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It's Not Just About Sexual Violence

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NEW YORK -- Human Rights Watch first documented sexual violence in conflict in 1993 when we published a report about how Indian security forces in Kashmir used rape to brutalise women and punish their communities, accused of sympathizing with separatist militants. Since then, we have investigated and documented rape in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Somalia, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Haiti.

Since that first report, the international community has made significant progress in recognizing the prevalence of sexual violence and taken steps to address it: rape in conflict is prosecuted as a war crime and a crime against humanity, and the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2008 expressing its willingness to "adopt appropriate steps" to address widespread or systematic sexual violence. Civil society groups, supported by many governments, have developed innovative and effective programmes to address the consequences of rape for women, men, children and their communities. There has been a particularly strong focus on ending impunity for these crimes, with resources invested in identifying perpetrators and bringing them to book. At the G8 foreign ministers' meeting next week, the UK will again call for an end to impunity and greater efforts to successfully prosecute rape in war.

William Hague's Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, set up in 2012, is a commendable part of these efforts. I was on a UN panel last year at which Hague spoke passionately about his personal commitment to the issue. The UK government has also announced that it will be funding important work in Congo and elsewhere.

However, many activists working on these issues are increasingly concerned about the disproportionate focus on sexual violence in conflict, given the range of other protection and human rights violations that impact women and girls during conflict. There seems to be an assumption that mass sexual violence is a feature of every conflict, which is not the case: in Syria, for example, there is little credible evidence to support claims that rape is widespread or systematic. Human Rights Watch has been documenting that conflict for two years and we've certainly found cases of rape against men and women. But we have found no evidence to support claims that sexual violence is happening on a massive scale.

This focus on one dimension of a much broader issue has the effect of obscuring and overshadowing critical concerns for women living through conflict, including Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple abuses affecting women in war, including forced displacement; the targeting and punishment of women because of their own activism or activism by male relatives; the drive towards earlier, 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 increasingly narrow focus on sexual violence means that resources are not being mobilized and deployed to address the full range of violations against women's rights.

If the Hague initiative is going to make a real difference in the lives of women, it needs to take a broader view and address the full spectrum of women's needs during conflict. It should also consider what happens to women when the wars end and the soldiers go home -- violence against women doesn't automatically end with the conflict. The initiative needs to focus on post-war security for women to allow them to participate fully in the processes to make peace and deliver justice.

Liesl Gerntholtz is women's rights director at Human Rights Watch.