling is gradually being replaced by a mixture of criminal justice and propaganda responses, neither of which get to the real issue of gender discrimination.

The one-child policy, in force from 1979 to 2015, prompted many parents to feel that if they were permitted only one child, that child should be a son. This was driven in part by the expectation, particularly in rural areas, that daughters marry and join their husband’s family, while sons stay with, and support, their parents. Over generations this policy drove a demographic disaster: China now has 30 to 40 million more men than women. 

Human Rights Watch investigated bride trafficking from northern Myanmar into China. Many women and girls in that part of Myanmar belong to an ethnic minority that is vulnerable due to a long-running conflict and displacement in the region. These women and girls are typically tricked by brokers who promise well-paid employment across the border in China. Once in China, they find themselves at the mercy of the brokers, who sell them for around $3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families. Once purchased they may be held prisoner and pressured to produce babies as quickly as possible. Similar stories have been documented by journalists and researchers in CambodiaNorth KoreaPakistan, and Vietnam, among others.

For years, it was easy for China to ignore the issue. The women and girls being trafficked are often ethnic or religious minorities, from impoverished communities, or, in the case of North Korea, on the run from their own abusive regime. Violence against women and girls is often a low priority for governments. And all of the affected countries have complicated relationships and deep power imbalances with China. The consequence has been that their own governments also often show little concern about the fate of women and girls trafficked to China.

That may be changing. There has been growing attention to bride trafficking in the media, and there is a growing list of home countries of victims becoming more aware, most recently Pakistan, when evidence emerged earlier this year of trafficking. Problems with China’s huge infrastructure and investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have triggered tensions between China and some partner governments, and bad publicity over bride trafficking has sometimes complicated relations further. 

China’s recent responses vary. In June, the Ministry of Public Security, China’s police, said that in the previous year it had rescued 1,100 Southeast Asian female trafficking victims and arrested 1,322 suspects, including 262 foreigners. The Chinese government appears to have cooperated with Pakistani authorities to quickly arrest some suspected traffickers in Pakistan. Officials in China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, recently shared some data on their efforts to combat trafficking. 

At the same time, the Chinese government also seems to be responding by peddling propaganda to improve its global image. In Myanmar, Human Rights Watch met an activist who had participated in a study tour to China for Myanmar women’s rights groups. In one session, a professor explained to the visitors that the problem was not trafficking but that, as the activist recalled the explanation: “Myanmar women don’t know Chinese culture. Once they learn Chinese language and culture, their marriages are fine.” The expert asked the participants to, “Tell your government the Chinese government is doing very good things for Myanmar women.”  

A recent article in a Chinese government-funded publication in Myanmar similarly described the “happy and pleasant road” a Myanmar woman had experienced after marrying in China. 

The Chinese public is not widely aware of bride trafficking. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the government has tightened its grip on the media and the internet. Speaking critically of the government has often resulted in police harassment and arrest. Combined with a continuing crackdown on women’s rights activists and civil society groups, it has become increasingly difficult for them to raise awareness and assist victims.     

China in 2016 replaced its one-child policy with a two-child policy — a change that leaves in place restrictions on reproductive rights that violate international human rights law. Whether its strategy is to stop the traffickers, promote China’s image abroad, or block the public from learning about trafficking, the bottom line is that the Chinese government is still failing to take on the real solutions to its human trafficking problem — ending gender discrimination and violations of reproductive rights. 

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

Katie Hill, at TheWrap's Power Women's Summit_Inside at the InterContinental Hotel in Los Angeles, California on November 2, 2018.

© Faye Sadou/MediaPunch /IPX

Katie Hill, a US Congress member elected to the House of Representatives less than a year ago, has just resigned, days after nude photos of her – which she says were released without her consent – were posted online by media outlets. Hill, 32, is also alleged to have violated House rules by engaging in a sexual relationship with a staff member. She denies that allegation. But she stepped down anyway, citing the “private photos of personal moments” that had been “weaponized” against her as the reason, and adding that she was “fearful of what might come next.”

Many people – 90 percent of them women and girls – have lived through some form of sexual violence online, including what Hill describes. Compromising photos have been used against people for as long as cameras have existed. But today’s online media – where we spend so much of our lives and everything is a screenshot away from permanence – present opportunities for abuse that never existed before.

Abusers have been quick to see the opportunities – to humiliate, to destroy careers, reputations, and relationships, and even drive victims to suicide or trigger so-called “honor” violence in societies where sex outside of marriage is seen as bringing shame on a family. They have found opportunities to monetize their abuses: in South Korea, where Human Rights Watch is currently researching this issue; platforms charge viewers to watch “spycam” footage of women and girls filmed unknowingly in bathrooms and changing rooms.

