19 June 2020

Eliminating Sexual Violence in Conflict: Q&A With Julitta Onabanjo

For the past 25 years, Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, a public-health physician by profession, has been an expert in sexual and reproductive rights. During the early part of her career, she was a national programme officer for UNFPA in Nigeria. “I worked in some of the most deprived communities in the northern part of Nigeria advocating for the health, education and rights of young girls and women,” she says. “This is a part of Nigeria where the status of women and the girl child is dire, where forced, early and child marriage and related early childbearing is prevalent, and where the lifetime risk of dying due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth remain tragically high.” 

It is also the area where, in April of 2014, 276 young girls were abducted from a town called Chibok in Borno State by the extremist rebel militant group Boko Haram. (The name Boko Haram translates to “Western education is forbidden.”) The abduction sparked a global outcry and led to the international campaign #BringBackOurGirls—but despite worldwide attention and political negotiations, 112 Chibok girls are still missing six years later and most are believed to be in forced marriages and sold into sexual slavery. 

In her current role as UNFPA Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Dr. Onabanjo works with extraordinary partners—such as Dr. Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate—who are at the frontline of addressing sexual and gender-based violence in conflict settings such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ending gender-based violence, including sexual violence in conflict, is a core priority for UNFPA and is one of three transformative commitments the organization has made as its contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in this Decade of Action.

For the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Every Woman Every Child interviewed Dr. Onabanjo about misconceptions about conflict-related sexual violence (CSRV), progress made, and what more must be done.

How does preventing sexual violence fit into initiatives that focus on women’s health and family planning?

First, if we look at the underlying root causes and risks that lead to and perpetuate violence against women, including sexual violence, we can see that those intersect with the determinants of women’s health. Similarly, strategies to prevent and protect against gender-based violence also ensure a high degree of women’s health and wellbeing, rights and choices.  

Whether it is preventing sexual violence or promoting women’s health (and especially sexual and reproductive health and rights), fundamental to both is the ability to address gender inequality, harmful socio-cultural and gender norms and secure the empowerment, agency and autonomy of women. For example, societal norms of early and forced child marriage, underpinned by patriarchy, expose the girl child to an early sexual debut, early pregnancy and early childbearing.  A child should not have to go through childbirth, yet for many this is still not theirs to choose. And when the outcome of such child pregnancies and childbirth is not fatal, it can be a lifetime of suffering and setbacks.  

The other perspective that is important to note is that gender-based violence, including sexual violence, has negative health consequences for individuals, communities and societies. And therefore responding to these consequences requires healthcare systems and services that can prevent and respond to sexual violence specifically and gender-based violence more broadly.  

What misconceptions remain about CRSV? 

Quite a number of misconceptions remain about CRVS. One of the most frequent misconceptions is overgeneralization of the scope and trend of conflict-related sexual violence.  The lack of necessary, reliable data on the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence in conflict settings leads to a mistaken overgeneralization on trends as either increasing, decreasing, or steady. Obtaining incidence or prevalence data of conflict-related sexual violence is extremely difficult due to the social stigma associated with it. Besides, we need to look beyond numbers. When it comes to CRVS—even one case is too many.

Another misconception is a belief that only women and girls are affected by conflict-related sexual violence. Even though women and girls are disproportionally affected, men and boys in the conflict-affected areas also suffer sexual violence, including rape. For instance, according to the 2019 annual report of GBV Information Management System of South Sudan, 2.7 percent of the survivors of conflict-affected sexual violence were men and boys. The number of male survivors may be under-reported given the stigma associated with reporting sexual violence against men in a patriarchal society. 

The misconception that CRSV occurs only during ‘active’ armed conflict is one more to mention. It involves incidents that occur in a variety of contexts, including instability that may escalate to armed conflict; during armed conflict; during a period of occupation or against persons deprived of their liberty in connection with conflict; as well as in the aftermath of conflict but before the restoration of state capacity and authority. 

It is also not correct to believe that addressing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) requires a highly specialized response by medical providers. Survivors of gender-based violence do require sensitive, specialized assistance. UNFPA—which leads the coordination of violence prevention and response in emergencies—supports many of these services, including confidential medical treatment, culturally sensitive counselling and safe spaces. But this does not mean only experts can or should respond to sexual violence. All humanitarian responders have a responsibility to take actions that minimize risks for women and girls. For example, aid groups that provide clean water can ensure that there are enough distribution points to prevent women and girls from traveling long and dangerous distances to reach water pumps. Aid groups setting up camp toilets can ensure that the pathways to them are well-lit to minimize attacks. In addition, integrated UN Peacekeeping missions and personnel can intensify patrols to key areas where women and girls are vulnerable to attacks, such as firewood-gathering points, as a preventative measure.

Finally, worth mentioning is the limited understanding of CRSV by law enforcement officers. In a number of countries, CRSV remains misunderstood. Many times, the legal practice regarding the prosecution of sexual violence is limited, and not fully in line with international standards and practice. Further, due to lack of capacity, acts of sexual violence are often recorded by law enforcement officers as other crimes, such as bodily injury. And gender stereotyping strengthens the notion of victim-blaming, which deters the victim from reporting.

