Statement by Ms. Virginia Gamba, SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict

His Excellency, Deputy Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations, Minister Alejandro Verdier

Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual violence in conflict and Under-Secretary General Ms. Pramila Patten

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to be here today to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

As you know, my Office monitors and reports on six grave violations affecting children in situations of armed conflict. They are: the recruitment and use of children, killing and maiming, abductions, sexual violence against boys and girls, attacks on schools and hospitals and the denial of humanitarian access to children. A child is often subjected to more than one violation in conflict situations.

The number of children living in conflict zones is going up, not down. 2018 was marked by horrendous levels of violence resulting from new conflict dynamics and operational tactics, combined with widespread disregard for International Law in many country situations on my agenda. The Secretary-General is about to publish his Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict in the coming weeks, but we already know that children in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, just to name a few, have suffered from conflict in unspeakable ways; thousands have been victims of grave violations, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

In all the conflict situations on my agenda, rape and other forms of sexual violence is the most underreported violation, including when perpetrated against boys, mainly for fear of stigma and lack of services. The stigma associated to this violation is often greater than the need for recovery and reintegration.  Many girls – and boys – victims of sexual violence, will not talk about their experience, making it very difficult for them to receive the help they deeply need. Impunity for sexual violence by parties to conflict also remained endemic and addressing it can only be achieved through prosecutions and appropriate response to all children.

Girls and boys are gang raped, others are abducted and sexually abused while associated with parties to conflict. Girls are forcibly taken from home or schools to become the wives or concubines of combatants, some remain in captivity for years enduring this. From all the country situations I cover, I receive reports of boys and girls raped on their way to school, on the way to the market, or at home when armed individuals attack their village.

I recall the shocking story told by a child protection adviser who worked in the DRC in 2010. It is the story of a girl, of about 15 years, formerly associated with an armed group, who was repeatedly sexually abused during her association. Every night a different soldier would enter her tent and rape her. Once released and sheltered in a transit centre pending family tracing, reunification and reintegration, the girl told the child protection adviser that there was probably something wrong with her, because since her release no-one visited her at night anymore. For this girl, and for many others, being sexually abused had become the normality.

More recently, in 2016, in Syria, a 14-year-old girl was abducted from her home by six ISIL fighters, including five underage boys, and raped multiple times for a week. The incident occurred after the family had refused to marry the girl to one of the boys the evening before.

In Libya, in 2018, we received reports about the use of migrant children, mainly from Nigeria, forced to prostitution and subjected to sexual violence abuse by traffickers or criminal networks allegedly associated with armed groups.

We know that these horrific stories are only the tip of the iceberg. Yet, beyond such horrendous stories, we have seen some progress in 2018 for conflict-affected boys and girls, including an increase in numbers of children released from armed groups and forces. Last year alone, at least 13,600 children were released from the ranks of parties to conflict globally and benefited reintegration.

Even when separated from armed elements, children continue to struggle as they attempt to fully regain their place in their families and communities. The physical, social and psychological effects of the horrifying experiences those children went through will accompany them for a lifetime. The trauma of sexual violence can be particularly harrowing. A particular attention needs to be addressed to children born of rapes too. Lack of sufficient support – too little and too short – is often compromising the full reintegration of released boys and girls, despite tremendous efforts from partners. This exposes children to the risk of drawn into violent environments again.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are here today to emphasize the importance of a survivor-centred approach for victims of sexual violence to ensure holistic support including medical and psychological care, educational, economic, and livelihood support as well as justice for survivors and their children and the end of impunity for perpetrators.

In the past decades, there has been progress to address the impact of conflict on girls, including through enhanced accountability efforts for the crimes of rape and other forms of sexual violence. There are also more services available for girls, but we still need to increase awareness about their needs in reintegration programmes and also about the risks that they face after separation from armed groups.

Sexual abuse carries additional stigma making it very difficult for these children to be reintegrated and healed.  In their mind, life back in their community, especially for those who have had children during their ordeal, is perceived as worse than remaining hidden with their captors or fending by themselves elsewhere. Let us take a moment to pause and consider the level of desperation of those boys and girls leading to such decisions.

As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the establishment of the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is time to ACT and make sure that sexual violence against boys and girls is not anymore overlooked.

Earlier this year, I launched the campaign ACT to Protect Children Affected by Conflict to increase visibility, foster cooperation and bring attention to ALL grave violations committed against children. I call today on the international community to join the campaign and support our advocacy on ending and preventing all grave violations, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

I also call for sustainable, holistic and gender-sensitive response efforts to victims of sexual abuses in conflict, including through the reintegration of boys and girls, as part of global work on conflict prevention, peacebuilding and reconstruction.

Let’s ACT now to protect girls and boys victims of sexual violence by challenging gender inequality, ensuring accountability for perpetrators and providing services and resources for victims to recover and heal. No child should carry alone the plight of abuses and live in fear; all child used and abused in, by and for armed conflict should be given a real chance to build its own future.

Thank you.

Watch SRSG Gamba’s statement: