Archive for Sexual Violence

Sexual Terrorism and the Quest for Justice for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: The Digital Dialogue Series 

By Larissa Peltola, a Staff Writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA program.

Sexual terrorism committed by militant groups like ISIS/ISIL, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab has gone largely unacknowledged in domestic and international courts, despite its rampant use. Sexual violence is a widespread, endemic issue in all conflicts around the world, affecting individuals, communities, and societies as a whole. 

The United Nations has identified that the extensive use of sexual violence perpetrated by terrorist groups globally has been used as an incentive for recruitment, a tool for financing, destroying, subjugating and controlling communities and societies, extracting information from detainees, forcing displacement, and as a means of controlling or suppressing women’s reproductive abilities. While the high numbers of sexual abuse have led to international calls to action by civil society, activists, the United Nations Security Council, and state governments, these crimes have still not been prosecuted before any national or international court.   

What Can (and Should) Justice Look like? 

Since sexual terrorism encompasses numerous crimes ranging from rape to human trafficking, to forced marriage, there has been a debate within the activist community about what justice for survivors looks like. For survivors who have endured violence at the hands of ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram militants, justice consists of long-term medical and psychosocial services. “Their understandings of justice,” according to Azadeh Mohaveni of the International Crisis Group, “were quite different from those we think about in the West. They were not punitive or carceral. They didn’t associate justice with formal persecution or punishment.” Prosecution, or any legal actions against members of these groups, was not only unrealistic but was never even a consideration for these survivors. “No one really mentioned prosecution. It seemed to fall out of the realm of what any of these women imagined was possible.” 

Simply put, this idea of justice was, and is, shaped by the material realities of their worlds. Of the services that survivors identified as the most necessary included shelter, medical and psychological services, and the protection of legal status. In Iraq and Syria, women that chose to join ISIS, or were forcibly recruited, were stripped of their nationalities and rendered stateless, therefore unable to receive proper state support after leaving or escaping the group. According to Mohaveni, survivors must be “de-exceptionalized” and “destigmatized” and not only given legal status in the countries they have fled to, but also be provided with essential and often life-saving support services.

The difficulty with this form of justice is that countries rife with terrorism, and their neighboring states, often lack the infrastructure to address survivors’ needs and to provide lasting support for them. Psychosocial and medical services are virtually non-existent. Food insecurity is also a growing concern, and education and reintegration programs are either non-existent or severely underfunded. 

The Obstacles to Achieving “Justice”

In instances where survivors have identified justice within the legal framework, there are significant obstacles to prosecution. Domestic and international laws are full of shortcomings that make prosecution of sexual terrorism extremely difficult and often impossible. Anne Marie de Brouwer, co-founder of Team Impact, examined the domestic penal codes as they relate to sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and Al Shabaab in Nigeria and Somalia. Her conclusion was that no domestic laws are fully equipped to address the harms stemming from sexual terrorism, primarily due to either lack of laws concerning sexual violence or outdated and vague provisions on what constitutes rape. “To date,” de Brouwer explains, “there are no convictions for sexual terrorism…so in the absence of a law, criminalizing the crime of sexual terrorism explicitly or even implicitly, access to justice by victims is severely curtailed.” 

Obstacles within legal fields are not the only ones that exist for survivors of sexual violence. Women are often re-victimized after experiencing trauma. In refugee and IDP camps, where survivors often end up, or upon return to their villages, they are shunned and seen as having consented to fraternize with the enemy, willingly engaging in sexual activity with armed actors. Often times, sexual violence does not end upon their return home. Women and girls are often revictimized and raped in the camps where they sought safety and shelter and are left with virtually zero legal recourse and little access to necessary psychosocial services. According to Rhoda Tyoden Moore,  President of International Women Lawyers in Nigeria, survivors have no confidence in their government to do anything for them: “even if they report [sexual violence], nothing can be done.” Access to justice is critically important in IDP and refugee camps and when women return home to their communities. 

