One year ago, the UN Secretary-General called for a cessation of violence both on battlefields and in homes. Yet his latest report shows that conflict-related sexual violence has continued unabated during the COVID-19 pandemic and remains a cruel and widespread tactic of war, torture, terror and political repression.
Between January and December 2020, 2,542 cases of conflict-related sexual violence were reported in the report of the United Nations Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Women and girls accounted for more than 2,400 of the reported cases, or 96% of the total cases reported.
These figures grossly underrepresent the actual number of cases of conflict-related sexual violence, as lockdowns imposed around the world to control the spread of Covid-19 have further exacerbated existing structural, institutional, and sociocultural barriers to reporting sexual violence in conflict and accessing multisectoral services, including those related sexual and reproductive health. The impact of the pandemic has complicated the pursuit of justice, slowing the work of judicial authorities, and it has laid bare the intersecting inequalities that plague our societies, as compounded by conflict, displacement, and institutional fragility.
Moreover, new, gender-specific protection concerns have emerged through the pandemic, linked to militarization, checkpoints and border closures, which restricted the operating space for women’s organizations; sexual harassment of women healthcare workers and women in isolation and treatment centres; as well as sexual violence against women detained for alleged curfew violations.
High Representative Josep Borrell recently expressed his concerns about the impact of recent events on women and girls in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. He has also stressed his preoccupation about the persistent threat and occurrence of sexual violence in many countries affected by conflict, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as documented in the UN Secretary-General’s report.
The EU places gender equality at the centre of its work and of its multilateral and regional partnerships, and we remain committed to keep strengthening our partnerships with civil society, women’s rights organisations, human rights defenders, peacebuilders and local and religious leaders.
Defeating sexual-related violence, especially against women and girls in conflict-affected areas, will require a stronger push from the international community. That is why, on this day, we call on all parties involved in armed conflicts to heed the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and immediately end all acts of conflict-related sexual violence. Building back better in the wake of this pandemic requires political resolve and resources equal to the scale of the challenge.