In a recent report, the United Nations secretary-general (UNSG) warned that “sexual violence continues to be employed as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism” and “that sexual violence has been used to target and silence women political activists.” In fact, 3,293 cases of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) across 18 countries were reported by the UN in 2021, with 97 percent of these cases affecting women and girls as victims and/or survivors. This is likely to be a gross underestimate, as sexual violence is often considered a “hidden” crime where few survivors are inclined to report what happened for fear of being stigmatized or fear of retributive violence, especially in contexts where patriarchal norms are strong.
Sexual violence is understood to be rooted in structural gender inequalities, which are prevalent in most societies. Why sexual violence occurs in conflict is a complex question. The answers can be found in multiple intersecting and overlapping factors, often linked to the conflict itself. One of these factors is the proliferation of weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons (SALW), which has been highlighted in almost every annual report on CRSV by the UNSG.
Given that sexual violence in conflict continues to be systematic and widespread in many contexts and the pernicious role that arms have in facilitating these acts, are we doing everything we can to prevent CRSV, including making full use of arms control and disarmament measures to tackle this problem?
The connection between weapons and sexual violence in conflict
While systematic data collection about sexual violence in conflict remains challenging, there is some evidence of a connection between sexual violence and weapons. For example, in 2020, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that out of 10,810 survivors of sexual violence treated by MSF facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 60 percent “were attacked by aggressors bearing weapons.” Insecurity Insight, an organization that monitors sexual violence incidents in conflict from media reporting, noted that out of 94 incidents recorded in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between January 2021 and February 2022, 38 involved a firearm, and a further 34 incidents were identified as “likely armed.”
Even if SALW are not used in the act, their presence can intimidate individuals and groups of victims. Not only are these weapons used to threaten, coerce, injure, and kill victims of sexual violence during a conflict, but the proliferation of these weapons also contributes to the escalation of conflict violence. This, in turn, continues to propagate the conditions that escalate sexual violence.
In Ukraine, a Save the Children report indicated an increase in domestic violence (mainly directed at women) in families living along the contact line since the start of the 2014 conflict. Survivors noted that “the violence seemed to be taking on more violent and severe forms due to the ease of access to weapons.” In South Sudan, a study evaluating CRSV prevention interventions found that conflict conditions affecting non-intimate partner violence were the same affecting Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Many survivors noted an increase in the brutality of IPV since the start of the 2013 conflict. Similar findings were also reported in studies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which emphasized the normalization of sexual violence during conflict.
Given that arms play a role in indirectly and directly facilitating CRSV, arms control and disarmament measures can play a role in preventing and reducing this type of violence. However, thus far, few UN frameworks, policies, or guidance documents on CRSV mention arms control and disarmament measures in the context of prevention.
The new CRSV prevention framework issued in September this year by the Office of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (ORSG SVC) is the first and only framework on CRSV to acknowledge the role of arms control and disarmament. It highlights the importance of state parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) implementing Article 7.4 of the ATT, which requires state parties to assess the risk that potential arms exports could be used to commit serious forms of gender-based violence. It also emphasized the importance of all member states implementing the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) and incorporate recommendations on gender analysis and gender-responsive monitoring in national small arms control mechanisms.
The new framework represents a positive step towards increasing awareness of how arms control measures can support CRSV prevention, but there is still more that can be done. Based on UNIDIR’s ongoing research on opportunities to integrate arms control and disarmament measures into preventing and addressing CRSV, there are some practical ways in which arms control and disarmament measures can support CRSV prevention at every stage of a conflict.
Establishing weapons-related indicators in CRSV early warning mechanisms
CRSV early warning indicators could be enhanced by including indicators that factor in gender-disaggregated data on the impact of armed violence, weapons possession, use, and misuse, as well as information on weapons accumulation by armed groups, diversion and illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition. These factors, combined with other indicators related to armed groups’ behaviors, can enhance assessment of CRSV risks. Additionally, indicators on gender-sensitive firearms licensing and the number of firearms held by civilians could also be included, as past research has demonstrated that in certain conflicts, sexual violence may be more frequently perpetrated by civilians.
Reporting and analyzing data on weapons in CRSV incidents
Systematically recording the use or presence of a weapon during an incident when reporting incidents through the Gender Based Violence information system (GBVIMS) and the Monitoring and Reporting Arrangement on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (MARA). This information, in turn, could inform different protection strategies such as setting up protection sites, weapon-free zones, or protective patrols which in specific contexts, have led to a reduction of incidents of sexual violence.
Leveraging arms embargoes
Targeted arms embargoes as part of sanctions applied to state or non-state armed groups which are listed as known perpetrators of CRSV also have the potential to reduce the risk of sexual violence committed with weapons and reduce the overall availability of weapons which perpetuate the conditions that may lead to an escalation in sexual violence. The Security Council could incorporate sexual violence as a standalone criterion when adopting a new sanctions regime where this is relevant and include CRSV expertise in panels of experts monitoring these sanctions.
Linking weapons collection programs with CRSV prevention
Weapons collection programs both in the context of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and civilian disarmament could be strengthened by the participation of various stakeholders, including those working on CRSV to ensure that programs are far-reaching and can raise awareness around CRSV prevention, where this is relevant and appropriate. This means not only including women and women’s groups as sources of information but also making sure women and different demographic groups can meaningfully participate in the decision-making and design of these programs.
Implementing gender-responsive weapons and ammunition management (WAM)
Implementing gender-responsive approaches to Weapons and Ammunition Management (WAM) in the context of both DDR of former combatants and post-conflict security arrangements could play a role in preventing sexual and gender-based violence as a society transitions out of conflict.
This could include a gender-sensitive review of national frameworks governing civilian firearm possession, a review of processes around internal weapons transfers and transfers to private security companies, as well as regulations and procedures in place to determine when and if members of the security personnel are allowed to take service weapons home. Gender-sensitive approaches to ammunition management and the physical security and stockpile management of weapons is important, as the diversion of both weapons and ammunition has potential gendered impacts including fueling sexual violence in conflict.
These preliminary findings show that much more can be done to prevent CRSV by considering the relevance of arms control in addressing CRSV. Security Council members have a vital role as they can propose that arms control and disarmament measures be included in the mandates of UN peace operations to address CRSV. The roles of arms control and disarmament in preventing CRSV can be further highlighted in the Women, Peace and Security agenda, whose core pillars refer to the protection and prevention of gender-based and sexual violence in conflict. Additionally, initiatives such as the United Kingdom’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and the UN-led campaign of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence can help raise awareness about the importance of arms control and disarmament measures for prevention efforts and lead to action on the ground.
These have been established around protection camps in South Sudan. See UNSG reports on CRSV S/2017/249 and S/2016/361/Rev.1.
Hana Salama is a Gender and Disarmament Researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).