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

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

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

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

© Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Panos/Abbie Trayler-Smith

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

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

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

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

Salwa Bughaighis

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Security Council Resolution 1325

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

Much Work Remains

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

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

©2014 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

Statement by Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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

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

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

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

©2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Protection and Assistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

Narin (pseudonym)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Farzana Wahidy

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

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

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

Recommendations to Governments, UN agencies, and the UN Secretariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xlviii] Rome Statute, art. 28.

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Human Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting and defending human rights around the world, including those related to women’s rights, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and other marginalized groups such as children, prisoners, displaced persons, ethnic and racial minorities, persons living with disabilities, and migrant and domestic workers. Our work on women’s rights has focused on reproductive rights, obstetric fistula and maternal health care, labour rights, the impact of conflict and crisis on women and girls, girls’ education, and violence against women and girls, among other issues.[1]

Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research and documented incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence in several countries such as Burma[2], Kenya[3], Lebanon[4], Central African Republic[5], South Africa[6], Somalia[7] and South Sudan.[8]  

Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SRVAW) noting that the report will address states’ responsibility to criminalize and prosecute rape as a grave and systematic human rights violation. This submission will focus on states obligations to legislate, prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual and other violence against lesbians and transgender people.

This submission includes two case studies, namely South Africa and Lebanon, to indicate the particular vulnerabilities of women based on sexual orientation and gender identity based on our in-depth research on violence against lesbians and transgender people in these two countries. It also draws on HRW’s extensive research and advocacy on women’s rights to live lives free from violence and discrimination, the rights of LGBTI people, and on international human rights law.

This submission focuses on the legislative framework governing sexual offences as well as barriers to accessing justice in the Republic of South Africa and Lebanon, in light of States’ obligations to adhere to the due diligence standard: to prevent, investigate and prosecute sexual violence perpetrated against lesbians and transgender people. The focus on lesbians and transgender people is premised on several general recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee), including general recommendation no. 28 on core obligations of states parties[9], no. 33 on women’s access to justice[10], no. 35 on gender-based violence against women[11] and no. 36 on the right of girls and women to education.[12] These recommendations affirm that discrimination against women is inextricably linked to other factors, including being lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

Violence against Lesbians and Transgender Persons in South Africa

In April 2009, the body of Eudy Simelane, a young woman who lived openly as a lesbian and former star of South Africa's national female football team was found in a park in Kwa Thema, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times. Following a trial, two of Simelane’s four attackers were convicted of murder, rape and robbery. Thato Mphithi and Themba Mvubu were the first men in South Africa to be convicted of ‘corrective’ rape despite there being over 30 reported cases in the decade before Simelane’s murder. Upon leaving the court, Mvubu—who was sentenced to life imprisonment—stated that he “was not sorry” for his crimes.[13]

Eudy’s case was not the first nor the last reported case of “corrective rape” of black lesbians in South Africa, but as a well-known figure her brutal rape and murder generated considerable attention to an enduring problem.[14] In another case, more than ten years later, on March 5, 2020 in Lotus River, a suburb of Cape Town, a 25-year old lesbian was brutally gang-raped by three young men to supposedly “correct her of her sexual orientation”.[15] According to media reports two of the suspects, aged 14 and 17 were arrested, while the third is still on the run.[16] South Africa’s Constitution as well as legislative and policy frameworks seek to ensure the protection of all people from violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Yet, in a context where gender-based violence is high, black lesbians and transgender men and women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.[17] As noted in the 2016 report of the UNSRVAW following her official visit to South Africa, “despite an explicit prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation in the Constitution, lesbian women and other sexual minorities are very vulnerable to extreme forms of violence purportedly aimed at “correcting” their bodies, including the so-called “corrective rape” often accompanied by a particularly heinous murder.”[18] 

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32, 2007[19]  (Sexual Offences Act) contains a gender-neutral definition of rape and compelled rape with the following provisions:

Rape: Any person ('A') who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with a complainant ('B'), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of rape. Compelled rape: Any person ('A') who unlawfully and intentionally compels a third person ('C'), without the consent of C, to commit an act of sexual penetration with a complainant ('B'), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of compelled rape.[20]

In addition to criminalization of rape and compelled rape, the Sexual Offences Act criminalizes all non-consensual sexual activity, including sexual assault, compelled sexual assault and marital rape. It also expands the definition of rape to include all forms of non-consensual sexual penetration. It provides for various services to be made available to victims of sexual offences, including free post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV and establishes a National Register for Sex Offenders containing particulars of persons convicted of any sexual offence against a child or a person with a mental disability.

In December 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting sexual violence and discrimination against black lesbians and transgender men and women in South Africa.[21] Key recommendations in the report included calls to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJ&CD) to work with the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) to address barriers to prosecuting cases of sexual and physical violence, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and for the South African Police Service (SAPS) to collect data on physical and sexual violence and disaggregate the data by motive to track incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence.[22]

In March 2011, the DoJ&CD established a National Task Team (NTT) on Gender and Sexual Orientation Based Violence perpetrated against LGBTI persons comprised of Chapter 9 institutions (South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality) and civil society organisations tasked with developing a National Intervention Strategy (2014–2017) to address the issue of “corrective rape” and other forms of violence against LGBTI persons.[23] In 2013, the Working Group of the NTT established the Rapid Response Team (RRT) comprising the DoJ&CD, NPA, SAPS, and other representatives from civil society organisations to urgently deal with pending and reported cases on hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTI persons. On June 18, 2015, the RTT published the following update regarding cases that resulted in successful convictions:[24]

  • Zukiswa Gaca, an 18-year old female from the Western Cape was raped. The perpetrator was sentenced to ten years in prison with a suspended four-year sentence.
  • LC Molefe from Ermelo in Mpumalanga was raped. The perpetrators were sentenced to six years in prison.
  • Ntabiseng Welemina Mofokeng from Balfour in Mpumalanga was raped by her neighbor. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
  • Disebo Gift Makau from Tshing in Ventersdorp was murdered and raped. The perpetrator was sentenced into two life sentences and 15 years in prison.
  • Thembelihle Sokhela from Sgodi in Daveyton was raped and murdered. The perpetrator was sentenced 22 years in prison.

In a February 2020 report, Iranti, a Johannesburg-based media-advocacy organisation which advocates for the rights of LGBTI+ persons, cited unpublished data from the NTT that lists 14 rape cases reported across six provinces.[25] Due to Covid-19 lockdown measures in South Africa, Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain the latest quantitative data from the NTT of rape cases currently under investigation and those that have been successfully prosecuted.

Barriers to access to justice

Notwithstanding the tremendous efforts of the DoJ&CD and all the members of the NTT, including civil society organisations, Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about high levels of violence against women including the persistence of sexual violence perpetrated against lesbians and transgender people and limitations in the criminal justice system to respond appropriately, swiftly and effectively.

A 2013 report by the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters (MATTSO), states that LGBTI people face considerable barriers in reporting sexual violence, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the South African criminal justice system, and stigma in communities.[26] Low conviction rates generally, shame and stigma attached to sexual violence, fear of secondary victimization by state authorities, and lack of faith in the criminal justice system are some of the challenges young black lesbians and transgender individuals face. The 2011 Human Rights Watch report extensively documents the negative experiences with police, that in turn creates an overwhelming lack of trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.[27] The MATTSO  report emphasizes that “limited policing and barriers to accessing the legal system exacerbate vulnerability and notes the challenge in assessing the magnitude of the problem because statistical information related to LGBTI victims of sexual offences are not captured by information management systems.”[28] The MATTSO report further notes that poor, young black lesbians living in townships in South Africa are specifically targeted for “corrective rape” perpetrated by heterosexual men.

