Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, thank you Justin for inviting me to this panel discussion on the particular vulnerabilities of children to sexual violence in conflict. It is a pleasure to be here.
The fact that this Global Summit on Sexual Violence has been convened by the UK government and that so many people from all horizons, from all over the world, came together to share experience and exchange is unprecedented.
I am glad to see that sexual violence is no longer a taboo subject. That there is a wide coalition of states, multilateral and regional institutions, civil society organizations, individuals, united beyond political or cultural boundaries to say STOP. This is encouraging.
Let me come to the particular vulnerabilities of children to sexual violence in conflict.
It is undeniable that sexual violence against children has become a prominent facet of conflict. It affects little girls, teenage girls, but also boys.
There are currently twenty-two country situations on my agenda for grave violations against children in the context of conflict. Sexual violence is one of them.
Children are victims of rape, gang rape, sexual slavery or forced marriage.
The question is why are children so vulnerable to sexual violence?
First of all, children are more exposed than adults to sexual violence because they are simply physically and mentally more vulnerable. They are physically easier to abduct and abuse. In most cases, the family or community protection mechanisms have collapsed as a result of conflict and are simply not there anymore to play their natural protective role against danger. This is exacerbated when children are displaced and living in camps where roles and traditional power dynamics have changed, and where precarious security and promiscuity create conditions conducive for sexual violence to happen. It may also happen that families are helpless in protecting their own children. For example in 2012, in northern Mali, parents were reportedly coerced to hand over their daughters for marriage to members of armed groups.
On the other hand, children are vulnerable to rape or sexual violence when sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to terrorize and humiliate communities. Threatening the life or the physical integrity of children is a winning strategy to force entire communities out of their land to grab it or to change the ethnic demographics of an area.
Furthermore, sexual violence is compounded by a persistent climate of impunity which encourages soldiers or members of armed groups, to commit and repeat their crimes, and get away with it. Impunity is the primary reason why sexual violence is so common in conflict.
Girls are abducted from their homes or their schools, taken to the bush where they are raped, gang raped, play the dual role of child soldiers and sexual slaves, or are forcefully married to a local commander. Girls are easy targets, soft targets and become invisible. We often discover their individual stories when they escape, surrender or come out of the bush.
Moreover, conflict may exacerbate cultural practices. In the Katanga province or the Ituri district of eastern DRC, new-borns and babies are raped by armed groups seeking strength before a fight or luck to find gold in one of the illegally exploited local mines. In Afghanistan, young boys are used as sexual slaves, the practice of Bacha Bazi, by male commanders.
In Syria or elsewhere, detention is not only a confinement and lawless situation, but also a place where rape or the threat of rape is used as a means to torture children often detained under national security charges. Anything can happen in such circumstances.
We all know that sexual violence against children is happening in conflict.
But why is it so under-reported? What are the barriers?
Sexual violence is under-reported because it touches the deep privacy of the victims. They feel guilty, ashamed and fear stigmatization or rejection. It also affects the family and the community who often bear a similar feeling of shame. This is why rape is so often used as a weapon of war by armed forces or armed groups.
Insecurity, the lack of access to justice and impunity make it also unsafe for a survivor to speak out and report an incident of sexual violence.
This is why the information collected on incidents of sexual violence does not necessarily reflect the scope of what is really happening.
So, how does the existing monitoring and reporting mechanism come into play and how can it be strengthened to better reflect the scope of sexual violence against children, and better inform the response?
Since the Security Council decided to put children and armed conflict on its agenda, sexual violence was identified as one of the 6 grave violations. The SG was asked to report on it. In 2009, with resolution 1882, the Security Council added sexual violence as a criteria to name and list parties to conflict in the annexes of the SG annual report on CAAC, the so-called “list of shame”.
In 2013, ten of the 55 parties to conflict were listed for sexual violence.
The information used to list parties in the SG annual report is gathered and verified through the MRM which is in place in all the country situations where parties are listed.
However, I shall admit that the MRM suffers similar challenges as other reporting mechanisms. Insecurity and the lack of access to the victims of sexual violence in remote areas, limit our ability to document and report. That’s why the information we receive is only indicative of trends and patterns of sexual violence against children.
We can, and we need to strengthen the MRM by increasing our investment and capacity to monitor and report on sexual violence.
Allow me to formulate a few ideas on this.
First of all, we could bring even more partners to the table. This would help us broaden the base and sources of information. To do so, we could find creative ways to engage with service-providers who are often reluctant to participate in formal UN mechanisms, because they are concerned about compromising their humanitarian space. We could strengthen our collaboration and share information in a safe and confidential manner, without exposing the victims and revealing the source.
This will help all of us improve our prevention and response to sexual violence.
Moreover, we could provide adequate tools and strengthen the expertise of those involved in investigating and documenting grave child’s rights violations.
Strengthening the MRM on sexual violence means sending the right signal to the perpetrators that time for impunity is over, and that sanctions will follow. This will create the confidence that information is not gathered for the sole purpose of producing a report but leads to true and genuine action taken as a result of it. In return, this will contribute to alleviate the stigma born by the survivors, their family and the community.
Remember, it took years of advocacy and work to see tangible and irreversible progress on child recruitment and use; to see an international court convicting the perpetrators of such violations. I hope that we are on a similar path for sexual violence against children.
I thank you for your attention.