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Gender Violence

Q&A: Sexual Violence Survivors and their Access to Care Should not Be Forgotten

In marking the sixth annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, experts reiterated how crucial it is to keep accessible services to survivors, as they are being affected in complex ways due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Courtesy: Pramila Patten

Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Courtesy: Pramila Patten

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2020 (IPS) - While the coronavirus does not discriminate, its impact does. And the needs of survivors of sexual violence in conflict “cannot be put on pause, and neither can the response” during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, Jun. 19 marks the sixth annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. This year, the day focuses on the COVID-19 impact on survivors of sexual violence and to ensure that neither them nor their access to care is forgotten, Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told IPS.

Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Centre, said that COVID-19 has been disproportionately affecting women, with higher risks of domestic violence, and difficulty in accessing assistance. 

“All of these risks are amplified in conflict settings, resulting in very real concerns over delayed access to care and legal processes,” she said.  

She said countries must go beyond paper commitments and take concrete steps to end impunity for these crimes, and provide meaningful support to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). 

“This crime is preventable, we just need the political and moral will to make it so,” she said. 

The day, which is being observed ahead of next month’s debate on conflict-related sexual violence at the Security Council, aims to raise awareness about sexual violence in conflict, which is often used as a tactic of war, terror and political repression.

Patten told IPS that in the last two years, their work on the rights of children born of rape in conflict zones led to a Security Council resolution that highlighted the importance of “survivor-centred approach” in addressing the issue.

Excerpts of the interview with Patten follow. Some of the answers have been paraphrased for clarity.

Inter Press Service (IPS): How many people are annually affected by the issue of sexual violence in conflict? Are there specific countries where the issue is especially rampant? 

Pramila Patten (PP): It is indeed difficult to ascertain the exact prevalence owing to a range of challenges, including underreporting resulting from the intimidation and stigmatisation of survivors, as well as restrictions on access for United Nations staff. Unfortunately, most survivors of CRSV face daunting social and structural reporting barriers that prevent their cases from being counted, much less addressed. It is estimated that for each rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented.

The Secretary-General’s report on CRSV currently focuses on 19 countries for which credible and verifiable information is available. Some examples where CRSV remains rampant are the [Central African Republic] CAR, the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] DRC, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia. 

IPS: How are these specific regions equipped to handle the coronavirus crisis’ impact on this issue? 

PP: No country is really “equipped” to address CRSV at this time of the pandemic. All conflict countries have just one priority: to tackle the spread of COVID-19. U.N. entities are all supporting countries through this emergency, with their main focus on supporting countries in their COVID-19 preparedness. When it comes to supporting my mandate, they are also facing their own challenges as resources are having to be diverted to the COVID-19 response.

Additionally, in a number of my priority countries, suspension of programmes of different U.N. entities has resulted in essential gender-based violence service providers being unable to deliver services during the period of lockdown. In others, COVID-19 prevention guidelines are having other unintended effects such as the limitations in movement of Women Protection Advisors and human rights monitors or reduced patrols and restricted face-to-face interaction with local communities. 

IPS: What are the most crucial needs that have to be addressed because of COVID-19’s impact on sexual violence in conflict? 

PP: Since I took office, I have been advocating for a survivor-centred approach to CRSV — one that seeks to empower the survivor by prioritising her rights, needs and wishes. Survivors of sexual violence needs a range of comprehensive services: from medical to psychosocial and legal support. Because victims of sexual violence are often rejected by their families and communities, economic support is essential in the rehabilitation process.

However, one of the crucial needs of survivors is unimpeded and timely access to medical services. In particular, after rape, some interventions will only be effective in the hours (e.g. treatment of injuries) or few days (e.g. HIV prophylaxis, emergency contraception) after the assault. 

IPS: How has the pandemic affected addressing the issue of sexual violence in conflict?

PP: Firstly, the pandemic is having an impact on the reporting of cases. In addition to shame, stigma, and fear of repercussions, now cases are going unreported because of quarantines, curfews and other restrictions on movement, including limited access to first responders and civil society organisations such as women’s groups who often serve as first points of call, as well as fear of contracting COVID-19.

Secondly, there is an increased burden on health services due to the pandemic, with resources being prioritised for COVID-19. Contraction of routine health services means barriers to service provision for victims of sexual violence, including reduced supply of essential services, and access to sexual and reproductive health.

Referral pathways have also changed with the closures of shelters and women-friendly spaces in certain settings. In some settings where the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a militarisation of the health system, negative effects for women and children have also been noted. 

Thirdly, we are noting an impact on the rule of law and accountability. With the lockdown on judges, justice workers, prosecutors and lawyers, COVID-19 is severely affecting the functioning and effectiveness of justice systems. The lack of access to justice opens doors to a context favourable to impunity. Combatting impunity for sexual violence is a fundamental aspect of deterring and preventing such crimes. 

IPS: What are the challenges for this support system becoming remote?  

PP: The challenges are mainly in engaging with governments “remotely” in the implementation of the commitments they have undertaken through the signing of Joint Communique with the U.N. on the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence. 

On the one hand, their attention and resources are focused on COVID-19. On the other hand, a number of implementation plans that needed to be prepared – for example, in Mali, CAR, DRC, and Sudan, with the technical support of my office, have been stalled on account of closure of borders. A range of technical support which my office was scheduled to provide to a number of countries – from Iraq to Somalia, and which requires in country visits, have also been impacted negatively. 

However, with an advocacy mandate instead of a programmatic mandate, I am not so significantly hampered in providing coherent and strategic leadership. Even remotely, I am able to make progress. 

IPS: What do you hope for this Day to achieve in the future?

PP: This day is an opportunity for me to be the voice of these numerous invisible and voiceless survivors and to make critical recommendations such as the need for: all parties in conflict to immediately cease all forms of sexual violence, sexual and gender-based violence response services to be designated as essential services in order to prevent their de-prioritisation and defunding, and efforts to address sexual and gender-based violence must be integrated into national COVID-19 response plans.

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