In this regard we draw the attention of the UNSRVAW to a 2018 report published by the Gender Health and Justice Research Unit, University of Cape Town titled Access to Justice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Survivors of Sexual Offences in South Africa.[29] The report outlines several obstacles to successful investigation and prosecution of sexual violence cases. These include non-reporting due to fear and safety concerns as well as a lack of faith in the criminal justice system. In addition, the report noted lack of knowledge within the criminal justice system on how to establish, investigate and prosecute hate-motivated rape cases based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Human Rights Watch urges the South African Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to continue to support the efforts of the NTT and RRT and ensure that disaggregated data is publicly available. The National Task Team, in collaboration with non-government organizations should also continue to implement national training programs for all role-players in the criminal justice system, including police, legal professionals, members of the judiciary and public service providers in order to educate them on the rights and needs of all survivors of sexual violence, including lesbians and transgender people. The South African government is urged to enact legislation that recognizes that acts of sexual violence, including rape may be motivated in whole or in part by prejudice or hatred regarding an aspect of the victim’s identity, such as their real or perceived sexual orientation, and when that is the case that it is an aggravating factor.[30]

Legal Framework in Lebanon

The Lebanese Penal Code does not explicitly define sexual violence, meaning it has not adopted the definition of sexual violence provided in the Rome Statute,[31] and does not otherwise explicitly define sexual violence. But rape outside of marriage is a criminal offence with a minimum punishment of imprisonment of five years.[32]

Article 503 of the Lebanese Penal Code defines the crime of rape as “forced sexual intercourse [against someone] who is not his wife by violence or threat.”[33] Article 506 stipulates that anyone who abuses his authority or official position to force sexual intercourse with a minor aged between 15 and 18 years old shall be punished by up to 15 years of imprisonment.[34]

The definition of rape is narrow and limited: it is gender specific, covering women only, and explicitly excludes marital rape. The 2014 law on domestic violence which established important protection measures and related policing and court reforms, defines domestic violence narrowly and fails to specifically criminalize marital rape.[35] Legislators instead introduced a crime of threats or violence by a spouse to claim a “marital right to intercourse”, but it did not criminalize the non-consensual violation of physical integrity itself. The penalties for this are covered under articles 554-559 of the penal code, which provide for as little as a fine of 10,000-50,000 Lebanese pound (US$6.66-$33) or a maximum of six months in prison if the victim required 10 days maximum of rest to recover, compared with at least five years for rape under article 503.[36] It also introduced in law the  notion of a “marital right to intercourse” which could lead to sexual abuse in marriage with impunity. 

The penal code, under articles 507-510 and beyond, refers to violent acts of “indecency.”[37] For instance, article 507 imposes a penalty of imprisonment for a period not less than four years for anyone who forces another person, through violence or threats, to commit or endure an “indecent act.” The minimum sentence is six years if the victim is under the age of 15.[38] However, “indecency” is ill-defined, and it should instead be replaced with specific reference to sexual assault that is not penetrative rape.[39]

Articles 509, 510, 519, and 520 prohibit lewd or obscene acts against minors. Article 524 provides that anyone who seduces a woman or a girl under the age of 21, even with consent, to gratify the sexual needs of others, will be punished by imprisonment for a minimum term of one year and a fine.[40]

In a positive development, parliament repealed article 522 of the criminal code in 2017, which had allowed rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim.[41] However, it left a loophole for cases concerning sex with children ages 15-17 and seducing a virgin girl into having sex with the promise of marriage.

Violence against Lesbians and Transgender Persons in Lebanon

In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the systemic discrimination that transgender women face in Lebanon, in which it detailed crimes of sexual violence against them committed with impunity.[42]

Suha, a 24-year-old transgender woman from the Lebanese north, told Human Rights Watch:

The mayor of my town sexually harassed me; lieutenants sexually harassed me. I was kidnapped in 2011 by a man in the street in my neighborhood. Apparently, he had been watching me and he knew about me. He pulled me into a car in the street and took me to an apartment and tied me to a chair. He raped me until I passed out. I tried to report it [to the police station in Akkar], but they told me I’m sick and a liar. They said I’m schizophrenic.[43]

Suha’s case is not unique. In a context where gender-based violence is pervasive,[44] transgender women, as well as lesbians and transgender men, are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Lebanon, the combination of social and economic marginalization, laws that criminalize homosexual conduct (article 534 of the Penal Code)[45] and sex work (article 523),[46] vague “morality” laws (articles 531, 532, 533, and 526),[47] and the absence of legislation protecting against discrimination, or  reliable complaint systems, are formidable barriers that impede lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people’s ability and willingness to report sexual violence  to the police.[48] This creates an environment in which state and non-state actors can abuse them with impunity.

The 2014 domestic violence law makes no provision for same-sex intimate partner violence, and hence provides no guarantee that judiciary members apply the law to lesbian women or transgender individuals experiencing domestic violence, such as sexual abuse, including through provision of protection orders.[49]

Lebanon also has no law criminalizing sexual harassment, including at work, and sexual harassment is neither defined nor prohibited under the Lebanese Labor Code.[50] Parliamentarians have introduced multiple draft laws on sexual harassment, but parliament has yet to act.

Many women face sexual harassment at work in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch has documented how Syrian refugee women in Lebanon experienced sexual assault, harassment, or attempted sexual exploitation, sometimes repeatedly, by employers, landlords, local faith-based aid distributors, and community members.[51] Human Rights Watch found that residency rules left Syrian refugee women vulnerable to sexual harassment by their employers.[52] Human Rights Watch has also documented  sexual harassment, as a recurring violation that transgender women face in the workplace. In instances when they are employed, transgender women reported encountering sexual abuse from employers and coworkers. Lacking access to redress, including complaint mechanisms that hold abusers accountable for their discrimination, trans women reported having been forced out of jobs.[53]

Due to underreporting and the lack of reliable complaints mechanisms, there is no estimate on the number of rape cases reported and prosecuted in Lebanon in recent years. Additionally, there are no official national statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by an intimate partner.[54] Since perpetrators are rarely held accountable before the law, victims of rape often lack confidence in the authorities to punish offenders, deterring reporting.[55]

According to a 2017 report by Helem, a Beirut-based LGBT rights organization, individuals with non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity and expression can rarely seek legal protection from sexual violence, due to the criminalization of their identities and the fear of persecution.[56]

Lebanon ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1997. Lebanon maintains reservations to Article 9(2) (equal rights with respect to nationality of children), Article 16(1)(c), (d), (f), and (g) (equality in marriage and family relations), and Article 29(1) (administration of the Convention and arbitration in the event of a dispute).[57] In November 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, during its review of Lebanon’s record under CEDAW, called on Lebanon to criminalize marital rape.[58]

Human Rights Watch urges Lebanon to explicitly criminalize marital rape, and clearly define sexual assault as a violation of bodily integrity and sexual autonomy, and rape as a form of sexual assault that is a physical invasion of a sexual nature without consent or under coercive circumstances. A physical invasion would include penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim – or of the rapist by the victim – with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body. Lebanon should also repeal the remaining loophole of article 522 of the criminal code, which still allows prosecution and convictions to be dropped where a perpetrator marries their victim in cases concerning sex with children ages 15-17 and seducing a virgin girl into having sex with the promise of marriage.

Human Rights Watch urges Lebanon to repeal article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature,” and pass comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation and includes effective measures to identify and address such discrimination and gives victims of discrimination and violence, including sexual violence, an effective remedy. In order to safeguard the right of sexual and gender minorities to report crimes without facing the risk of arrest, Lebanon should ensure that no sexual violence survivor is denied assistance, arrested, or harassed on the basis of their gender identity, their sexual orientation, or their status as a sex worker.


Human Rights Watch respectfully requests the UNSRVAW to include the following recommendations to States in the thematic report to the UN General Assembly:

  • States must adopt all necessary measures to prevent, investigate and punish sexual violence perpetrated by both State and non-State actors on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and provide reparations to victims, including:
    • Repeal legislation that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and introduce laws and policies that protect people with non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity;
    • Develop reliable, accessible, and non-discriminatory complaints mechanisms through which lesbians and transgender people can report cases of sexual violence, as well as any denial of service, stigma, or discrimination in the health or justice sectors;
    • Ensure that complaints are handled confidentially and swiftly, following a clear procedure, and that lesbian and transgender survivors can submit complaints without fear of reprisals;
    • Issue clear policy directives to ensure that reported cases of violence against lesbians and transgender individuals are effectively and impartially investigated and prosecuted; and
    • Ensure that individuals who discriminate against, abuse, mistreat, or inflict violence on lesbians and transgender people are held accountable, and the penalties imposed are commensurate with the gravity of the crime and harm inflicted.
  • States should introduce and proactively strengthen ethical and safe data collection mechanisms that monitor sexual violence against women and disaggregate the data by sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • States should ensure that all state agents in all sectors, including health, education, and justice, receive mandatory training on the appropriate protocols and responses in the provision of services to lesbian and transgender survivors of sexual violence, including on the vulnerability of individuals with non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity to sexual violence motivated by prejudice, on secondary victimization, and regarding the specific needs and rights of lesbian and transgender persons.

