Addressing Sexual Violence in Conflict: What Does a Survivor-Centred Approach Mean for Rural Women and Girls?

by | Jan 4, 2021 | Gender Equality, Rural Development

USG Patten with survivors of Boko Haram in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria (1)

Rural women and girls living in remote areas, face particular vulnerabilities to sexual violence during and in the wake of conflict, including while carrying out routine livelihood activities. Attacks are often observed around the control of resources, in conjunction with transhumance (the seasonal movement of livestock), or natural resource extraction, as in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The marginalization of rural women from political and economic power, and the loss of land due to conflict-driven displacement, creates further vulnerabilities to sexual violence. COVID-19 has exacerbated these trends, with women over-represented in the informal sector and facing economic hardships, which may drive them to migrate, resulting in further risk.

Traditional attitudes regarding the subordinate role of women, which persist in many rural communities, in addition to the economic hardships of rural life, make them especially vulnerable to different forms of sexual violence, including trafficking. Access to services, including sexual and reproductive health care, is often extremely limited for rural women, due to prevailing social norms and patriarchal attitudes; insufficient budget allocations to rural health services; lack of infrastructure and trained personnel; remoteness; and limited transportation. Rural women are not a homogenous group and often face intersecting discrimination. It is critical for governments to ensure that disadvantaged and marginalized groups of rural women, including indigenous, afro-descendent, ethnic, and religious minorities are protected from all forms of discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence.

In April 2019, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2467 articulating for the first time the importance of a survivor-centered approach in all prevention and response efforts. What does such an approach mean for rural women and girls?

When I took up this mandate in 2017, I emphasized the need to combat cultures of impunity; to address gender-based inequality as the root cause and driver of sexual violence; and to foster nationally-owned, survivor-centered responses. In discharging my mandate, resolution 2467 guides my work, with the voices of survivors serving as my moral compass.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen exacerbated pre-existing gender-based discrimination, leading to increased risks of sexual violence & recourse to harmful coping mechanisms.

First and foremost, a survivor-centered approach is intended to promote a survivor’s recovery and reinforce her capacity to make decisions about possible interventions. It seeks to empower the survivor by prioritizing her rights, needs, and wishes. It means ensuring that survivors have access to appropriate, accessible, and good quality services including health care, psychosocial support, legal services, as well as livelihood assistance.

For rural women and girls, it means that competent service providers have the appropriate attitudes, knowledge, and skills to prioritize the survivor’s own experiences and input. It is about understanding the parallel existence of often overlapping and conflicting statutory, customary, and religious laws; informal justice mechanisms used to resolve disputes, which affect access to justice; the social as well as economic challenges faced by rural women and girls affected by poverty, lack of information and limited availability and accessibility of services. By adopting this approach, professionals can create a supportive environment in which a survivor’s rights are respected and she is treated with dignity.

Critically, there needs to be adequate and predictable funding to bolster justice mechanisms, including mobile courts and essential services in remote, war-torn areas. United Nations capacity-building of special investigative units, as in the Central African Republic, and “one-stop centers” housing multisectoral services, as in South Sudan, Mali, Iraq, and the DRC, are yielding encouraging results. Their reach should be expanded to more rural and remote settings. Women also require protection and assistance while participating in legal processes, whether as victims or witnesses, as well as unhindered access to legal aid to cover transportation and logistical costs. A survivor-centered approach includes delivering justice, not just law. This entails the payment of reparations to survivors, to help them rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

Finally, it is critical that we do not lose sight of the root cause of sexual violence, namely structural gender-based inequality. We must remember that attaining the Sustainable Development Goals requires attention to rural women and girls, and the specific risks they face in undertaking essential economic activities. The scourge of sexual violence engenders a vicious cycle of violence, impunity, and revenge, which impedes recovery, peacebuilding, and development efforts. We must work to convert this into a virtuous cycle of reporting, recognition, and response, in close partnership with the affected communities and survivors themselves.

This Article is part of our 60th Anniversary Series. It is written by the UN Under-Secretary-General Pramila Patten. Ms. Patten was appointed as the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict on 12 April 2017. Prior to her appointment and since 2003, she served as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was the Chairperson of the Working Group on General Recommendation No. 30 on “Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict, and Post-Conflict situations”. She has been a member of several High-Level Panels and Projects, including the High-Level Advisory Group for the Global Study on the Implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, and the Advisory Panel for the African Women’s Rights Observatory (AWRO) within the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). She previously was a Commissioner of the International Commission of Inquiry into the massacre in Guinea Conakry on 28 September 2009. A national of Mauritius, she has been a practicing lawyer since 1982 and a member of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. Follow Ms. Patten on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Copyright on Photo: United Nations – Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; UN Photo