Prevention of sexual violence in conflict

Warning: This briefing covers themes related to sexual violence, which readers may find distressing.

On 14 May 2024, there will be a debate in Westminster Hall at 2.30pm led by Sharon Hodgson MP on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict.

The Library research briefing, Conflict-relates sexual violence and the UK’s approach, provides background on conflict-related sexual violence, the UK Government’s approach, aid spending and international action in this area. Under its Preventing Sexual Violence in Initiative (PSVI, link opens PDF), the Government deploys experts to support local governments, the UN and civil society groups address conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).

This debate briefing provides information on recent developments in this area, including the most recent UN report on CRSV, and links to further reading and relevant parliamentary proceedings.

CRSV is defined by the UN as “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.

The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation, when committed in situations of conflict.

In April 2024, the UN Secretary General published his most recent report on CRSV, covering 2023. It said that:

In 2023, the outbreak and escalation of conflict exposed civilians to heightened levels of conflict-related sexual violence, fuelled by arms proliferation and increased militarization. Weapon bearers from both State and non-State armed groups targeted civilians with rape, gang rape and abductions, amid record levels of internal and cross-border displacement. Sexual violence curtailed women’s livelihoods and girls’ access to education, while generating profits for armed and violent extremist groups, including through conflict-driven trafficking in persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Women and girls were disproportionately affected by sexual violence […]

The UN report described the incidence of sexual violence in:

  • Fifteen conflict-related settings: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.
  • Three post-conflict settings: Western Balkans, Nepal, and Sri Lanka
  • Three situations of concern: Ethiopia, Haiti, and Nigeria.

Speaking in a debate on CRSV at the UN Security Council in April 2024, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General, Pramila Pattern, said the UN had verified 3,688 cases of CRSV in 2023, an increase of 50% since 2022. Women and girls constituted 95% of the verified cases.

The UK Ambassador to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, told the same UN meeting in April 2024 that the UK “remain committed to tackling CRSV” and had three priorities for action:

  • Limiting the proliferation of small arms and other conventional weapons, which are estimated to be involved in 70% to 90% of all CRSV incidents.
  • Addressing incidents in Sudan (where the UK called for a ceasefire so survivors can access support), Ukraine (where the UK is supporting investigations) and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (where the UK has called for ceasefire and the immediate release of hostages and condemns all allegations and reports of CRSV).
  • Strengthening the International Alliance on Preventing Sexual Violence in conflict, which the UK launched in 2022. It has 26 members.

On Sudan, in May 2024 the Minister for Africa, Andrew Mitchell, said:

Since the outbreak of conflict in April 2023, there has been a significant escalation of gender-based violence (GBV) in Sudan. The UK has pivoted our programme delivery to focus more on care for rape survivors. We have also integrated consideration of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) into the humanitarian system, making use of Women’s Centres, mobile clinics and internally displaced persons’ gathering points, for community engagement and service provision. We continue to call on both warring parties to abide by their responsibilities under International Humanitarian Law to protect civilians, including from CRSV, as well as to grant immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to allow the provision of, and access to, lifesaving assistance including comprehensive GBV services.

The Minister also said the UK was contributing to the Centre for Information Resilience, which investigates attacks on civilians, and is “monitoring and keeping records wherever possible, so […] there can be accountability and no impunity”.

On Ukraine, the Minister for Europe, Nusrat Ghani, says the UK Government is:

Working with Ukrainian authorities to hold those responsible for gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, in Ukraine to account. The UK has committed up to £6.2 million to enhance Ukraine’s domestic capacity for war crimes investigations and to help embed international guidelines and best practice into the work of Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators, including on survivor-centred approaches. This assistance has been largely delivered through projects via the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine, established with the US and EU, and deployments of UK experts, including the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) Team of Experts.

In December 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October and against hostages were “deeply shocking” and that the UK Government had raised its concerns with the UN the previous month. He said the UK was consulting with the Israeli Government on what support it could provide.

The UN Security Council held a session on sexual violence in conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in March 2024, following a mission report by the UN Secretary General’s special representative on CRSV.

At the UN Security Council session in March 2024, the Minister for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad, said that:

We are collectively and rightly appalled by reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas on 7 October and against hostages.

I refer to the report [cited above] and note with deep concern the findings of SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary General] Patten, including “reasonable grounds” to believe that sexual violence occurred in Israel on 7 October and the existence of, and I quote, “clear and convincing” information that sexual violence has been committed against hostages.

Mr President, it is deeply disturbing to know that “such violence may be ongoing against those still in captivity” a direct quote from the report. We continue to call an immediate, safe and unconditional release of all hostages. 

And to work through every channel to secure an immediate stop in the fighting, then progress towards a sustainable ceasefire – because, for us, that is the best route to achieve this.

I am also deeply shocked by the very concerning reports, referenced in the SRSG report and also by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of sexual violence perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinian detainees of which we’ve just heard [from others in the session], who have been arrested and held by Israel. 

These reports, as we’ve heard, are being investigated. I therefore call on Israel to take immediate measures to prevent conflict-related sexual violence, to abide by international humanitarian law, and to ensure thorough investigations into these reports, and ultimately for perpetrators to be held to account.

Mr President let me be absolutely clear – we the United Kingdom condemn conflict-related sexual violence unequivocally, wherever it occurs, and stand in solidarity with all victims and survivors. 

Put it simply, it must stop. Perpetrators must be held accountable. Survivors must receive holistic support and I call on all members of this Security Council to be unequivocal on these points.

And may I say to both Israelis and Palestinians, and their representatives here today that the United Kingdom, as a friend to both, is ready to support.

Further reading

Gender-responsive arms control, ending impunity key to reverse record level of sexual violence against women, girls in conflict zone, speakers tell Security Council 

UN Security Council

23 April 2024

Conflict Related Sexual violence: annual open debate

Security Council Report

22 April 2024

Factsheet: Conflict related sexual violence 2023 (PDF)

UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual violence in conflict

21 April 2024

Sexual violence ‘largely unpunished’ in Haiti, UN says


Mitchell McCluskey

28 March 2024

Gaza war: Both sides are reporting sexual violence committed by their enemy—but these crimes are hard to investigate

The Conversation

Rossella Pulvirenti

7 March 2024

Demand for sexual and gender-based violence support quadruples amid Sudan’s ongoing conflict

International Planned Parenthood Federation

29 January 2024

Gender-Based Violence and the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia: A Path to Accountability and Resolution

The Wilson Center

Milkee Bekele and Torianna Eckles

14 December 2023

Strongly condemning rise in CRSV, Speakers urge Security Council to better precent, enforce accountability for such crimes

UN Security Council

14 July 2023

Parliamentary material

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