[1] HRW Women’s Rights Division https://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights

[2] “All of My Body Was Pain”

Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/burma1117_web_1.pdf

[3]“They Were Men in Uniform”

Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/12/14/they-were-men-uniform/sexual-violence-against-women-and-girls-kenyas-2017

[4] Unequal and Unprotected

Women’s Rights under Lebanese Personal Status Laws https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/01/19/unequal-and-unprotected/womens-rights-under-lebanese-personal-status-laws

[5] “They Said We Are Their Slaves”

Sexual Violence by Armed Groups in the Central African Republic https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/10/05/they-said-we-are-their-slaves/sexual-violence-armed-groups-central-african

[7] “The Power These Men Have Over Us”

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/09/08/power-these-men-have-over-us/sexua...

[8] “They Burned it All”

Destruction of Villages, Killings, and Sexual Violence in Unity State South Sudan https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/07/22/they-burned-it-all/destruction-villages-killings-and-sexual-violence-unity-state

[9] CEDAW/C/GC/28 paras 18 and 31

[10] CEDAW/C/GC/33 paras 8 and 49

[11] CEDAW/C/GC/35 paras 12 and 29(c)(i)

[12] CEDAW/C/GC/36 para 45, 46(i) and 66

[14] Corrective rape is a widely reported phenomenon in which men rape people they presume or know to be lesbians in order to “convert” them to heterosexuality. See 2011 Human Rights Watch report , "We'll Show You You're a Woman" Violence and Discrimination against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men in South Africa https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/12/05/well-show-you-youre-woman/violence-and-discrimination-against-black-lesbians-and

[16] ibid

[18] A/HRC/32/42/Add.2 Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on her mission to South Africa para 33

[19] Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32, 2007 https://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/acts/2007-032.pdf

[21] Human Rights Watch report, "We'll Show You You're a Woman"

Violence and Discrimination against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men in South Africa https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/12/05/well-show-you-youre-woman/violence-and-discrimination-against-black-lesbians-and

[22] Ibid Recommendations

[23] The National Task Team (NTT) on Gender and Sexual Orientation-Based Violence was established by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ & CD) in March 2011 is to address human rights concerns and violations amongst Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) persons.

[25] Data Collection and Reporting on Violence Perpetrated Against LGBTQI Persons in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Uganda available at: http://www.iranti.org.za/2020/03/23/press-release-iranti-launches-five-country-study-on-violence-against-queer-persons/

[26] Report on the Re-establishment of Sexual Offences Courts Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters https://www.justice.gov.za/reportfiles/other/2013-sxo-courts-report-aug2013.pdf

[27] Supra n 21 p 46 – 54

[28] Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters (MATTSO) established by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development https://www.justice.gov.za/reportfiles/other/2013-sxo-courts-report-aug2013.pdf

[29] Müller, Alex; Meer, Talia. (2018). Access to Justice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Survivors of Sexual Offences in South Africa: A research report. Cape Town: Gender Health and Justice Research Unit available at: http://www.ghjru.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/242/report_images/1%20ICOP%20LGBT%20Doc%20PDF.pdf

[31] The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund and UN Women (2018). Gender-Related Laws, Policies and Practices in Lebanon. Available at: https://civilsociety centre.org/sites/default/files/resources/gender_justice_in_lebanon_final_report_eng.pdf

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Human Rights Watch (2014). Lebanon: Domestic Violence Law Good, but Incomplete. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/03/lebanon-domestic-violence-law-good-incomplete

[36] Human Rights Watch (2016). Lebanon: Reform Rape Laws. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/19/lebanon-reform-rape-laws

[38] Ibid.

[39] Human Rights Watch (2016). Lebanon: Reform Rape Laws. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/19/lebanon-reform-rape-laws

[40] Ibid.

[41] Human Rights Watch (2018). Lebanon: 5 Steps to Improve Women’s Rights. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/08/lebanon-5-steps-improve-womens-rights

[42] Human Rights Watch (2019). “Don’t Punish Me for Who I Am”: Systemic Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Lebanon. Avaliable at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/03/dont-punish-me-who-i-am/systemic-discrimination-against-transgender-women-lebanon#3a465f

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with Suha, Beirut, November 27, 2018. Human Rights Watch (2019). “Don’t Punish Me for Who I Am”: Systemic Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Lebanon. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/03/dont-punish-me-who-i-am/systemic-discrimination-against-transgender-women-lebanon#3a465f

[44] The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). July 2019. Gender-based Violence in Lebanon: Inadequate Framework, Ineffective Remedies. Available at: https://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Lebanon-Gender-Violence-Publications.pdf

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Human Rights Watch (2019). “Don’t Punish Me for Who I Am”: Systemic Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Lebanon. Avaliable at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/03/dont-punish-me-who-i-am/systemic-discrimination-against-transgender-women-lebanon#3a465f

[49] Human Rights Watch (2019). “Don’t Punish Me for Who I Am”: Systemic Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Lebanon. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/03/dont-punish-me-who-i-am/systemic-discrimination-against-transgender-women-lebanon#3a465f

[50] Lebanese Labor Law of 1946 (revised in 1996), art. 44, art. 31, http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/WEBTEXT/39255/64942/F93LBN01.htm#t1c6

[51] Human Rights Watch (2013). Lebanon: Women Refugees from Syria Harassed, Exploited. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/11/26/lebanon-women-refugees-syria-harassed-exploited

[52] Human Rights Watch (2016). “I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person.” Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/01/12/i-just-wanted-be-treated-person/how-lebanons-residency-rules-facilitate-abuse

[53] Human Rights Watch (2019). “Don’t Punish Me for Who I Am”: Systemic Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Lebanon. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/03/dont-punish-me-who-i-am/systemic-discrimination-against-transgender-women-lebanon#3a465f

[54] UN Women. Global Database on Violence against Women: Lebanon. Available at: https://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/es/countries/asia/lebanon

[55] The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund and UN Women (2018). Gender-Related Laws, Policies and Practices in Lebanon. Available at: https://civilsociety centre.org/sites/default/files/resources/gender_justice_in_lebanon_final_report_eng.pdf

[56] Helem (2017). Human Rights Violations against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) individuals in Lebanon. Available at: https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1398874/1930_1493282102_int-ccpr-ico-lbn-27152-e.pdf

[57] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Situation Analysis of Gender-Based Violence in Lebanon (2012). Available at: http://www.unfpa.org.lb/Documents/-1Situation-Analysis-of-GBV-inLebanon.aspx.

[58] Lebanon: United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (2015). Available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%252FC%252FLBN%252FCO%252F4-5&Lang=en

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Women hold up signs demanding justice during the hearing of the president of the Fédération Haïtienne De Football (FHF), Yves Jean-Bart, regarding allegations that he abused female athletes at the country's national training center, outside the courthouse in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, Thursday, May 14, 2020. As reported in the Guardian, survivors and family members have accused Jean-Bart of coercing young female players at the Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets into having sex with him.

© 2020 Associated Press (Dieu Nalio Chery)
(New York) – Haitian law enforcement should effectively investigate serious allegations of sexual assault against the president of the Fédération Haïtienne De Football (FHF), and vigorously pursue appropriate prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said today. As reported in the Guardian, survivors and family members have accused the federation president, Yves Jean-Bart, of coercing young female players at the Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets into having sex with him.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football’s world governing body, has confirmed that its independent ethics committee is investigating the allegations in Haiti. FIFA should exercise its authority to suspend the FHF president and any implicated officials during its investigation, Human Rights Watch said. Such a measure is important to reduce risks of abuse or retaliation against women and girls in the country’s football system. FIFA should also conduct the investigation with a survivor-centered approach and ensure sensitivity, safety, and access to support services when conducting outreach and interviewing suspected victims.

“Haitian authorities need to investigate all allegations of crimes committed against women and girls who dreamed of playing football for their country,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “FIFA president Gianni Infantino has encouraged women and girls to join football, and FIFA has a duty of care to protect all who play from risk of sexual assault by its associates.” 

Jean-Bart has been Haiti’s football federation president since 2000 and was recently re-elected for a sixth term. The federation oversees youth, men’s, and women’s teams, and training. Jean-Bart has publicly denied the allegations.

However, a former Haiti Women’s National Team player who spoke to Human Rights Watch said Jean-Bart used promises of contracts or scholarships and the threat of expulsion from the national training center to pressure young female players into having sex. 

The young woman, who lived and trained at Haiti’s problematic national training center, told Human Rights Watch that women and girls experienced very serious sexual abuse over the years she was based there.

When she sought to advance professionally as a player, she was told her contracts and “my chance to play overseas depended on sleeping with the president.” When she was 16 or 17, she said, “he put his hand on my leg to get me to go with him.” She witnessed a female FHF staff member waking girls up early “to ‘go to the doctor’ and they would come back very late at night in new clothes.” She said teen girls became pregnant and had children by the president. “All of the players, officials, and staff at the center knew what was going on.”

In Haiti, women and girls struggle to access justice, and gender-based violence is a widespread problem. Haiti does not have specific legislation against domestic violence, sexual harassment, or other forms of violence targeted at women and girls. Rape was only explicitly criminalized in 2005 by ministerial decree. In 2017, Haiti’s Ministry of Health released a survey saying one in eight women reported experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Human Rights Watch has long documented how women in Haiti seeking accountability for sexual violence crimes encounter multiple obstacles, including reproach by members of the public or threats. Some survivors experience threats or reprisals for filing criminal complaints, leading them to drop charges. In one high-profile case, a woman pressed charges against a former justice minister, claiming he had raped her in 2012. She subsequently reported receiving multiple death threats, which led her to withdraw her criminal complaint.

Women’s rights groups in Haiti have urged the Ministry of Justice to take immediate action. “It is absolutely necessary to protect the girls and their anonymity. We are worried about their safety,” Yolette Andrée Jeanty, the director of the association Kay Fanm in Haiti told the Guardian.

On May 21, 2020, Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, a leading human rights organization based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, published a report documenting abuses by Jean-Bart and “demanding a serious judicial investigation.”

Over the past two years, a number of top football officials in the FIFA system across the globe have been accused of sexual harassment or assault. In 2019, Ahmad Ahmad, president of the Confederation of African Football and a vice president of FIFA, came under investigation for multiple allegations including allegedly sexually harassing several women. That investigation is ongoing, and Ahmad denies the allegations.

In Afghanistan, members of the Afghan National Women’s Football team accused the president of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF), Keramuudin Karim, and other AFF officials of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. FIFA issued a lifetime ban on Karim and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million). FIFA suspended Karim and other senior AFF staff during its investigation into the sexual assault complaints, and eventually banned them from the sport.  

Since 2016, FIFA has enshrined its responsibility to respect human rights in Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes, constituted an independent Human Rights Advisory Board, employed staff members in Human Rights and Child Protection and Safeguarding roles, set up a complaints system for human rights abuses, and adopted a landmark 2017 Human Rights Policy stating that “Human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.”

In June 2019, FIFA created the “FIFA Guardians” program, which makes football leaders responsible for “responding to concerns about a child” and lays out “guidelines for identification, prevention, and mitigation of risk to children involved in football” (under Step 3). The President’s Message from Infantino reads:

With this toolkit, FIFA has established guiding principles and minimum requirements that will help leaders and organisers in our sport to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for the youngest members of the football family. Such an environment, far from being a privilege, is every child’s right.

The Haitian football player interviewed told Human Rights Watch that athletes and parents were powerless when the president targeted the girls for sexual abuse and threatened them into silence: “He is known to pay mobsters and local gangsters. They will come to the center all the time. A player I know got a recent call that, ‘if you speak, Dadou [Jean-Bart] will kill you.’” 

She said she is afraid. But she also said, “My hope is that ‘Dadou’ can end up in jail to face justice with all the other members of the Haitian Football Federation too, because they knew of his crimes and were involved in sexual abuse.” 

“Moving immediately to suspend Haiti’s federation president and any implicated officials while these serious allegations are investigated would signal that FIFA intends to safeguard young athletes from retaliation,” Worden said. “With threats already made, FIFA has a clear duty of care to limit the ability of those in positions of power to intimidate or silence accusers.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Women protest to demand stronger government action to fight the spread of intimate photos and footage taken by hidden cameras in Seoul, South Korea, July 7, 2018.

© 2018 Ryu Hyo-lim/Yonhap via AP
In the wake of the chilling "Nth room" case, the South Korean government recently announced an inter-agency plan to "eradicate digital sex crimes."

This response is a testament to the women's rights activists who have fought for years to make officials take digital sex crimes seriously. But the measures raise digital rights concerns, including freedom of expression for women and girls online, and only scratch the surface of what a comprehensive response should entail.

In late April, as part of measures to establish a "zero-tolerance" policy, the National Assembly passed bills to crack down on perpetrators of digital sex crimes.

Reforms included but were not limited to making it a crime to possess, buy, store, or watch non-consensually captured images, with punishments of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 3 million won (US$2,600). The law also raised South Korea's minimum age of consent from 13 to 16.

While an improvement, some of these new provisions are as problematic as previous laws in that they permit very light sentences that are inadequate to genuinely deter or punish such grave crimes.

Moreover, in practice, judges often treat perpetrators with leniency. For example, SBS News reported that 92 percent of 2019 convictions for sexual exploitation of children and adolescents resulted in a fine averaging 2.9 million won.

Human Rights Watch also found that judgments leaned to fines over incarceration. Digital sex crimes are an extreme form of abuse with long-term consequences for survivors; criminal law provisions need to reflect that.

The government also needs to ensure that survivors can access the justice system in a meaningful way. The survivors of digital sex crimes we interviewed consistently detailed how the abuse they had already suffered was compounded by a hostile justice system.

We heard about police who refused to take complaints, laughed at victims, and joked about intimate images; investigations that placed the burden of collecting evidence on survivors; and judges who so consistently gave lenient sentences that perpetrators know they have little to fear.

Unsurprisingly, we also heard that most victims have so little faith in the justice system that they don't bother to report crimes.

Whether survivors decide to press charges is further complicated by South Korea's troubling criminal defamation law, which leaves accusers vulnerable to prosecution for speaking out publicly even when what they say is true.

The penalty for criminal defamation ― up to two years in prison, or a maximum fine of 5 million won ― means some victims could face tougher penalties than their abusers. Women's rights activists have long advocated for the law to be changed.

Tougher sentences will have little impact if the government doesn't ensure that victims can trust the justice system. This requires recruiting more female police and setting clear guidance for how police respond to digital sex crimes, with consequences when these expectations are not met.

It also requires sensitizing law enforcement and the judiciary against victim blaming and training them to take this issue seriously. They will need training to deepen their understanding of technology and how it can facilitate violence.

Survivors of digital sex crimes need additional support to pursue justice and rebuild their lives, including legal assistance and laws allowing them to sue their abusers so they can recover damages, receive mental health support and access services to help them remove the abusive content from the internet.

While the South Korean government has taken a positive step by supporting a center for survivors of digital sex crimes, it should do more. Survivors need to be able to recover damages from abusers for the harms they suffer, and civil society organizations need resources so they can help survivors put their lives back together.

Finally, the government has a responsibility under international human rights law to work beyond the justice system to combat the deep gender inequality that normalizes gender-based violence in South Korea.

Survivors and experts told us that in some circles in South Korea sharing abusive images is seen as a normal, fun thing to do. The government should work to shift social norms, among other things, by mandating comprehensive sexuality education that teaches both children and parents about consent and digital citizenship.

In recent weeks, as Covid-19 lockdowns have led to many people spending even more of their lives online, there have been alarming suggestions of increased digital sex crimes around the world.

South Korea has been one of the countries hit earliest and hardest by digital sex crimes such as the use of hidden cameras to film non-consensual material and the Burning Sun scandal that disturbingly revealed several prominent entertainment industry figures as serial sex offenders not to mention complicity with the Korean police force.

As the government implements reforms, it is crucial that it continue to think beyond punishment and consult women's rights and digital rights groups. South Korea's response will be an example to the rest of the world of how governments should ― or shouldn't ― address digital sex crimes.

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

Human Rights Watch presents this shadow report in advance of the 85th session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child to assess Afghanistan’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1.     Armed Conflict (article 6)

Children have accounted for roughly 30 percent of the estimated 10,000 civilian casualties that have taken place each year since 2016.[1] In the first quarter of 2020, more than 500 civilians, including more than 150 children, were killed due to the conflict.

For example, on May 12, 2020, unidentified assailants attacked a hospital in Kabul. The suicide bombing attack and ensuing gunbattles killed at least 24 civilians, including 2 infants, and wounded at least 16. More than 80 patients, including children, were evacuated from the hospital.[2]

Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) continued to be responsible for the majority of civilian casualties – accounting for 55 percent of them. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed 39 percent to the Taliban, 13 percent to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) and the remainder to undetermined AGEs. Pro-Government Forces (PGFs) were responsible for 32 percent of all civilian casualties during the first quarter of 2020. PGFs were responsible for more child casualties than AGEs during the first three months of the year and over twice as many child deaths, mainly due to airstrikes and indirect fire during ground engagements.[3]

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government of Afghanistan to:

  • Investigate military operations that result in civilian casualties to provide an effective feedback mechanism to reduce civilian casualties in the future.
  • Hold the perpetrators of attacks on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law accountable.
  • Provide timely and appropriate compensation to civilians harmed in unlawful attacks.

2.    Access to Education (articles 28 and 29)

An estimated 3.7 million children were already out of school in Afghanistan prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.[4] The socio-political and humanitarian crises that Afghanistan faces due to the pandemic critically affects an already very fragile education system. The ongoing armed conflict and its impact, including attacks on education, military use of schools, and fears about children’s safety, already kept many children out of school. Deep poverty, lack of schools, and lack of transportation to school put education out of reach for many families. In areas controlled or influenced by AGEs, education, especially for girls, may be banned or severely limited.

Girls’ Education

Girls’ education is often highlighted as a success story by donors and the Afghan government, and millions more girls are in school today than were in school under Taliban rule. But the aim of getting all girls into school is far from realized, and the overall number of students and the proportion of students who are girls is now falling in parts of the country. Of the children that were out of school prior to Covid-19 related school closures, 85 percent were girls. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.4F[5]

Afghanistan’s government provides many fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female–a major barrier for girls whose families will not allow them to be taught by a man, especially as adolescents.5F[6] Many children live too far from a school to attend, which particularly affects girls who are more likely to fear for their safety on long walks. About 41 percent of schools have no physical buildings, and many lack boundary walls, water, and toilets—also disproportionately affecting girls.6F[7]

Under Afghan law, education is compulsory through class nine, but in reality many children have no access to education to this level—or sometimes, to any level. Administrative barriers and corruption create additional obstacles, especially for displaced and poor families. Even when tuition is free, there are costs for sending children to school and many families cannot afford to send their children or are forced to choose which children to educate, a choice that often favors sons.7F[8] About a quarter of Afghan children work to help their families survive desperate poverty. Many girls weave, embroider, beg, or pick garbage rather than study.8F[9]

International technical and financial support

Afghan government and international donor efforts since 2001 to improve education have significantly faltered in recent years. As security in the country worsens and international donors disengage from Afghanistan, progress has stalled. The Covid-19 crisis is likely to hasten this disengagement.

Donors focussing on girls’ education specifically have worked with the Afghan government, and with the Taliban, to develop innovative models to allow girls to study during conflict, including “community-based education” (CBE), a network of classes, often held in homes, that allow children, particularly girls, to obtain an education in communities far from a government school. But because these classes are funded solely by donors and implemented by nongovernmental organizations, they have no consistent connection with the government school system and come and go due to unreliable funding cycles.

According to UNESCO, governments should spend at least 15 to 20 percent of their public expenditure, and 4 to 6 percent of GDP, on education. Least developed countries should reach or exceed the higher of these benchmarks. In 2016, Afghanistan spent 13 percent of its public expenditure, and 4 percent of GDP, on education.9F[10]

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on donor funding are just beginning to emerge. But Afghanistan is deeply aid dependent,[11] with aid constituting an estimated 40 percent of GDP in 2018. In March 2020, the US threatened to cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion, reportedly due to the failure of President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to agree on a unity government.[12]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What is the government’s current expenditure on education as a percentage of the total national budget and GDP?
  • What specific measures is the government taking to correct the imbalance between the number of schools for girls versus for boys?
  • What specific measures is the government adopting to make progress on recruiting and retaining female teachers?
  • How is the government ensuring the sustainability of CBE classes?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Increase spending on education to meet international best practices and the government’s international obligations to provide universal free and compulsory primary education and help make secondary education free and available to all.
  • Provide an equal number of schools and school places for girls and boys and ensure that conditions in single-gender schools are equal in terms of adequacy of facilities, staffing, and supplies.
  • Increase girls’ access to education by institutionalizing and expanding CBE and other education models that help girls study.
  • Work toward having half female teachers across the country.
  • Ensure that all girls’ schools are staffed by female teachers.
  • Ensure that any “back to school” campaigns and remedial programming following the Covid-19 pandemic is inclusive to also attract children who were out of school before the pandemic.

3.    Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (articles 28 and 29)

School districts across Afghanistan find themselves on the front lines of the country’s armed conflict. In areas under Taliban control, access to education is limited. In areas where the government and insurgents are fighting for control, students face heightened security threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks, as well as targeted attacks and threats.

Afghan government security forces and the Taliban also use schools for military purposes. In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the military use of several schools in Baghlan.[13] In February 2016, the Afghan army conducted a clearance operation near the Qalai Khwaja High School in Dand-e Ghori. During the operation, the military carried out a controlled detonation of an improvised explosive device that the retreating Taliban had placed near the school, and the explosion rendered six of the classrooms unusable. An army contingent remained stationed in the school following the clearance operation until March when the Taliban recaptured the area.

In April 2016, the Khial Jan Shahid Primary School, located in Omarkhail village in Dand-e Shahabuddin, which enrolled about 350 boys and girls as of April 2016, was occupied by the Taliban. They used the school as a base for about five months. During a military operation in early 2016, government forces attacked Taliban fighters based at the primary school, shelling the building with mortars and raking it with gunfire. The military forced the Taliban fighters to abandon the school, but the intense battle left the school compound almost completely destroyed.11F[14]

Attacks on schools continue. In 2019, UNAMA verified 70 incidents impacting access to education, including attacks targeting or incidentally damaging schools; the killing, injury and abduction of education personnel; and threats against education facilities and personnel.[15]

UNAMA documented damage to 24 schools as a result of Taliban operations in the first six months of 2019. For example, on April 14, Taliban detonated explosives that caused substantial damage to a high school, hampering education for about 1,000 students.12F[16] Further, on July 1, 2019, two Taliban attackers wearing civilian clothes and armed with AK-47s set up a firing position on the upper floor of a building which had a private school on the ground floor where around 300 students were at their classes. During the operation, one boy and six civilian men were killed and 144 civilians were injured (21 boys, 7 girls, 101 men and 15 women), along with the four attackers.[17]

Afghanistan was among the first countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, joining in May 2015. By endorsing the declaration, Afghanistan committed itself to a number of measures aimed at strengthening the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, and schools, including by: collecting reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities, providing assistance to victims of attacks, investigating allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecuting perpetrators when appropriate, developing and promoting “conflict sensitive” approaches to education, and seeking to continue education during armed conflict. It also committed to using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

In April 2016, the education minister wrote to both the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the National Security Council requesting assistance in vacating schools being used for military purposes.13F[18] In 2018, the Afghan government stated that their “National Policy on Prevention and Mitigation of Civilian Harm,” provides specific guidelines to be undertaken by security forces that “strictly prohibits … the utilization of civilian facilities, including schools, hospitals, and clinics, for military purposes.”14F[19]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • Can the government share with the Committee a copy of the provisions in the National Policy on Prevention and Mitigation of Civilian Harm strictly prohibiting the use of schools for military purposes?
  • Are protections for schools from military use included in any other policies, rules, or trainings for Afghanistan’s armed forces?
  • How many schools were either partially or wholly used for military purposes by government security forces during the reporting period, and for what time?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Congratulate the government of Afghanistan on endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, and thereby committing to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use in Armed Conflict.
  • Issue clear and public orders to all security forces to refrain from the military use of schools in line with the Safe Schools Declaration and using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict as a minimum standard.
  • Issue clear and public instructions to national and provincial authorities to monitor and report any use of schools by Afghan security forces.
  • Ensure that students deprived of educational facilities as a result of hostilities, the military use of their school, or the need for their school to be repaired or reconstructed, are promptly provided access to nearby alternative schools.
  • Ensure that theministries of interior and education are collecting data on military use of schools by both Afghan security forces and non-state armed groups. Data should include the names and locations of the school being used; the purpose for which they are being used; the duration of the use; the specific security force unit or armed group making use of the school; the enrollment prior to use and attendance during use; impact on students unable to attend school; actions taken by the authorities to end military use of the school; and the damages sustained during the military use of the school.
  • Ensure the ministries of defense and interior establish and implement preventive measures, including advance planning and the provision of necessary logistics and equipment, through coordination with the security forces and the education ministry to avoid the military use of schools, and to vacate them expeditiously where armed forces are using them.
  • Investigate and appropriately prosecute those individuals responsible for attacks on schools or damaging schools in violation of international law.
  • Continue to develop and share examples of its implementation of the declaration’s commitments—including concrete measures to deter the military use of schools—with this Committee and other countries that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.

4.    Lack of Adequate Mental Health Support (article 24)

The Afghan government is failing to provide sufficient psychosocial, or mental health, support to Afghans who have experienced traumatic events, including children.

Forty-one years of war have had a devastating impact on the mental health of millions of Afghans. With large parts of the country facing armed conflict, a weak health system, and a lack of professional health and social workers, mental health services are largely failing to meet the population’s needs.

In 2019, the government spent only US$7 per capita on health services annually, far below the $30 to $40 that the United Nations Commission on Macroeconomics and Health considered appropriate in 2001. The Public Health Ministry says only about 26 cents of that is spent on mental health. While the mental health budget has increased since 2006, it remains below the $3 to $4 per capita the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined is an appropriate investment for mental health systems in low-income countries such as Afghanistan.[20]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What concrete steps are being taken to provide proactive and timely psychosocial support to survivors of traumatic events, particularly children?
  • What plans does the government have to raise awareness amongst children about existing psychosocial services?
  • Are there plans to train teachers to provide basic psychosocial support to their students?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Expand and promote mental health services and psychosocial support for people who have experienced traumatic events related to the conflict.
  • Instruct health workers to provide referrals to mental health services, with special attention to women and children.
  • Consider less expensive ways to provide basic services, such as remote counselling through mobile phones, focusing intervention on specific communities, self-help training, and peer support groups, as well as incentives to increase the number of counsellors in rural areas.  

5.    Child Marriage (articles 2, 6, 19, 24, 28, 34)

In Afghanistan, a third of girls marry before the age of 18.16F[21] Under Afghan law, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 16, or 15 with the permission of the girl’s father or a judge. The minimum age for boys is 18. In practice, the law is rarely enforced, so even earlier marriages occur. The consequences of child marriage are deeply harmful, and include children dropping out or being excluded from education. Other harms include serious health risks—including death—to girls and their babies due to early pregnancy. Girls who marry are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence than women who marry later.17F[22]

In April 2017, the Afghan government launched a national plan to end child marriage.19F[23] But there has been little progress in implementing the plan. Given the government’s poor track record of implementing laws and policies designed to protect the rights of women and girls, there is reason for scepticism about the likely impact of these efforts.20F[24]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • What is being done about the slow progress to end child marriage across the country?
  • Does Afghanistan have plans to change the legal age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions for women and men, in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the Government to:

  • Reform the law to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 with no exceptions.
  • Fully implement the National Action Plan to end child marriage.
  • Strengthen the role of the province-level Child Protection Action Networks (CPANs). Ensure that educators, communities and local government officials work with the local CPAN to protect the most vulnerable children, children at risk of child marriage and provide them with access to child protection services.

6.   Sexual Abuse of Children (articles 19 and 34)

In November 2019, an Afghan advocacy group disclosed evidence that government officials in Logar province, had sexually assaulted more than 500 boys at state schools.[25] In response to a report on their findings, the activists received threats on Facebook, some from local officials. A spokesman for the Logar police threatened to punish the activists. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, detained two activists who had reported the abuse. The NDS later released a video in which one of the men, clearly under duress, apologized for the report. The activists were released and subsequently left Afghanistan.

While the Afghan Attorney General’s Office has initiated an investigation into the Logar allegations and 18 people have been arrested, no police or senior officials alleged to have been responsible for abuse were included in the arrests. Activists have told Human Rights Watch that provincial officials are seeking to terminate the investigation, regardless of whether it has made progress. A number of diplomatic missions in Kabul have raised concerns about political pressure to cut short the investigation. Afghan authorities have not put into place any measures to protect survivors and witnesses from retaliation.[26]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions to the government:

  • During the reporting period, how many individuals have been prosecuted for sexual abuse of children, and how many individuals have been convicted?
  • What protections from potential retaliation are available for survivors and witnesses who participate in investigations and prosecutions?

We encourage the Committee to recommend to the government to:

  • Fully investigate and appropriately prosecute all claims of sexual abuse against children, no matter whether the alleged perpetrator is a government official.
  • Protect and provide psycho-social support to all child victims who bring claims regrading sexual abuse.
  • Ensure all members of the armed forces and police receive instructions on their responsibilities towards children as part of their training.

[1] “Reports on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” UNAMA, https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Attack on Hospital a War Crime: Assault on Kabul Maternity Clinic Shows Cruel Disregard for Civilians,” May 12, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/afghanistan-attack-hospital-war-crime

[3]  “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict First Quarter Report: 1 January – 31 March 2020,” UNAMA, April 27, 2020, https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_protection_of_civilians_in_armed_conflict_-_2020_first_quarter_report_english.pdf

[4] ‘Education – Afghanistan’, UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/afghanistan/education (Accessed April 13, 2020)

[5] United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European Commission, “Afghanistan Gender Country Profile—final report: short version,” September 21, 2016, p. 9, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[6] “Afghanistan Statistical Yearbook: 2016-2017,” 2017, pp. 106-7.

[7] Ministry of Education, “Education in Afghanistan: At a Glance, From 2001 to 2016 and beyond,” undated, provided to Human Rights Watch in April 2017 by Deputy Minister of General Education Dr. Ibrahim Shinwari, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[8] Human Rights Watch, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan,” 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/10/17/i-wont-be-doctor-and-one-day-youll-be-sick/girls-access-education-afghanistan

[9] Government of Afghanistan, Central Statistics Organization, “Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey,” p. 125.

[10] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) et al., “Education 2030: Framework for Action,” December 2015, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002456/245656E.pdf (accessed June 14, 2017), art. 105.

[11] Rachel Cooper, “Aid dependency and political settlements in Afghanistan,” K4D, September 14, 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5d0ced7ae5274a065e721702/428_Aid_Dependency_and_Political_Settlements_in_Afghanistan.pdf

[12] Julian Borger, “US to cut $1bn of Afghanistan aid over failure to agree unity government,” The Guardian, March 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/us-to-cut-1bn-of-afghanistan-aid-over-failure-to-agree-unity-government

[13] Human Rights Watch, “Education on the Front Lines: Military Use of Schools in Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province”, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/08/17/education-front-lines/military-use-schools-afghanistans-baghlan-province

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2019,” UNAMA, February 22, 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/afghanistan_protection_of_civilians_annual_report_2019_-_22_february.pdf

[16] “Midyear Update on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 1 January to 30 June 2019,” UNAMA, July 30, 2019, https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_poc_midyear_update_2019_-_30_july_2019_english.pdf

[17] “Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2019,” UNAMA, February 22, 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/afghanistan_protection_of_civilians_annual_report_2019_-_22_february.pdf

[18] Letter from Minister of Education to Ministry of Interior Affairs, number 311, April 2016 and Letter from Minister of Education to National Security Council, number 194-196, July 2016, both available in Human Rights Watch, Protecting Schools from Military Use: Law, Policy, and Military Doctrine, May 2019.

[19] Statement by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Protection of Civilians Annual Report, February 12, 2018.

[20] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Little Help for Conflict-Linked Trauma,” 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/07/afghanistan-little-help-conflict-linked-trauma

[21] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children 2016,” https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/child-marriage/

[22] Human Rights Watch, “I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick.”

[23] Government of Afghanistan and UNFPA, “National Action Plan to End Early and Child Marriage in Afghanistan: 2017–2021,” July 2016, on file with Human Rights Watch, p. 10.

[24] Heather Barr, “Will Afghanistan Follow Through on Promise to End Child Marriage?: Up to One-Third of Afghan Girls Married Before Age 18,” commentary, Human Rights Dispatch, April 20, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/20/will-afghanistan-follow-through-promise-end-child-marriage.

[25] Bede Sheppard, “Afghan Activists Exposing Child Abuse Detained,” commentary, Human Rights Watch dispatch, November 27, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/27/afghan-activists-exposing-child-abuse-detained

[26] Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Sexual Assaults Go Unpunished,” February 12, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/12/afghanistan-sexual-assaults-go-unpunished

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When Felicia Kasenga and her family were forcibly evicted by a commercial farmer from land in Luombwa, they ended up homeless. Kasenga and her 10 children had to sleep in the open for several months.

© 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch
“Where will we go looking for land? There isn’t any land left,” Elisabeth, a 24-year-old mother of four, asked me in 2016. She, along with other rural residents of the Serenje district of Zambia’s Central Province, was displaced seven years ago — some forcibly evicted from their traditional land.

Some commercial farmers that leased land in the district had burned or bulldozed their homes and uprooted trees. When I spoke to Elisabeth and other evicted residents, they had received no compensation and no meaningful opportunity to contest their removal. 

Dozens of residents evicted by one commercial farmer in 2013 lived out in the open for months, then later in tents or shoddy housing on the fringes of a government forest reserve, with inadequate access to water and no source of livelihood or permission to cultivate land.

