UN Calls for a Victim-Centered Criminal Justice Response to Sexual Violence in Conflict

Abuja, June 19, 2021- On June 19, the international community marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In Nigeria, as elsewhere, this provides an important moment to stop and reflect on both, progress made in the fight to protect, in particular, women and girls from sexual violence in regions affected by conflict, as well as how much more work still remains to be done.

The United Nations defines “conflict-related sexual violence”, as “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict, committed by a member of State or non-State armed group, which includes terrorist entities or networks”. The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence and/or exploitation, when committed in situations of conflict.

In Nigeria, terrorist groups have killed tens of thousands of civilians, abducted over 2,000 girls and women since July 2009, and displaced millions across the North East of the country. Conflict in the North East has further contributed to a sharp rise in violence against women and children. The abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls near Chibok in 2014, many of them remaining in captivity until this day, shocked the world.

Girls and women who have been abducted by armed groups and become victims of rape and forced marriage during captivity, and then must deal with stigmatization and possible rejection by their families and communities upon their release. Returnees have been reported to be shunned by society – considered stained and unfit for marriage. The situation is even worse for those who return pregnant or with children, born as a result of rape whilst in captivity. The plight and rights of children born of conflict-related sexual violence, and of their mothers, has become so serious that in 2019 the UN Security Council requested that the Secretary-General prepare a Special Report on the issue (UNSCR 2467)

Sexual abuse and other violations against women and children are also, widespread in displacement settings and a culture of impunity for perpetrators contributes to continued violence. Women, girls and boys have reported having to engage in survival sex for money, food, and permission to move in and out of IDP sites. The situation is particularly severe for adolescent girls who often become victims of sexual violence when performing basic tasks such as collecting firewood, fetching water or using communal latrines.

Sexual violence continues to be underreported due to stigmatization, gender-based inequality and social norms that silence the survivors in order to uphold family reputation. Forced and child marriage are used as negative coping mechanisms to alleviate economic desperation as well as to make girls less attractive targets for terrorist groups who often abduct girls to force them into marriage.

While the response to sexual violence has improved in recent years, there are still significant gaps that must be addressed in the quality, scope and access to make sure survivors have unimpeded access to medical, psychosocial, legal services and livelihoods, while at the same time the criminal justice system needs further strengthening to allow for the effective and timely investigation, prosecution and adjudication of perpetrators.

In his speech to mark the day, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres pointed to the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that “has made it even more difficult to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account. Even as we respond to the pandemic, we must investigate every case, and maintain essential services for every survivor. We cannot allow this already underreported crime to slip further into the shadows. Perpetrators must be punished”, he said. Speaking at the 14th United Nations Crime Congress hosted in Kyoto in March 2021, the Attorney General of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Mr. Abubakar Malami, emphasized the Nigerian government’s commitment to ensure accountability for sexual violence in conflict, by ensuring sexual violence related charges against Boko Haram suspects are effectively, and successfully investigated. Furthermore, in 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak and consequent national lockdown, the Nigeria Governors’ forum declared a “state of emergency” on the then, increasing rate of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the country, which in the meantime, continues to be on the rise.

UNODC has been supporting Nigeria’s efforts to enhance the criminal justice system’s response to SGBV offences already for several years. Working with the National Assembly, UNODC has been supporting efforts to draft new legislation that will specifically criminalize sexual and gender-based violence committed in the context of terrorist activity.

UNODC also assisted the Office of the National Security Advisor, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, the Federal High Court, the Nigeria Police Force and the Department of Security Service, to develop a Specific Nigeria Training Module on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism. Using the module, UNODC further cooperated in the design and delivery of training for a total of 357 security officials and criminal justice actors in applying gender-sensitive practices throughout the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of terrorism cases with a view to protecting the rights of victims of sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking offences and to preventing secondary victimization when in contact with the judicial system.

Moreover, earlier this year, the Office of the National Security Advisor (ONSA) working in partnership with the European Union and UNODC, launched the STRIVE Juvenile project in Nigeria aimed to prevent and respond to violence against children by terrorist and violent extremist groups.

While these initiatives, as well as the efforts by many other stakeholders constitute important steps, Nigeria is yet to build a society-wide, comprehensive, multisectoral, and survivor-centered response to SBGV which sets victims on a path to justice, provides essential medical services, psycho-social support, access to justice, as well as livelihood support and economic compensation.