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During conflict, women are often subject to brutal forms of violence due to the mere fact that they are women. While gender-based violence is frequently accepted as a mere consequence of war, it is systematically perpetrated by governments and militias. Women are often the target of rape, gang rape, genital mutilation, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced marriage and the intentional transmission of HIV/AIDS. Such sexual violence is not a random occurrence but a tool of war. It is used to humiliate, intimidate and control women and their communities.

Having experienced specific harms that call for redress, women play a critical role in post-conflict reconciliation. Their voices must be heard in every step of the process to ensure lasting peace and security. “It is precisely because conflict carries such devastating consequences for women and girls that efforts to build peace and prevent the recurrence of conflict must consider the role of women,” said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint submission to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The experiences of women and the importance of women in peacebuilding were codified in 2000 with the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. According to the U.N. Population Fund, UNSCR 1325 is “the first resolution ever passed by the Security Council that specifically addresses the impact of war on women, and women’s contributions to conflict resolution and sustainable peace.” The resolution urges all U.N. member states to increase the number of women making decisions on conflict prevention, management and resolution and advocates for the inclusion of a gender perspective during peacekeeping operations. It also calls on states to protect women from gender-based violence and notes their responsibility to prosecute such actions.

While UNSCR 1325 was a step in the right direction, problems have arisen in the realm of implementation. In a 2004 report, Amnesty International noted that, “there appears to be a lack of political will on the part of nearly all UN member states and various UN bodies and agencies to apply the provisions of Resolution 1325 effectively to specific country situations.” In the face of continued systematic sexual violence, and recognizing that in many cases it had actually become even more brutal, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1820 in June 2008. The resolution recognized that systematic sexual violence that deliberately targets civilians deepens the effects of conflict and hinders efforts toward peace and security. Importantly, it recognizes the need to end impunity to further truth, justice and reconciliation.

Accountability for gender-based violence is essential in order to prevent it in the future. Often in the form of criminal prosecutions, accountability restores victims’ dignity by recognizing their experiences and instilling confidence in the rule of law by demonstrating society will no longer permit such actions. Ending impunity for sexual violence plays a critical role in stopping such acts during times of peace because, as Juan Mendez of the International Center for Transitional Justice noted, “impunity for sexual violence in conflicts often results in it being accepted and normalized beyond the end of the conflict.”

In June, for the one year anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1820, a high-level colloquium brought together mediators, experts and women’s rights activists to discuss how sexual violence should be addressed in peace processes. According to the International Women’s Tribune Center, “senior mediators admitted at the opening plenary that sexual violence was not something that they had felt themselves specifically mandated to address,” however by the final plenary session, mediators had recognized that addressing sexual violence is central to their mission. As governments and NGOs raise awareness of the necessity of addressing sexual violence during conflict, women’s status in post-conflict areas will improve.

U.N. Population Fund on UNSC Resolution 1325

HRW & AI Joint Submission to U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee

Amnesty International 2004 Report on UNSCR 1325

Juan Mendez of the International Center for Transitional Justice on Sexual Violence

Women’s UN News