How do you stop — or at least mitigate — the harm done by sexual and gendered violence in humanitarian crises? That’s the topic for this week’s international conference in Oslo, where governments, United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations are coming together to discuss commitments and solutions.
One topic that will probably arise — formally or informally — is the recent controversy over U.N. Security Council Resolution 2467, which calls for ending sexual violence in conflict, holding perpetrators accountable and assisting survivors. Until late April, the draft resolution mentioned the importance of sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. But the United States threatened to veto the resolution — ostensibly because of the Trump administration’s hard-line stance against abortion — and got that language removed.
That angered advocates who’ve worked for decades to get the U.N. to build and commit to a “Women, Peace and Security” agenda — which treats women as central to preventing conflict, peacemaking and helping communities recover after violence. These advocates lamented that loss as a “decisive setback” that unravels decades of work to establish essential services for survivors and sets a “dangerous precedent” for the future of the agenda.
The conference in Oslo could help the conversation on sexual violence in conflict return to focusing on survivors and grass-roots activists. Here are five key issues to keep in mind.
1. The Trump administration is backing away from advocating for women’s rights
The Trump administration has been systematically removing references to women, gender and LGBTQ rights in policies and reports. This resolution is the latest example.
For instance, the U.S. State Department annually issues reports on human rights practices for nearly every country in the world. The Trump administration’s 2017 reports had 32 percent fewer references to women than the Obama administration’s 2016 reports. The Trump administration also reportedly lobbied to remove the word “gender” from U.N. documents this year. And the administration has reinstated the George W. Bush-era “global gag rule,” which denies U.S. funding to any organization that performs, promotes or offers information about abortion.
2. Language in high-level forums doesn’t always translate to impact on the ground
Would language about sexual and reproductive health services in U.N. Resolution 2467 have actually helped survivors of sexual violence in conflict? Not necessarily. Attention to such violence has increased dramatically in the past two decades, and other Security Council resolutions referred to these services. Many survivors, however, still do not have sufficient care, according to a number of studies, including the most recent U.N. secretary general report on the subject.
3. Shifting language from “women and girls” to include “men and boys” sounds good but can backfire
The Oslo conference’s background documents recognize that men and boys also suffer such violence during conflict and in its aftermath conflict. There's been more and more research about such violence against men and boys. U.N. Resolution 2467 was the first to explicitly mention them as survivors requiring protection and assistance.
Of course, it’s true that men and boys suffer such violence — although significantly less often than do women and girls. Some organizations and donors have been deliberately moving away from women’s issues in pursuit of gender neutrality. This shift ignores how most sexual violence results from an underlying gender inequality that harms women and girls. While in theory including “men and boys” in such discussions could expand services for all affected by sexual violence, in reality it could be used to reduce funding for services for women and girls. It could also silence discussions about how sexual and gender-based violence during war is linked to inequality more generally.
4. A narrow focus on perpetrators rather than survivors.
The Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda discusses sexual violence as a security issue. That’s a narrow framing that focuses on violence committed by combatants and on holding perpetrators accountable, rather than ensuring services for survivors. The result of looking at such violence as a security issue is that only some forms of sexual violence “count.” Studies suggest women in areas affected by conflict are most in danger from their intimate partners, while those assaulted by fighters may have more access to justice or limited services. That’s true even if intimate partner violence results from the deprivation, insecurity and stress caused by the conflict.
The Oslo conference’s background documents take a broader perspective, unlinking sexual and gender-based violence from this narrow security framework. This creates the opportunity to broaden the agenda and improve access to services for survivors regardless of who committed the violence.
5. Making room for grass-roots and feminist approaches
The Oslo conference’s documents point out that local women and women’s groups must be central to crisis response: partnering with them, listening to them and using their knowledge, networks and insight to create an effective humanitarian system.
That’s especially vital, since much Women, Peace and Security work has focused on top-down policy changes. U.N. Resolution 2467 recognizes that supporting “civil society, especially local, grass-roots, women-led organizations” is critical. Those at the Oslo conference could cultivate stronger links among the international humanitarian system, the global community of Women, Peace and Security advocates, and local women-led civil society efforts.
After decades of attention, sexual and gender-based violence in conflict continues — and survivors don’t yet get enough support. The outrage over U.N. Resolution 2467 may help change that. The Oslo conference could contribute by resisting efforts to erase women’s needs and rights. It can encourage governments, U.N. agencies and other organizations to focus on supporting survivors and grass-roots activists, ensuring that services are available and establishing accountability mechanisms for those efforts.
Chen Reis (@ChenReis1), clinical associate professor and director of the Humanitarian Assistance Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, is co-author of “Becoming an International Humanitarian Aid Worker” (Elsevier, 2017).
Marie E. Berry (@marieeberry) is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, where she directs the Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative, and author of “War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).