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His Excellency Chargé d’Affaires of Argentina to the United Nations, Señor Ministro Alejandro Verdier,

Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten,

Colleagues from the field,

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor for me to commemorate with you the 2020 International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, albeit facing the added challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Office is mandated by the General Assembly, and requested by the Security Council, to monitor and report on violations affecting children in situations of armed conflict. Sexual violence against boys and girls is one of the most important violations we monitor, along with the killing and maiming of children, their recruitment and use, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian access. We do this through a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, which verified 735 cases of sexual violence, including rape, against children in 2019 occurring in the 19 situations covered by my agenda. These figures and more detailed information can be found in the latest report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict published earlier this week.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and the Central African Republic accumulated the highest figures for 2019. But we also know that sexual violence is the most underreported violation for reasons of stigma experienced by survivors, rejection by families and communities, lack of accountability for perpetrators, and lack of access to medical and other resources services. The actual number of survivors of sexual violence is staggering.

A worrying trend that we noticed in the latest Secretary-General’s Annual Report on CAAC is the attribution of incidents of sexual violence, which is almost equal between governmental forces and armed groups. We further noticed that commitments and efforts put in place by parties to conflict, such as action plans, national legislation and accountability for perpetrators, are not reflected in the verified numbers of sexual violence. In other words: Sexual violence as a grave violation is not just underreported; parties do not seem to take this violation in all seriousness, despite commitments to end and prevent the violation. This must change.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The COVID-19 pandemic presents the United Nations with new challenges on an unprecedented scale. On 23 March 2020, the Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire to refocus attention on the true fight: defeating the pandemic. Peace remains the best way to ensure that boys and girls are maximally protected from experiencing any of the six grave violations, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. As the Secretary-General has highlighted, the most vulnerable populations are hit the hardest by the pandemic and lockdowns; these are the women, displaced persons and children, with children in conflict situations or child refugees bearing a disproportionate burden. To date, parties in at least 11 countries have committed to halt hostilities, including several on the Children and Armed Conflict agenda. Parties in Cameroon, Colombia, the Central African Republic, the Philippines, Sudan, Syria and Yemen have declared ceasefires. We publicly applaud these efforts and urge other countries and parties to conflict to follow suit.  I will continue to appeal to parties to halt their fire, and to engage with them to protect children.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

While the full impact of COVID-19 on boys and girls living in armed conflict, including in situations of detention, will only be exposed over time, we know already that further lack of access to healthcare and other basic services which are fragile at best in situations of conflict is creating special challenges to girl and boy survivors of sexual violence that need urgent and specialized medical and psychological support. Another problem arises with COVID-19 lockdowns because these can amplify the threat to children of being subjected to violence due to greater military and armed presence in cities and villages, and of being recruited, used, abducted, or sexually violated due to push and pull factors in the economic downturn created by the lockdown measures.

Lastly, the release and reintegration of children associated with parties to conflict remains a top priority, also true for our partners such as UNICEF, however, the COVID-19 response is challenging the release and reintegration of boys and girls in many ways. For example, COVID-19-related restrictions of movement impact child protection actors’ ability to move freely and to provide children with access to the services they desperately need upon release. Such restrictions may also interrupt the release process. Reintegration support, including mental health and psychosocial support for survivors of sexual violence, is being further delayed. In some instances, governments have restricted access to verification sites, and interim care centers may be unsafe for children during the pandemic.

Restrictions may also negatively impact child protection actors’ ability to monitor and report on violations. The fear of COVID-19 has further amplified barriers to reporting sexual violence to child protection actors or to health workers, hence survivors of sexual violence might not be reached.

I am also extremely concerned that vulnerability of boys and girls to become victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence will increase due to weakened child protection mechanisms and a reduced presence of child protection actors. In this regard, we will hear more from the Women’s Protection Advisers on the ground, but we note that while our teams remain committed to the monitoring and reporting on violations against children in armed conflict, they are also involved in general UN support to national responses to the pandemic. Our monitoring and reporting capacity may also be affected by lockdowns and other movement restrictions; and our capacity to verify information will likely be impacted.

Our teams on the ground are continually evaluating the situation and developing mitigation measures, including business continuity strategies with local partners. With Governments’ focus pivoting towards the pandemic, as well as governmental offices and non-State armed groups in various degrees of lockdown, there is less capacity to address violations against children, including sexual violence.

For all of these reasons, and in these extraordinary times, It is critical that we do not forget children affected by armed conflict when responding to the pandemic, as their protection, release, and reintegration remains more important than ever. I call on Member States to ensure that boys and girls receive the necessary support to meet their critical needs, including the specific needs of survivors of sexual violence.

Thank you.

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