What progress has been made in addressing and preventing CSRV?

Progress has been made. I will give you some examples based on UNFPA’s recent work. In Sudan, UNFPA supported the establishment of 40 gender desks in police stations in four Darfur states and supported training for police personnel, prosecutors and social workers on the application of human-rights standards in the investigation and prosecution of gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

In Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, UNFPA provided case management, structured psychosocial services and referrals for GBV survivors and persons at risk of GBV. In Burundi, UNFPA leveraged its coordination leadership to strengthen government response to GBV by supporting the government to develop a comprehensive national GBV strategy in the final stages of the emergency. The emergency provided momentum, increased awareness of the scope and seriousness of the issue and clarified the roles and responsibilities of the various actors. 

The UN Action Network funds several projects led by or in partnership with UNFPA. In Iraq, for example, UNFPA trained police officers of the Family Protection Unit (FPU) on GBV case management and established a hotline in Baghdad to connect women and girls to survivor-centered services. UNFPA is also working in collaboration with nine NGO partners in South Sudan and has supported the establishment of 11 one-stop centers (OSCs) that currently provide services that include clinical management of rape (CMR), psychosocial support (PSS), community mobilization and sensitization against GBV, as well as legal assistance to survivors of CRSV. In addition, UNFPA supports eight women-and-girls-friendly spaces (WGFS), managed by two NGOs that also engage in community mobilization and sensitization,

On the broader UN front, there have been various security council resolutions passed on CRSV (1820, 1888, 1960, 2106, 2467); the appointment of a Special Representative of the SG on Sexual Violence in Conflict; the establishment of the International Day for the Elimination of SV in Conflict; the establishment of UN Action against sexual violence in conflict. 

Progress in prevention and responding to sexual violence has been steady. Yet for those at high risk and living the trauma of violence, it is too slow. The unprecedented frequency, intensity and scope of conflicts dramatically amplify the risks for millions of women and girls and it is not possible to achieve SDGs without addressing sexual violence. 

What still needs to be done?

Expanding the availability of GBV response services to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence is a priority. For instance, in nine hotspot counties for conflict-related sexual violence in the Central Equatorial, Unity, and Western Equatorial states of South Sudan, on average, there is only one health facility to serve a population of about 10,000 people. An estimated 72 percent of the population in these areas live more than 5 kilometers away from their nearest functional public health facility. Many of these health facilities are not capable of providing specialized care to treat survivors of sexual violence

It is important to expand GBV programmes that engage men and boys for medical, psychosocial and legal assistance. Strengthening the legal redress system in the country is also another priority area to hold the perpetrators to account. 

Other priorities include prevention through community awareness-raising of human right violations, conflict-related sexual violence, referral pathways and available response services; building capacities of state institutions and civil society organizations on how to prevent, mitigate and respond to conflict-related sexual violence; establishing and strengthening conflict mediation, resolution, reconciliation and peacebuilding mechanisms, inclusive of women. We also need to put in place systems to ensure reparation for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. 

All these actions require an increase in investment and closing what is presently a large financing gap.  Funding shortfalls indicate that women and girls—their wellbeing, voices and decision making, and their access to basic GBV services to protect their health and human rights—still remain neglected.  

How does COVID-19 affect CSRV? 

Conflict, emergencies and instability are linked to increased interpersonal violence, particularly against women and children, and pandemics are no exception. Infection prevention and control measures that have been put in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—such as quarantines, curfews, stay-at-home and other restrictions on movement intended to mitigate the spread of the virus—have trapped many women and girls with their abusers and hindered the ability of survivors to access services and report sexual violence, further exacerbating the existing gender inequality and the structural, institutional and sociocultural barriers women face. 

Fear of infection might have caused survivors of CRSV to choose not to disclose and seek services from health facilities. Further, in countries like South Sudan, the COVID-related lockdowns are affecting the legal redress system for survivors of CRSV. Movement restrictions have also affected staff movement to field locations to gather information and verify reported CRSV incidents. 

UNFPA, in collaboration with a team of academic partners, has estimated that for every three months of lockdown and disrupted services, an additional 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected. In settings where the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the use of the military to enforce movement restrictions or provide security, there may be additional risks for women and children. 

UNFPA supports local organizations at the front line. We do this with our local partners, especially local women’s organizations. UNFPA and other stakeholders continue to advocate to ensure the continuity of GBV response services in the wake of COVID-19 and to advocate for an increase in the allocation of additional resources to address the increased need of GBV programmes, including prevention, risk mitigation and response services (health, psychosocial, legal and safety and protection). There is also a need to strengthen coordination and partnership at both the national and field level to track and analyze CRSV incidents and ensure services. 

There is a need for the greater involvement of civil society organizations and community leaders to address cultural taboos and attitudes that act as fertile ground for committing sexual violence with impunity. Ending sexual violence should be part of that ceasefire in order to focus on the pandemic, the common enemy that is now threatening all of humanity.  Ending sexual and gender-based violence must end for every woman, every child, every adolescent, everywhere without exception, pandemic or no pandemic.