Donations from MasLibres.com to buy food for the victims of Boko Haram, Nigeria. // HazteOir.org

Courts and States: Obligations and Failures 

Promoting laws on sexual terrorism and prosecuting perpetrators can raise awareness about how terrorist groups operate and how they can be held accountable. Since there have been no cases related to sexual violence tried in domestic or international courts thus far, initial cases will inform others, setting precedent and demanding justice for survivors. Experts believe that it is extremely difficult to amend international terrorism litigation as it stands now. The most effective way to do so is by setting precedent in domestic courts that will eventually translate to international action. 

According to de Brouwer, courts should implement survivor-centered “evidentiary and procedural rules” that should guide any and all legal proceedings. “Effective prohibitions against sexual terrorism” de Brouwer articulates, “are insufficient without amendments to procedural and evidentiary rules that do not really support or protect victims.” There is an urgent need for protective measures to prevent re-victimization while in the courtroom. These include ensuring the safety of survivors who choose to testify, psychological services for before and after the trial, protections against victim intimidation in court settings, and if possible, financial assistance for the victim. 

States, likewise, have failed in their obligations to survivors of sexual terrorism. In a majority of countries where terrorists are based, women are considered and treated as second class citizens and are not afforded the same projections as men. Moore articulates that states play a large role in whether survivors report their assaults. “What we need,” the Nigerian based attorney explains, “is for governments to take proactive measures to improve [response] to these incidences. And to do that, we need gender-based violence structures on the ground.” This means that governments should establish laws to easily prosecute gender-based violence, put in place safeguards for victims of sexual violence, and make the legal field accessible to survivors so that they may be encouraged to seek redress. “These perpetrators must be punished so that these women will now build up confidence in the system,” Moore emphasized. 

Crimes of sexual terrorism should not solely be dealt within the legal arena. States have an obligation to advocate for and protect victims of sexual violence. The role of the state government is complex and multifaceted, according to Chioma Onuegbu, Deputy Director of the Department of Public Prosecution for the Attorney General in Nigeria. To effectively protect survivors and prosecute perpetrators, it is imperative that states establish gender-sensitive training, collect and share evidence with relevant departments, engage expert prosecutors trained in gender-based violence collection, and create a specialized unit to deal with gender-related crimes.     

Addressing sexual terrorism will continue to require a holistic approach by state and non-state actors and within domestic and international courts. Special measures must be taken in order to protect survivors of sexual terrorism and end the culture of silence around the topic. 


This is the third installment of the Digital Dialogue Series which brings together authors and scholars, practitioners, and experts to reflect on the progress and challenges of addressing conflict-related sexual violence. This series is hosted by the United Nations Team of Experts of Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict and in partnership with Institute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis; Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University; the  School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute; and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University. 

The following is a list of all participants in this discussion: 

Fionnuala Ni Aolain: Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of terrorism 

Anne Marie de Brouwer: Cofounder of Team Impact  

Azadeh Mohaveni:  Director of the Gender and Conflict Project, International Crisis Group 

Chioma Onuegbu: Deputy Director of Department of Public Prosecution and Head of Complex Cases for the Office of the Attorney General (Nigeria)

Rhoda Tyoden Moore: President of FIDA: International Women Lawyers in Nigeria

Death Penalty for Child Rapists in India: Populist, Hasty, Counterproductive

by Shardool Kulkarni, a law student at the University of Mumbai

This January, an eight-year-old girl hailing from a minority shepherding family in India was abducted, gang raped and brutally murdered in the Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the subsequent months, the incident generated polarized reactions in India and around the world, with public outcry juxtaposed against the response from individuals in authority and alleged politicization of rape owing to the victim’s minority status. The ensuing public discourse has placed the ruling dispensation headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi under intense scrutiny, particularly in relation to the government’s stance and policies regarding child rape.

In April 2018, the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2018 was promulgated. The said ordinance brought in several changes to the existing legal framework pertaining to child rape in India, the most significant being the imposition of the death penalty as punishment for rape of a girl below the age of twelve years. The move, while hailed by some as an example of the government’s toughened stance on child sexual abuse, was criticized by academics, judges, NGOs and legal practitioners as being likely to worsen the plight of victims of child sexual abuse.

