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Biden to bolster response to sexual violence in conflict zones

President Biden on Nov. 18. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden plans to sign a memorandum Monday directing U.S. agencies to strengthen their response to sexual violence in conflict zones, including in Ukraine, a senior administration official said. The administration is aiming to ensure that such crimes are given treatment equal to that of other human rights abuses.

Agencies such as the State Department and Treasury Department will be directed to use their existing powers to “the fullest extent possible” to punish acts of conflict-related sexual violence, including through sanctions, the senior official said during a call with reporters.

The Biden administration did not provide its own data on crimes in Ukraine but pointed to an October report commissioned by the United Nations that found evidence of sexual violence against Ukrainian women and girls as “part of Russia’s military strategy,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House. The investigation, conducted by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, identified victims ages 4 to 80.

The Washington Post and other news outlets have interviewed numerous victims of sexual violence in Ukraine who have been reluctant to report their experiences to authorities, making it difficult to prosecute cases.

Biden will sign the memo as Britain kicks off an international ministerial conference to rally a global response to conflict-related sexual violence. The conference will take place in London on Monday and Tuesday.

Conflict-related sexual violence, or CRSV, is an undermeasured symptom of war. The United Nations estimates that for every rape documented in connection with conflict, there are 10 to 20 cases that go unreported.

The United Nations defines CRSV as crimes directly or indirectly linked to conflict, including rape, sexual slavery, human trafficking for the purposes of sexual violence, as well as forced prostitution, pregnancy, abortion or marriage and other human rights abuses.

At the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year, the United States set aside an additional $400,000 in funding to the United Nations’ Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, adding to its annual contribution of $1.75 million.

The White House said the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor will also provide an additional $5.5 million over the next two years, including in Myanmar, Ukraine and Sri Lanka, to aid global efforts to investigate and document acts of CRSV.

The latest U.N. report on the issue recorded 3,293 cases of CRSV in 18 countries in 2021, an increase of about 800 cases compared with the previous year.