Enabling redress for victims of conflict-related sexual violence as well as sexual and gender-based violence requires universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, write Jemma Blacklaw, Lesego Sekhu and Sinqobile Makhatini.
The focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is an important innovation for the design of redress measures and reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Transitional justice measures in Africa have shown increasing efforts to investigate and address CRSV. However, a gap needs to be bridged in terms of understanding and directly addressing concerns of SRHR as a result of these crimes, particularly for women, girls and sexual and gender minorities.
SRHR, defined at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, is an umbrella term for different issues surrounding sexual health, reproductive rights, sexual rights and reproductive health, and access to related healthcare services for all people.
Given the prevalence of violations of SRHR as a result of CRSV – in continuum with sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in peacetime – there is a pressing need for transitional justice processes to integrate SRHR and for government provision of related healthcare for all survivors. This requires acknowledgement and attention to the diversity of survivors, their experiences and the medical and psychosocial needs related to SRHR.
The United Nations defines SGBV as any harmful act of sexual, physical, psychological, mental and emotional abuse that is perpetrated against a person’s will and based on socially ascribed differences between women and men. This definition describes the pluralities of violence that are experienced across gender, by which women and marginalised groups continue to be disproportionately affected. In conflict, these same harmful acts are experienced and exacerbated by the social breakdown that often occurs during wartime.
Through analyses of countries such as South Sudan and The Gambia, we can see the correlations between SGBV and CRSV and the role that SRHR can play in redress for victims who have experienced such violations.
Efforts to Address CRSV and SGBV in Africa
CRSV such as rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced pregnancy and sterilisation during conflict constitute gross human rights violations as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In Africa, there has been increasing awareness and advocacy surrounding prevention and redress for CRSV, as seen in the African Union Transitional Justice Policy. Truth commissions such as those in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya and The Gambia have investigated CRSV and made recommendations on reparations for survivors.
Additionally, thirty African states have developed one or more National Action Plans on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, some of which make mention of the SRHR of women, girls and others vulnerable to SGBV. These plans provide a foundation for African countries to protect the SRHR of their citizens and integrate them into national transitional justice processes if needed.
Nonetheless, over a billion women and girls find themselves without access to at least one SRHR on the African continent. Due to the lack of security they experience, ranging from the realities of poverty to gender discrimination and acts of CRSV and SGBV, women, girls and marginalised groups are at high risk of exposure to communicable diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, maternal and perinatal conditions, and other health consequences of gaps in SRHR protections.
Queering SRHR and Transitional Justice
Sexual and gender minorities are particularly vulnerable to CRSV, as conflict tends to exacerbate social, political and economic hierarchies that position men who present as heterosexual as superior to others. In post-conflict settings, stigmatisation and discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity increase vulnerability to SGBV. With homosexuality legalised in only 22 of the 54 African states, it is unsurprising that violations experienced by LGBTQIA+ survivors are underreported and often go unacknowledged. Transitional justice processes on the continent have largely failed to adequately include LGBTQIA+ persons and address violations against them.
This reality requires the ‘queering’ of both SRHR and transitional justice. ‘Queering’ entails the reimagining of an individual’s sexual identity and gender expression beyond the binary of the female-male gender schema, to include the rights of women and girls, men and boys, and LGBTQIA+ persons, with attention to the intersection of gender and sexuality in the experiences and impacts of CRSV and SGBV more broadly.
In fact, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons, stipulating that “there is wide prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls. Acts of sexual violence against men and boys, persons with psychosocial disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are of equal concern, and must also be adequately and effectively addressed by State Parties.” This inclusive approach should guide processes for addressing CRSV and SGBV on the continent, including through transitional justice.
According to the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the conflict in South Sudan, which began in 2013, has included systematic CRSV against women and girls, as their bodies have been used to achieve military and political objectives and are considered the ‘spoils of war.’ Prevalent acts of CRSV include rape, sexual torture, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and forced marriage.
The commission states that the brutality of these violations leaves many victims with genital and rectal injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and other long-lasting injuries such as damage to the uterus, infertility, gynaecological disorders and even death. To the same extent, the violations leave psychological scars, which present as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. These impacts show the importance of engaging SRHR alongside measures for rehabilitation in order to meet the health and psychosocial needs of victims in the country.
Despite South Sudan’s commitment to its National Action Plan 2015–2020 on UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and Related Resolutions, the extent of CRSV demonstrates the country’s failure to uplift women and girls and protect their fundamental human rights. In addition, the lack of acknowledgement of LGBTQIA+ persons in South Sudanese society continues due to the criminalisation of same-sex relationships, which makes addressing CRSV against them even more challenging.
South Sudan has agreed to implement three transitional justice mechanisms: the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and the Compensation and Reparation Authority. All are designed to document women and girls’ experiences, which would motivate recommendations and reparations. It remains to be seen whether they will address CRSV against LGBTQIA+ persons. There is potential for measures to deal with CRSV and SGBV to be mainstreamed in these transitional justice measures, which would then motivate the mainstreaming of SRHR.
Like South Sudan, The Gambia witnessed widespread SGBV under former President Yahya Jammeh’s regime, including rape, gang rape, sexual torture, sexual exploitation and, in the case of people living with HIV (PLHIV), depriving access to treatment. Women and girls were disproportionally the victims of these crimes. With the criminalisation of homosexuality in the country, incidence of SGBV against LGBTQIA+ persons has not been officially documented, which results in the further silencing and marginalisation of their experiences.
Even under Jammeh, The Gambia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the African Charter on Human Rights of Women in Africa and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. Additionally, the state adopted laws such as the Children’s Act 2005, the Women’s Act 2010 and the Sexual Offences Act 2013 to protect women and children from human rights violations. Despite this, women and girls continued to be disproportionally the victims of SGBV.
After Jammeh’s ousting, The Gambia established its Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in 2018. Revolutionarily, the commission acknowledged the Hague Principles on Sexual Violence, which states that depriving an individual of access to treatment or medicine related to HIV or other sexually transmitted infections can be regarded as an act of sexual violence. This demonstrates an acknowledgement of sexual and reproductive health rights without explicitly using the language of SRHR.
Encouragingly, the SGBV-related recommendations of the commission recognise SRHR, despite different terminology and the limitations of its scope. The commission advocated the establishment of One-Stop Centres, capacity building for mental health and psychosocial services, victim-survivor shelters and sensitisation programmes for SGBV. It is important to monitor the implementation of these recommendations and progress related to SRHR within the discourse of redress for SGBV in The Gambia.
The Promise of SRHR
If African states ensure universal access to SRHR, they will enable redress for victims of CRSV and SGBV, including in the form of necessary healthcare and psychosocial services. This will then enable their active participation in society in peacetime.
This quest can be achieved through the inclusion and active participation of those most affected by CRSV and SGBV in transitional justice processes from design to implementation. It can also be achieved through the elimination of unnecessary legal, medical, clinical and regulatory barriers to SRHR.
These changes in government policies and institutions enable women, girls and sexual and gender minorities, as well as other marginalised populations vulnerable to CRSV and SGBV, to exercise their reproductive rights and live full lives in better societies.