After the release of our findings in 2017, 13 displaced villagers filed a complaint with the Zambian High Court with the help of the Zambia Land Alliance and Southern Africa Litigation Centre

On April 30, a High Court in Lusaka ruled in their favor, holding that the conversion of customary land was illegal and that the resulting forced displacement violated the community’s rights to life, freedom of movement and association, dignity, and equal protection of the law. The court ordered the attorney general, the local government and one of the companies at issue to provide relief, including providing alternative land and compensation for rights violations. 

The government should swiftly execute this order to ensure that community members have access to land and water and get help with building new homes and returning to farming. The government should also ensure that communities can adequately shelter-in-place to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, they should fully enforce the court order that the commercial farm must compensate them for their destroyed property, which includes ancestral graves.

The Zambian government promotes large-scale agricultural investments to diversify its economy and reduce rural poverty. Central Province, known as Zambia’s breadbasket, has numerous large “farm blocks” where the government has promised to build roads, develop irrigation and other infrastructure to serve multiple farms. 

The villagers who sued live in the Muchinda chiefdom, a territory and people ruled by Chief Muchinda in Serenje district, which covers about 324 000 hectares and had been parceled out into four large farm blocks which take up more than 273 000 hectares. 

The chiefdom also has a forest reserve, an open-air prison facility with farms run by the government and a “resettlement scheme.” For villagers in the chiefdom, land is scarce and beckons commercial farmers. Villagers were forced off their plots of land in this territory as soon as investors leased the land and started clearing to plant, sometimes without all the required permits. 

In 2017, President Edgar Lungu was quoted saying: “I would like to believe that investors do everything within the law” and that the government expects investors to provide adequate compensation to villagers displaced to make way for business ventures such as large-scale farming.

Our research and the petitioners’ complaint showed a different reality. Families who lived and farmed for generations were displaced without due process or compensation, with some left hungry and homeless. The high court ruling is a first step in righting the wrong done to them.

Petitioners had sought more and requested that the court cancel the commercial farm’s land title, and questioned the legality of the conversion of their land into a farm block. The court stopped short of doing so. It found that though the procedure for converting the land was irregular, it could not cancel the title of the farm since the venture furthered the government’s national development plan. The court then ordered the government to provide alternative land and compensation.

In the current Covid-19 crisis, community members who have lost land — and their livelihoods — are more vulnerable to infection. Community members who have control over their customary land, plant their own food, and are self-sufficient can self-isolate. For others, including indigenous people who have been displaced or evicted and have lost access to homes, farmland, and forests, the pandemic exposes and deepens their precarious situation.

The president should direct responsible senior officials and local leaders to urgently identify and provide alternate land, compensation, and assistance to these community members in a way that preserves their connection to their ancestral area. Given the scarcity of land in the area, alternative land might be difficult to find. But the government has to do its best to find it — and do so quickly. 

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

Women hold placards during a protest against sexual violence in Kathmandu, Nepal, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 Sujan Shrestha/Sipa via AP Images

Imagine discovering private – and perhaps intimate – photos of yourself online. Strangers are posting humiliating comments, with personal details, making you identifiable to the world.

This is increasingly a reality for women and girls in Nepal – with little response from the government.

The Kathmandu Post recently alleged that some social media groups were specifically targeting Nepali women and girls for abuse. The newspaper article claimed that group members circulate and discuss images, often obtained from victims’ social media accounts and shared without consent, but also through hacking, coercion, or blackmail. The article alleged that groups have hosted abusive images, including child sexual abuse material and depictions of sexual violence. One notorious group has 4,500 members.

Online gender-based violence is a growing problem globally, and the shift online caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is adding fuel to the fire. Nonconsensual sharing of intimate images can have a devastating impact on victims, harming their mental health, reputations, relationships, and access to education and employment – even exposing them to physical violence.

Nepal’s laws do not sufficiently protect the rights of women and girls. The existing law does not address online gender-based violence. And because the existing law does not consider the issue of consent around the distribution of images, victims could face charges alongside abusers.

The government plans to replace the Electronic Transaction Act with a new Information Technology Bill. The new bill is deeply problematic on free expression grounds, but does prohibit online “sexual abuse.” The government should revise the bill to protect free expression while strengthening provisions against online gender-based violence. Such provisions should be defined clearly and protect both free expression and everyone’s right to privacy.

The Nepal government also needs a comprehensive approach to online gender-based violence, including aiding victims through providing legal assistance, counseling, and assistance removing images from the internet and developing rights-respecting practices for law enforcement. Internet companies should take seriously their responsibility to prevent gender-based violence on their platforms, act swiftly to remove abusive images, reduce their spread, and provide remedy to victims, including by cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to take action against abusers.

The most important steps to tackle the deep gender inequality underpinning abuse are measures like comprehensive sexuality education and improving the status of women. Under international human rights law, Nepal has an obligation to protect the rights of women and girls – it’s time they took it seriously.

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

A woman holds a packet of contraceptive pills, in Harare, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Lockdowns imposed to curb the coronavirus's spread have put millions of women in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere out of reach of birth control and other sexual and reproductive health needs. Confined to their homes with husbands and others, they face unwanted pregnancies and little idea of when they can reach the outside world again.

© 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
“When I was 13… I got pregnant from my older brother… He raped me starting when I was 11,” a girl from Guatemala told one of us in 2015. She was one of the 2 million girls under 15 worldwide who give birth each year, often due to sexual violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic is putting girls like her at even greater risk. While lockdowns reduce the spread of Covid-19, they also drive a global spike in reported violence in the home, and leaving some women and girls isolated with abusers, leading to increased unwanted pregnancies.

The pandemic is putting enormous pressure on health systems around the world as governments work to contain the virus and treat sick people. But governments also need to sustain other essential services, which according to the World Health Organization include sexual and reproductive health services.

Overloaded hospitals, travel bans, lockdowns and border closures are making access to those services increasingly difficult. Poor and marginalized women and girls, including those with disabilities, especially risk losing access to needed services. And some governments’ responses are making matters worse by discriminating against women and girls who need them.

The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating existing inequalities. More than 5 million families in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean already spent more than 40 percent of their annual non-food household expenditures on maternal health services before the pandemic. With poor families hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic consequences, they are likely to find it even harder to get quality maternal health care.

Governments need to make sure that people can get these services, regardless of ability to pay, and that pregnant women not only get pre-natal and birth care and have the right to make decisions about their labor and delivery plan.

But they also need to protect everyone’s choice about whether to become pregnant or continue a pregnancy. The International Planned Parenthood Federation reports that the pandemic has forced them to close thousands of family planning facilities—either due to government orders or social distancing needs— Colombia, El Salvador, Pakistan, Germany, Ghana, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have each had to close at least 100 such facilities.

Directors for Marie Stopes, an organization that provides contraception and safe abortion services in many countries, in Uganda and Zimbabwe said they have waited in vain for supplies to arrive. “We’re expecting a huge shortage of contraceptives in African countries,” one said. In Venezuela, thousands of women who previously travelled to neighboring Colombia to obtain contraceptive supplies are now blocked by border closings. Manufacturers warn of a global condom shortage because manufacturers are locked down to halt the spread of the virus. The shortages of contraceptive supplies increase the risk of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and the need for abortion.

Anti-choice politicians and organizations are capitalizing on the pandemic by urging governments to prohibit abortion care during the crisis. In the United States, 11 states have tried to limit access to abortionPoland’s Parliament is considering regressive legislation to eliminate legal access to abortion in some cases and to criminalize sexuality education.

Abortion cannot be delayed, and denying access violates human rights.

The right to non-discriminatory access to women’s health services is part of the right to health under international law and domestic law in most countries. Governments need to find ways to protect this right, even in the pandemic.

Denying these services will undermine women’s ability to recover from the pandemic. And increased pregnancies or unsafe abortions could increase pressure on already overburdened health systems.

The pandemic is reshaping our world, but it is also an opportunity to reshape reproductive health services. This might include expanded use of telemedicine, and making information available online. Expanding access to medical abortion at home, as England, Scotland and Wales have done, can help. In communities with limited access to technology, governments should ensure that health providers have the equipment and resources they need to safely reach patients.

Governments should monitor supply chains closely and seek solutions if contraceptive shortages arise, including redistributing available supplies across localities and even countries. They should ensure access to contraceptive information and services, including emergency contraception and abortion care.

Governments should put protecting sexual and reproductive rights up front in their response to Covid-19. These services are essential to women and girls—and their families– surviving and remaining healthy and are needed more than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Anand Grover is the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and Ximena Casas is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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

Security forces patrol as smokes rises from a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, after gunmen attacked leading to shootout with the police and killing several people, May 12, 2020. 


© 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – The attack by unidentified assailants on a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12, 2020 shows blatant disregard for civilian life and is an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. A suicide bombing attack and ensuing gun battles killed at least 13 civilians, including 2 infants, and wounded at least 15. More than 80 patients, including children, were evacuated from the hospital. 

No armed group claimed responsibility for the attack on the hospital, whose maternity clinic is supported by the international aid organization Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The Taliban have denied involvement. The Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood in Kabul, where the hospital is located, is predominantly Shia and has been the location of a number of attacks by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, a group affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

“An attack on a maternity clinic is simply unspeakable,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Right Watch. “This attack is the latest incident of an armed group in Afghanistan targeting patients, healthcare workers, and medical facilities.”

Deliberate attacks on health care in Afghanistan have increased sharply since 2017. Insurgents, including both affiliates of ISIS and the Taliban, have been responsible for many of these incidents, although the Afghan national security forces have also raided clinics, killing and assaulting medical workers and patients.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war – applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan – protects patients, including wounded soldiers, and all medical personnel from attack. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also protected from attack unless they are being used for offensive military operations. Commanders and combatants who wilfully violate these protections are responsible for war crimes. Fighters who may have dressed as doctors or other medical personnel would be committing the war crime of perfidy – feigning civilian status to carry out an attack.

“Those paying the price when armed groups attack medical facilities are not just the patients and medical staff but all Afghans, including children, who are denied essential care when hospitals cannot function,” Gossman said. “In the midst of a pandemic, Afghanistan needs its medical facilities more than ever.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Homeless women sleep outside on a mattress in the "Villa 31" neighborhood during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. According to official data, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in this slum have increased in the past week, putting authorities on high alert. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
For households around the world, soon it will be the time of the month to start thinking about next month’s rent, mortgage or housing loan payments. Billions of people have been directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19. This unprecedented public health and economic crisis could easily turn into a devastating housing crisis.

Economies are struggling, and more than 25 million jobs may be lost by the end of 2020, as governments battle to contain the health crisis with social distancing and lockdowns. The two billion people who work in the informal sector are among the most at risk of losing income and often have no job security or safety net to fall back on. They could lose their homes.

Depending on how long we are confined to our homes, defaulting on rent, mortgage, equity loans or utilities payments could lead to evictions, attempts to seize property by mortgage providers and utility shut-offs.

In the United States, advocates are pushing for governments to take legislative or local action to protect renters, homeowners, landlords, and property managers. The US stimulus bill provided mortgage relief to certain homeowners. Some states and local governments have suspended utility disconnections and late fees.

Parts of Europe and Australia have taken similar steps. Some governments have initiatives or stimulus packages to provide financial assistance for businesses, including banks, landlords, and property managers. However, the policies so far have not covered the gambit of issues facing homeowners, renters, and those living without adequate housing. Nor do they recognize everyone’s right to adequate housing.

Women are concentrated in many of the groups that have been particularly hard hit by the looming recession — or depression — but who may have no access to social safety nets, including domestic workers, sex workers, and informal sector workers. Similarly, women and girls are at heightened risk of domestic violence during lockdowns due to social isolation, financial stress, breakdown of community structures and lack of information or access to social support, as well as disrupted court schedules.

The need for quick action to stem the pandemic has also drawn attention to people without adequate housing, including homelessness, and in camps and severely overcrowded locations. Before this public health crisis, over a billion people lived in informal settlements, and an estimated 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world’s population, are homeless.

Some countries have recognized the need to find adequate housing for everyone, including those who are homeless. The effort to address the needs of this marginalized population put at risk by their inability to follow hygiene recommendations or social distancing is necessary and laudable. But what will happen when the danger to public health has passed? Homelessness is a human-rights crisis playing out across the world, and temporary fixes aren’t enough without a longer-term plan that centers on everyone’s right to adequate housing.

As Covid-19 restrictions ripple worldwide, governments need to act quickly to keep people who have homes safely and affordably in their abodes. Countries with government-backed mortgage programs with moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures should strengthen them.

Countries with huge informal settlements and encampments in slum areas with insecure title and tenure will face special challenges, as will countries with many people internally displaced or refugees living in camps or with relatives. All governments, at minimum, can make sure people aren’t forcibly evicted during this crisis. And if evictions happen, officials need to step in and ensure that people aren’t left without adequate housing.

UN-Habitat and humanitarian organizations have offered proposals for governments to consider to ensure that people maintain their housing in informal settlements and encampments. They have addressed the need for clear relevant information, affordable water and safe sanitation, financial support, and social protection measures.

And the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, has provided guidance notes on protecting renters, mortgage payers, people living in homelessness and residents of informal settlements. Yet many governments still seem overwhelmed by the looming public health crisis and still lag in responding to this potential housing crisis.

As governments decide how to protect their people and their economy, they should address the needs of those who could lose their homes. They should ensure that no one in adequate housing loses it during this health emergency. And they should take rapid steps to ensure that everyone without adequate housing gets it and that it isn’t temporary but lasting, as is their right.

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

Pakistani women wearing face masks leave the Aga Khan hospital where a patient suspected of having contracted coronavirus was admitted, in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. 

© AP 2020 Photo/Fareed Khan

With one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia, Pakistan was already in crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the reported closing of maternity wards in Islamabad, the capital, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province could exacerbate an already grim situation, especially for impoverished women and girls.

Like other countries, Pakistan faces huge challenges providing essential health services, including sexual and reproductive health care, while responding to the pandemic. But restricting access to health care for already marginalized Pakistani women is not the answer.

Pakistani authorities say they need to close the maternity wards because staff members have been diagnosed with Covid-19. The gynecology ward in Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar was closed after 29 staff members tested positive for the virus.

Instead of closing maternity wards and cutting off access to essential health care, the Pakistan government needs to do a better job protecting healthcare workers.

As of May 7, more than 500 Pakistani healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19. Instead of doing everything possible to ensure protection for healthcare workers, Pakistani authorities have taken legal action and threatened force to silence doctors and medical workers expressing their concerns.

On April 6, police arrested 150 doctors and medical staff in the city of Quetta, Balochistan for protesting the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) after 13 doctors in the city tested positive for Covid-19. All those arrested were subsequently released. Doctors in Punjab province have been on symbolic hunger strikes to draw attention to their demands of PPE. The Punjab government responded with police carrying batons.

Sexual and reproductive healthcare, including pregnancy and birth care, is always an essential service and the staff providing this care are essential workers. They need to be kept safe through provision of adequate PPE and other measures such as creating conditions to isolate any patients with Covid-19 symptoms to prevent exposure for uninfected staff and patients.

The Pakistan government should act quickly to ensure that necessary measures are taken to safely reopen maternity wards and that sexual and reproductive health services continue to be available throughout the pandemic in a manner that is safe for both patients and staff.

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

Women sing slogans during a march to commemorate International Women's Day, Friday, March 8, 2019, in Asuncion, Paraguay. Thousands of people marched in Asuncion's downtown to demand women's rights. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

© 2019 AP Photo/Jorge Saenz

During a global crisis, it can be a heavy lift to get many countries to agree on anything. Yet this week, 59 governments did just that, issuing a statement calling on governments to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights and promote gender-responsiveness in the Covid-19 crisis. The statement comes the same week that governments had been scheduled to participate in the first meeting of Generation Equality, marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, now cancelled due to Covid-19.

Even before the virus had reached pandemic levels, experts started to raise alarm bells that government responses to the public health crisis had a disparate impact on women and girls – data from China in February showed increasing rates of domestic violence. Since then, the many gendered impacts of the pandemic have come into focus – from new restrictions on access to abortion, to risks to maternal health, to girls’ education, to harms to women domestic, garment, and sex workers, among others.

It is therefore encouraging that in the absence of a global meeting to reaffirm commitment to gender equality, so many governments have committed to ensuring the pandemic does not reverse progress already made on realizing human rights for women and girls. Their statement is impressive in its scope, including a recognition that governments must prioritize “sexual and reproductive health needs, including psychosocial support services, and protection from gender-based violence.” It also recognizes the special attention needed for adolescent health, particularly with children out of school.

I’ve seen first-hand how epidemics – from cholera in Haiti to Zika in Brazil – have an outsized impact on women and girls. The negative effects often persist long after the epidemic and may never be remedied. So, I applaud these governments for boldly calling for the participation of women and girls in gender-inclusive response efforts. This pandemic is unprecedented and the demands on governments are many. This week’s statement should be a lodestar for ensuring the rights of women and girls are protected. Where governments fall short of their human rights obligations and their stated commitments, women around the world – forum or no – will be watching.

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