International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on June 19, 2019, it is important to recognize and address the ways in which conflict and post-conflict situations increase the vulnerability of women and children to sexual exploitation not only by combatants, but also by those responsible for protecting and caring for them – peacekeepers, humanitarian aid workers, and refugee camp staff. Sadly, there is evidence not only that such sexual exploitation occurs, but that it is widespread, under-reported, and rarely prosecuted.  

Although the United Nations and other providers of humanitarian aid may have a zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse in their operations, there remains a disturbingly high incidence of what the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) terms “sextortion” – the abuse of entrusted power to extort sexual favors in exchange for something to which the victim should be entitled. Sextortion is a global phenomenon that can occur wherever someone has the power to grant or withhold something that someone else desperately needs – whether access to basic government services, a license or permit, a favorable legal outcome, a passing grade, a job, or resettlement in another country.  The needs and sectors may differ, but the pattern is the same:  someone in a position of power preys on the vulnerability of others to coerce compliance with sexual demands.  Conflict exacerbates that vulnerability by displacing people, isolating them from community and family support networks, depriving them of economic and educational opportunities, increasing their dependence on humanitarian aid for basic necessities, undermining the availability and effectiveness of legal protections, and disrupting social norms and prohibitions.  In short, creating the conditions that allow sextortion to flourish in refugee camps and conflict-affected areas.    

Recently, a seven-month investigation in five countries found reports of UNHCR staff demanding bribes for everything from medical referrals to food rations to resettlement assistance.  For women, the investigation found, there were other ways to pay – with sexual favors.  In Syria, BBC News reported that this form of sexual exploitation is so widespread that women were refusing to go to aid distribution centers for fear that others would assume they had dishonored themselves in exchange for any assistance received.  The United Nations Population fund issued a report, entitled “Voices from Syria 2018,” finding that sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers was commonly cited as a risk faced by women and girls when trying to access aid:

Participants described scenarios in which men in positions of power abuse their authority to make sexual advances on women and girls in exchange for goods or services necessary for survival.  Women described how the suggestion of sexual exploitation would make them feel shame and discomfort and fear repercussions if they deny the request.  Women stated that some would avoid accessing services for fear of or to avoid sexual exploitation (p. 30).               

These findings are not new.  More than twenty years ago, the UNHCR guidelines on sexual violence and refugees acknowledged that international refugee workers might be extorting sexual favors in exchange for assistance (p. 5).  In 1999, Human Rights Watch reported on widespread sexual exploitation in refugee camps in Guinea. In 2007, the U.N. adopted a resolution on the United Nations Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Staff and Related personnel. Yet the problem persists, and there is an insufficient sense of urgency about addressing it.      

The first step in addressing the problem is to give it a name.  It is difficult to discuss, let alone analyze and address, an abuse you cannot name.   For this reason, the IAWJ coined the term “sextortion” to describe the broad pattern of abuse of power in exchange for sex. The term captures the fact that sextortion is both a form of sexual exploitation and a form of corruption. The IAWJ Toolkit on Stopping the Abuse of Power through Sexual Exploitation:  Naming, Shaming, and Ending Sextortion is designed to raise awareness about sextortion and provide guidance about steps to combat it.  

A threshold challenge in combating sextortion is the reluctance to report it.  In addition to the stigma and shame that attach to sexual offenses, there are legitimate fears of retaliation, concerns about proving something for which there may be no corroborating witnesses or evidence, lack of information about rights and available avenues of recourse, and mistrust of the justice system’s ability to hold perpetrators accountable.  All of these concerns are exacerbated in a post-conflict situation, where survivors may not have access to a safe and confidential reporting mechanism, support services, or a stable and effective justice system. To break the culture of silence surrounding sextortion, it is critical to adopt a survivor-centered approach that assures those who experience sextortion receive the support they need to come forward and end impunity for perpetrators.       

The longer-term challenge is to change the attitudes and behavior that lead people to engage in sextortion and lead others to turn a blind eye to it.  Codes of conduct can play an important role in shaping institutional cultures, but they need to be reinforced by leadership and commitment from the top, comprehensive training, and transparent and effective accountability measures. 

It is not enough to prohibit exchange of assistance for sex, if that policy is poorly understood and enforced.  If someone holds a knife to a woman’s throat and rapes her, everyone sees it as an act of sexual violence.  But when desperation leads a woman or child to accede to sexual demands, such “survival sex” may not be seen as an equally egregious form of sexual violence, with far-reaching and damaging consequences for the victims. In 2015, a U.N. report found widespread confusion on the ground about consensual sex and exploitation.  In Haiti, where more than 225 women engaged in sex with U.N. peacekeepers to obtain things like food and medication, the report noted staff’s concern that people should have “romantic rights.” That anyone might confuse desperation with romance speaks volumes about the need to confront and change the entrenched social and cultural attitudes that allow people to ignore or trivialize the harm sextortion causes.  In fact, the cost of paying a sexual bribe is far greater than the cost of paying a cash bribe, for it is measured not in financial terms, but in physical and psychological damage, stigma and shame, altered lives and lost opportunities, and a fundamental assault on human dignity.

The IAWJ is working to bring greater visibility to the issue of sextortion and the many ways it manifests itself, whether in conflict-affected situations or everyday interactions with authority.  Those efforts include engaging the international anti-corruption community, through presentations at International Anti-Corruption Conferences and other international forums, collaborating with UNODC to address sextortion as a gender-related judicial integrity issue, and partnering with Transparency International to pilot a program in Morocco that seeks to bring the women’s rights and anti-corruption communities together to address an issue that implicates both gender inequality and corruption.  IAWJ member associations and individual members around the world, including in Tanzania, the Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Morocco, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, and India, have also led the way in combating sextortion by holding seminars and workshops, developing country-specific toolkits and brochures, assessing the adequacy of existing legal frameworks, and collaborating with other civil society organizations to raise awareness about this issue.  For all the progress that has been made, much remains to be done to eliminate this form of sexual violence that has broad ramifications for the international gender equality, anti-corruption, peace, and security agenda.         

This blog post was written by IAWJ’s Senior Advisor, Nancy Hendry.