From a victim’s perspective, once the image is posted once, the harm is permanent. Images cannot be unseen, and once shared, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole – even if the original is removed, screenshots and other copies can reappear at any time.

Internet companies fail to grasp the impact and urgency of these cases. Too often they fail to remove nonconsensual images, have slow and complex procedures for such requests, and fail to act quickly enough when images reappear.

Worse yet is the response by governments. In many countries, laws are not updated and nonconsensual sharing of intimate images may not even be illegal. Where it is a crime, police often lack the expertise, tools and compassion to investigate and support victims.

Technology is bringing us new forms of violence against women. Governments – and companies – need to act like they care.

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

Angela, 15, holds her newborn baby girl in a hospital in Tanzania. Unmarried and living with her parents, she hopes to continue with her studies and one day become a nurse. Shinyanga, Tanzania. August 4, 2014.

Girls and boys in Tanzania have cause to celebrate: child marriage is now illegal in the country.

Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 sets the minimum marriage age for girls at 15 with parental consent, and 18 for boys. It permits the marriage of 14-year-old children when a court is satisfied that special, although unspecified, circumstances exist.

In a landmark 2016 decision, a Tanzanian high court ruled these provisions unconstitutional, and directed the government to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys. This ruling followed a legal challenge by the Msichana Initiative, an organization advocating for girls’ right to education in Tanzania. Their petition argued that the Marriage Act violated girls’ fundamental rights to equality, dignity, and access to education, and contravened Tanzania’s Law of the Child Act.

The Tanzania government appealed the decision, but this week, Tanzania’s Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 High Court ruling.

Three in 10 girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday, according to United Nations estimates. Human Rights Watch has documented the devastating lifelong consequences for girls of child marriage, including impacts on girls’ health when they become pregnant too young, the increased risks of domestic violence including marital rape, and how marriage and pregnancy ends their education. In Tanzania, school officials are permitted to expel married girls, and most girls have limited opportunities to return to formal schooling after they drop out.

The Tanzanian government has legal obligations to outlaw child marriage and end the harm suffered by girls. Having a strong law that provides for a standard minimum marriage age for boys and girls is a good starting point. Education is a key protection measure against underage marriages, and Tanzania should also end longstanding discrimination against girls in education, including by ensuring girls who become pregnant can continue their studies, and address widespread violence in schools. It is also important to engage communities on the importance of keeping girls in school and not marrying them off in their childhood. With these steps, girls in Tanzania can have the future they deserve, and be girls, not wives.

Video

Ending Child Marriage

What does child marriage mean for girls’ lives? And why does child marriage persist?

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

Taguhi shows scars on her neck and shoulder. In 2016, her former husband attacked her and her mother with an axe, killing her mother. 

© 2016 Nazik Armenakyan (Daphne.am)

A human rights expert body has hopefully put to rest harmful myths circulating in Armenia about a European treaty on combatting violence against women. Domestic violence is a persistent problem in Armenia, where at least 10 women were reportedly killed by family members or partners in the first six months of 2019.

Last week the European Commission on Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), an advisory body of the Council of Europe, issued an expert opinion that Armenia’s ratification of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) would not contradict Armenia’s Constitution.

The opinion sends an important message not just to Armenia but also other states where efforts to undermine the Istanbul Convention, by misinformation and fear-mongering around women’s and LGBT rights, are rife.

Armenia took the first steps towards joining the Istanbul Convention in 2018 and in 2019 began the full ratification process, which soon stalled amidst a hate-filled campaign by some public officials. So the Justice Ministry decided to ask the Venice Commission to “assess the constitutional implications” of Armenia’s ratification.

Similar campaigns led to the suspension of ratification in Bulgaria and Slovakia in 2018, while Poland’s ruling PiS party threatened to withdraw from the Convention altogether.

The Venice Commission affirmed the Istanbul Convention’s value as the sole treaty that focuses exclusively on violence against women and domestic violence. Additionally, the Venice Commission stated, the existence of national law related to violence against women is no excuse for not ratifying the Convention, as the two would be complementary.

The Commission dismissed opponents’ scare-mongering claims that ratification would mean Armenia has to legalize same-sex marriage, saying the convention “in no way contradicts national constitutions that define marriage as a union between a woman and a man.” However, the commission also notes that sexual orientation and gender identity rank among the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Therefore, both the Istanbul Convention and Armenia’s constitution are in agreement that basic rights such as non-discrimination and protection from violence apply regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Women in Armenia have already lost too much to domestic violence. Hopefully, the government will now move past the toxic lies about the Istanbul Convention and help women by spending its time and energy ratifying and implementing the convention instead.

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