A ‘maison d’écoute’ run by the DRC Red Cross in Minova, which shelters victims of violence, including sexual violence, and offers them psychosocial support and medical referrals A ‘maison d’écoute’ run by the DRC Red Cross in Minova, which shelters victims of violence, including sexual violence, and offers them psychosocial support and medical referrals Photo credit: ICRC/Didier Revol
The ICRC’s response to sexual violence in armed conflict and other situations of violence
by Sarah Cotton and Charlotte Nicol February 2014

Sexual violence is an appalling violation of moral codes and international law which occurs in practically all situations of armed conflict and sustained violence. It is an abuse that has severe physical and psychological consequences for the individual, first and foremost, as well as the capacity to tear societies and communities apart. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works to protect and assist victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence across the world, including victims of sexual abuse. In recent years, the ICRC has extended and improved what it is able to do for victims of sexual violence as a discrete, vulnerable group that is often silent and silenced. Its response is context-specific and holistic, working with every part of the population involved in the problem and throughout its timeline – from activities with armed actors and states to prevent abuse, to the protection of individuals most at risk of sexual violence, and finally emergency response.

What does the ICRC do for victims of sexual violence?

A key part of the organisation’s work to prevent sexual violence involves helping states to build systemic legal protection for people at risk. There is an imperative on countries to prevent acts such as sexual violence from occurring by applying sanctions on perpetrators, providing adequate codes of conduct for armed forces and others in positions of power and deploying resources to monitor adherence to national legislation. In its bilateral and confidential discussions, the ICRC promotes three levels of action: halting abuse, working alongside victims and promoting lasting changes to decrease the likelihood of recurrence. By working directly with states to understand the relationship between authority, perpetrator and victim, the ICRC helps countries to put in place laws and policies that reduce opportunities to commit sexual violence, and increase the penalties when it takes place.

ICRC teams seek to counter sexual violence in war and violent situations even where there is no concrete knowledge of abuse. What this means in practice is that the ICRC has recognised the need to find ways of helping those who are not asking for help – through fear of stigmatisation or shame or because of more pressing concerns, such as feeding children.

While women, men, girls and boys can all be victims of sexual violence, vulnerable communities such as the internally displaced, migrants, widows, female heads of households and detainees are often at heightened risk. Economic insecurity and lack of resources can force people to venture into potentially unsafe areas to look for food, firewood or water. In some circumstances, armed forces or groups take advantage of the economic vulnerability of individuals to demand sexual services in exchange for food and basic items. Contextual analysis is required to identify those at risk and to guide efforts to protect them. ICRC conducts this research and analysis through extensive networking in every society in which it works, and talks to all sides of a conflict. Networking with weapons carriers, community leaders, health and humanitarian staff and local NGOs helps the ICRC to construct programmes that are understood and accepted by local communities.

The ICRC in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Rape and sexual abuse is a systematic and devastating feature of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The ICRC’s priorities in the country include responding to the needs of families who have had to flee their homes and resident communities living in terrible conditions; providing medical care and materials to hospitals and clinics; visiting detainees held as a result of fighting; and promoting respect for the law in the ICRC’s discussion with all parties to the conflict.

A key component of the ICRC’s work in the DRC is its response to sexual violence. One of the most successful parts of the approach has been the support the organisation has provided to 40 listening houses, or ‘maisons d’écoute’. Victims of sexual violence can receive counselling from these locally run structures, and where necessary are referred to nearby health facilities. Over 5,000 victims received counselling in 2012 and 2,250 were referred for medical treatment. The listening houses also seek to raise awareness of the problem of sexual violence, informing communities about the existence of health facilities for victims and the importance of receiving urgent medical treatment within 72 hours of being raped. This is done through workshops and radio broadcasts to try to reach as many people as possible, including those isolated by war and with no local health facilities to go to.

The ICRC also raises the suffering experienced by those affected by sexual violence – including the broader community and children born out of rape – with the armed forces and groups involved. The ICRC hosts workshops and seminars with various groups, including UN peacekeepers, the national military and armed opposition groups. In these sessions, the ICRC highlights the physical and psychological trauma experienced by victims, the risk of pregnancy and HIV and possible rejection of victims by their families.

The fact that organisations such as the ICRC have been working to prevent sexual violence in the DRC for so long shows how ingrained this behaviour is, as well as the absolute impunity that exists for perpetrators. In other words, the environment remains unchanged; when it comes to making arrests, convicting perpetrators and effective policing, the ability to change the status quo lies not in the hands of humanitarian organisations, but those of local and national authorities.

The ICRC in Colombia

The ICRC has been working in Colombia for more than 40 years. Its work in the country has helped families who have had to flee their homes as a result of violence, supported mothers, daughters and wives whose loved ones have gone missing, visited detainees and promoted International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to authorities and armed groups. The ICRC also talks extensively to armed forces, the opposition, groups and communities affected by violence and local NGOs. Through this contact the ICRC has identified two specific groups at risk of sexual violence – young people and migrants. With a local NGO called Profamilia, the ICRC works to make young people aware of the risk of sexual violence, and what they can do in the interests of their own protection. This is done through workshops with Profamilia, which also provides healthcare, psychological support and legal advice to victims of sexual violence.

Colombia has one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced people, with official estimates putting the number registered since 1997 at nearly four million. Families and individuals who have been victims of sexual violence or are at threat of such abuse and need to leave their homes are provided with emergency assistance by the ICRC to enable them to move to a safer place, as well as psychological support if they have been abused. The main challenge – and a key factor in the continuing vulnerability, including to sexual violence, of those who have had to move on – is ensuring that displaced groups have a means of earning a living, so that they can restart their lives. The ICRC seeks to ensure that work is available for families once they have settled somewhere new. One ICRC project encourages farmers to exchange their knowledge of cultivating cocoa near the San Miguel river, allowing vulnerable communities to improve their crops and earn money, increasing their resilience to abuse.

Looking forward

Responding effectively to the blight of sexual abuse in conflict is a priority for the ICRC and an activity the organisation has prioritised for a long time. Sexual violence has been a feature of the battlefield for centuries and, despite the efforts of the ICRC and others, it remains a constant feature of today’s conflicts. More must therefore be done to enhance the practical response by all actors in armed conflict, whilst retaining the principles of prevention, protection and response at the centre of this action. Political discussions and initiatives at the level of the international community are essential to send the message that sexual violence is not acceptable and does not conform to international law or ethical norms of behaviour. Only when such top-down messaging is combined with initiatives and work that seek to change patterns of behaviour at a grass-roots level will we be able to begin to tackle sexual violence in war for good.

Sarah Cotton is Public Affairs Advisor at the ICRC in London. Charlotte Nicol is Sexual Violence Focal Point, Women and War Section, ICRC.

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