The first blogpost of this series entitled “Conflict-related sexual violence: what are we talking about (part 1) and (part 2) aimed at providing an introduction to the issue of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). We saw that CRSV is a crime as old as war itself, targeting both women, girls, men and boys, and its use is today recognized, codified and prosecuted as one of the most serious violations of international law.
In this blogpost, we will first demonstrate that conflict-related sexual violence has long-term consequences on female victims’ lives and on their communities. Even if men and boys also suffer from conflict-related sexual violence, this post will not address their particular situation, and will specifically focus on women and girls. Then, we will address the needs of these female victims. Finally, we will discuss the importance of justice in the victims’ healing process.
I. Understanding the consequences of CRSV on victims…
Sexual violence results in multiple consequences for survivors and their communities. These consequences can be classified in four categories, namely social, psychological, medical and economic consequences.
Social consequences of CRSV may include the rejection of the female victim by her own family, her husband and her community. The raped woman is considered as impure: for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a raped woman is often considered as unworthy of respect in her community. Rape is taboo – but while taboo is sometimes perceived as needed to preserve societal welfare, in the context of CRSV, it rather appears as a powerful tool of domination of men over women.
In many societies, raped unmarried women can forget the idea of getting married one day. Especially when a child is born from a rape committed by an enemy group, the mother tends to be considered as an “affiliate of the enemy,” and both the mother and the child are highly stigmatized. To avoid stigma, women and their children often have to flee from their homes. Women in this situation are then alone to take care of a child they did not necessarily want to have, and to meet the family’s financial needs. The economic consequences of rape tend to bury women in poverty. Also, ostracized young victims usually quit school. In addition to rejection, as explained in the work of a University of Montreal PhD student, raped women can notably face depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, which may drive them to suicide. Last but not least, CRSV threatens the victims’ physical integrity: in addition to the physical violence inherent to it, it can also infect women and children born of rape with HIV or other sexually transmissible diseases. Furthermore, in places where abortion is not accessible, women can resort to illegal and clandestine abortion threating their lives. Lots of women lack resources to receive proper medical treatment or surgery or suffer from the lack of medical structures in some remote areas.
Conflict-related sexual violence can result in a highly traumatized population. This victimization tends to modify social relationships, pervert the community dynamics and even cause intergenerational trauma.
II. …allows to better respond to their specific needs…
Having a look to CRSV consequences is useful to provide a better response to victims’ needs. Professor Jo-Anne Wemmers, in her book entitled Victimology: A Canadian Perspective (2017), explains that some similarities exist between the fundamental needs of human beings and those of victims. The first are illustrated by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as illustrated below. This pyramid, created in 1940, exposes the hierarchy of human needs and should be read from the bottom up. The transition from one step to another requires the entire fulfillment of the need below.
If Professor Jo-Anne Wemmers mostly supports Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it comes to assessing victims’ needs, she prefers to summarize the range of their needs as falling into these five categories: medical needs, financial needs, need for protection, need for support in order to help them deal with the psychological effects of their victimization, and need for recognition and respect in the criminal justice system. A comparison between these two pyramids shows us that victims of crimes have specific needs and concerns compared to “un-injured” human beings.
The United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in its last Annual Report also shares a similar approach. The report mentions that survivors often require immediate life-saving health care, including comprehensive clinical management of rape, and medication to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Survivors may also require life-saving psychosocial support to recover from the psychological and social impacts of conflict-related sexual violence.
Applying this framework to CRSV victims leads to think that the importance of fulfilling their needs of safety and security cannot be overstated. On the one hand, for victims of sexual violence, feelings of security, serenity and trust are key for them to be able to speak out about what they experienced. On the other hand, a context of armed conflict tends to lower the victims’ feeling of security, making them even more vulnerable and less likely to have access to relevant services.
To read the second part of the piece, click here: Conflict-related sexual violence: consequences and needs of female victims (part 2).
This blogpost and the author’s attendance to the 18th Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court are supported by the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.