Disincentivising Reporting

The Kathua rape case involved the victim being abducted, drugged, gang-raped and brutally murdered by eight persons, including four policemen. However, it is pertinent to note that this is not the norm when it comes to instances of child sexual abuse: according to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 95.5 percent of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim. The perpetrator of abuse is not the figurative shadowy stranger who strikes fear into the minds of the public, but rather the more closely known devils such as parents, older siblings, teachers, neighbors, or family friends. Victims of rape aged below twelve years are also unlikely to report a crime unless an older family member does so on their behalf. The likelihood of this happening is already low and could be diminished further if the consequence of reporting is the death penalty. As such, the amendment is likely to push the already underreported crime of child sexual abuse deeper into the chasm of unspoken, unacknowledged secrets of Indian society.

A Death Sentence for Victims?

The ordinance seemingly also ignores the possibility that making the act of raping a girl below twelve years punishable by death, a punishment usually reserved for murders, could encourage perpetrators to kill their young victims. Rape is an exceedingly difficult crime to prosecute if the only witness in most cases, the victim, is dead. While it may seem counterintuitive that a rapist would murder his or her victim and increase his or her chances of being sentenced to death, the heightened risk of being caught if the victim survives and thereby receiving the death penalty anyway could, in the opinion of some, prompt more rapists to kill their victims.

Indian students protest against rape in India in 2015. Sexual assault of women has been an ongoing issue in India. // Sajjad Hussain // AFP Photo

Following the enactment of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, the term “rape” has been accorded a wider connotation, including not only the traditional notion of penetrative sex but also other forced sexual acts such as fellatio. Thus, “rape,” as defined by the Indian Penal Code, is unrelated to the risk of death and need not necessarily be an act that may result in the death of the child owing to the sheer physical violence accompanied by it. Placing the punishment for raping a child on the same pedestal as the punishment for murdering a child might simply incentivize more abusers to ensure that their victim does not live to tell the tale.

Gender Bias: An Evidence of Populism and Apathy

Most media outlets in India carried news of the government’s decision on child rape. Interestingly, the ordinance only makes the rape of girls below the age of twelve years punishable by death, casting a blind eye toward male victims who constitute 52.94 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse in India. This sidelining of male victims points to a knee-jerk response to momentary outrage, a clear manifestation of the skewed discourse surrounding sexual violence that too often turns a blind eye to male victims. 

Subsequent to the promulgation of the ordinance, the Central Government announced its intention to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in order to make the changes brought in by the ordinance apply to male victims as well. While the move is a welcome one, it further highlights the fact that the policy in question was a hasty move.

Death Penalty: An Ineffective Deterrent

In its 262nd report, the Law Commission of India concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the deterrent effect of the death penalty was any better than that of life imprisonment. In the United States of America, for example, states that did not impose capital punishment for homicide were found to have lower homicide rates than states that did impose capital punishment. As such, the presumption that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent is fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, presuming that death penalty does indeed deter child sexual abuse, the deterrent effect is watered down significantly in India by poor case disposal and conviction rates. In its 2016 report titled “Crime in India,” the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that the conviction rate under the POCSO Act is an abysmal 28.9 percent. To make matters worse, pendency in cases of child rape was 89.6 percent. Moreover, there are no witness protection programs in place, and no probe has been made into the functioning of Child Welfare Committees set up by the government. Imposing stringent punishments becomes meaningless if the law remains a mere dead letter.

Several persons in authority responsible for the ruling dispensation, including two ministers in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, protested against the arrest of the accused in the horrific Kathua rape case. The apathy of the police authorities, the statements made by persons in power and the communal color that the entire incident acquired created a strong public sentiment against the ruling party on the issue of child rape. In this light, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 can only be regarded as a hasty and populist move to placate the outraged public without addressing, and moreover possibly aggravating, the plight of the innocent victims of these horrific human rights violations.


Shardool Kulkarni is in his penultimate year as a law student of the five-year law course at the University of Mumbai. He holds the distinction of being the youngest Indian to have deposed before a parliamentary committee in Indian legislative history. In the past, he has worked as a law trainee under Justice F. M. I. Kalifulla, Judge, Supreme Court of India, and as an Attaché to the Office of the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India.

Sexual Violence, Human Rights and the Media

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed

Photograph by Zubair Sayed

a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.

This article previously appeared in Women in and Beyond the Global on February 14, 2014.