Monday, 3 December 2012

Uncounted sexual violence

“We could scream but no one will hear us, they cover our mouths and threaten us.”
Unnamed child, Colombia

When we consider that 75 to 95 percent of rapes are never reported to the police in England , it will come as no surprise that we know very little about the full extent of sexual violence committed in conflict and post-conflict settings, let alone how many survivors of sexual violence in conflict are children. While many of these crimes go unreported and unpublished – a horrific example of the “uncounted,” for which this blog is named – we know enough to be able to say that incidents of rape and sexual abuse during conflict and instability are pervasive in countries from all regions of the world and that children often make up a significant number of survivors of sexual violence, and sometimes the majority.
A rape victim with a children’scounsellor - South Kivu, easternDRC - Hidden Survivors 
The following snapshots – outlined in our new briefing Hidden Survivors launched today – offer some indication of the prevalence and scope of the problem:
  • During the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire between 1 November 2010 and 30 September 2011, children made up 51.7% of cases of sexual violence. In more than half of the cases of sexual violence against children, the survivors were below 15 years of age.
  • In 2008 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations Population Fund recorded nearly 16,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls. Of those instances, 65% involved children, mostly adolescent girls
  • In 2006, the Lancet published research estimating that nearly one-fifth of girls were raped in the greater Port-au-Prince areas during the armed rebellion between February 2004 and December 2005

While there is ample evidence of sexual violence against women and girls, there is little systematic documentation of the existence of or impact of sexual violence on men and boys. The evidence that does exist, however, points to a serious – if under-reported – problem. In the DRC it has been estimated that men and boys make up 4-10% of survivors of sexual violence who seek treatment. In Afghanistan, the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict and others have repeatedly brought attention to the sexual abuse of boys. There have also been reports of sexual violence against boys as well as girls in the current conflict in Syria.

Given the extent of the scourge of sexual violence in conflict and its impact on children we welcome the UK Government and William Hague’s personal commitment to placing this issue at the top of the agenda for the UK’s Presidency of the G8 next year. This week a group of around 60 experts on the issue of sexual violence in conflict from around the world gathered at Wilton Park to help the Foreign Office develop and shape this important initiative.

While the appearance of Angelina Jolie was the only aspect of the conference that captured media attention, there was much that was encouraging about the discussions at Wilton Park from a children’s rights perspective. William Hague recognised in the opening statements of his speech that children make up 50% of the survivors of sexual violence in DRC, for example. And the Minister of Gender and Development from Liberia spoke at length about the appalling impact of sexual violence in homes in post-conflict Liberia on children, pushing the issue beyond the confines of “rape as a weapon of war” and into a broader set of familiar development concerns such as grinding poverty, breakdown of social norms, and lack of respect for women’s rights.

We do have lingering concerns that the UK Government’s initiative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict will – ironically, given the name – not go far enough towards prevention of sexual violence and instead focus on a narrow element of reducing impunity: that of increasing international prosecutions. Using international prosecutions to send a message at the highest levels that sexual violence in conflict will not go unpunished is an important part of the story, but it is only part.

So how do we lessen the extent to which survivors – and especially child survivors – of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings that go uncounted (both as part of ensuring that those affected by these crimes receive the support and services they require but also as part of challenging the culture of impunity)? How do we prevent pervasive sexual violence from taking root in conflict and post-conflict settings in the first place?

Counting is a big part of the story. We have the tools to gather the data and monitor incidents of sexual violence, and other grave violations of children’s rights, but the relevant bodies within the UN and beyond often lack the funding and political support to fully exploit the potential of their mandates, as the SRSG on Children and Armed Conflict explained during her talk at Save the Children on Friday November 16th.

And we know that where there are no age-appropriate services for health or psychological care, where judicial systems are not designed to meet the needs of children, and where societies do not recognise the particular vulnerabilities that children face, reporting of abuse and exploitation of children will remain low. These systems and services will need funding from donors in many cases. And supporting governments to introduce and strengthen age- and sex- disaggregated data collection will need to be part of the response.

Increased funding, and a better understanding of how funding is currently allocated is also vital. Protective sectors like child protection and education – which play an important role in preventing children from being subject to sexual violence in the first place, as well as an important part of a the response mechanism for children who do survive violent abuse – for example, were the two worst-funded humanitarian sectors in 2009 – only 32% of requirements were met and many projects within that were only partially funded. Beyond these figures, we don’t actually know how much was spent on programmes that specifically aim to tackle sexual violence in conflict – so disaggregated data on funding for child-focused sexual violence programmes also needs to be publically available.

Sexual violence is one of the most shocking crimes committed during conflict. It happens all over the world – from Afghanistan to Colombia to Somalia – and its consequences linger long after the fighting has stopped. But it is not inevitable. And our shock and horror at the thought of children suffering these crimes should not mean they go uncounted.

Alison Holder

This article was first published on UncountedThis blog is about inequality and development and those who are uncounted. It is written and maintained by Alex Cobham, Save the Children's Head of Research. Uncounted aims to stimulate debate but is not a reflection of official Save the Children policy

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