Nine months to the day that war in Ukraine began, we read increasing reports of alleged war crimes, including sexual violence against women and girls. Sadly, history is repeating itself. Rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by combatants during armed conflict are as old as war itself.
We thus mark this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) on a sombre note. But the tremendous assistance offered by many of our member states to millions of forcibly displaced people also gives us hope. The outpouring of support from national, local authorities and individuals is heartening. Among over seven million refugees so far, 90% are women, girls and children, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and human trafficking. For those who have already suffered from such crimes, we must re-double our efforts to improve the assistance they are offered. And we should be prepared for future assistance.
Victims face horrible humiliation and a wide range of risks, from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections to psychological and physical trauma. Hospitals and medical doctors need to be equipped to respond to rape as part of a co-ordinated multi-agency response, and medical and forensic examinations must be ensured, as does immediate and longer-term trauma care. Survivors of gender-based violence among refugees need access to this type of support and counselling in a language they feel comfortable in and understand.
As seen from prior conflicts, specialized counselling will be needed to address enduring trauma to reduce stigma and secondary victimisation that can develop over time. Indeed, sexual violence in conflict zones entails both immediate and long-term consequences, as evidenced for example in reports published this month from GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s independent expert body responsible for monitoring implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention).