All Eyes on Sexual Violence: Surveillance to Inform and Act

Homepage of UN ActionThere has been much discussion about the undercounting or overcounting of sexual violence statistics and the relationship with armed conflict.  Understanding the degree to which reports of events on the ground are accurate of the sexual crimes being committed against women, men, children and the elderly is vital to stop them.

One growing concern is that efforts to find correlations between conflict and sexual violence result in a focus on sensationalized statistics and generalizations about the relationship between conflict and incidence of sexual violence.  This leads to ‘dueling incentives’ where sexual violence statistics may be inflated or produced with little analytical rigor over the original source.  A Women Under Siege blog recently discussed the findings of a United States Institute of Peace report, Wartime Sexual Violence: Misconceptions, Implications and Ways Forward.  The report examined popular misconceptions such as the false belief that rape is ubiquitous in all wars, that it is an ‘African problem’, that given the opportunity “men will always rape” and that ethnic conflict plays a role in the commission of sexual violence crimes. The authors cite Israel-Palestine and Sri Lanka as civil conflicts based on ethnic grievances that did not give rise to sexual violence.  Given the events of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, I did a double-take reading this. Moreover, because this same report goes on to note selection bias, under reporting and categorical measurements of sexual violence results in ‘highly educated guesses’.

The use of Sri Lanka as an example of an ethnic conflict where ‘neither side appears to have engaged in sexual violence as a strategy of war’ is a striking statement in light of the 2011 Report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.  In this horrific account of the brutality that both the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE meted out in the last stages (2009) of this 30-year civil war, the three-member panel found that there were grave acts of sexual violence amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The UNSG report details how Tamil women were targeted for rape and sexual violence and that these acts were ‘greatly under-reported’ (para.152).   Indeed, ‘cultural sensitivities and associated stigma often prevented victims from reporting such crimes, even to their relatives’.  Nonetheless, the UNSG Report also stressed that there were ‘many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by Government forces and Tamil-surrogate forces, during and in the aftermath of the final phases of the armed conflict’. Channel 4 documented footage of dead female cadre, naked or with underwear moved to expose breasts and genitalia.  The SLA soldiers commentary was recorded which indicated a ‘strong inference that rape or sexual violence may have occurred, either prior to or after execution’.  Some international agency staff risked their own lives to document and report acts of sexual violence in the IDP camps and to protect IDPs who were warned by the military not to report these cases.

The 2010 Report of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict also found ‘reports of rape during flight and of sexual harassment, especially towards former female LTTE cadres, including girls’ (para.151).  The UN Expert Panel found that the LTTE continued to forcibly recruit young girls to fight in the conflict, this often resulted in girls in combat being vulnerable to sexual violence and torture by the Sri Lankan Army. To avoid LTTE conscription, family members often took extreme measures to protect their daughters from recruitment including forced early marriage of girls (ages as low as 12).  This had health implications for young girls, including the risk of pregnancy.

In the 2012 Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, the UN reported that the government had still failed to investigate, pursue or prosecute gross violations of the human rights of women, particularly the Tamil minority group, internally displaced women and ex female LTTE combatants.  Responses to reported cases of wartime rape and other acts of sexual violence continued to fall short of due process and investigation (para.22, 29).  In 2012, the Report of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Conflict-related Sexual Violence listed Sri Lanka as a post-conflict situation of concern given that women detained in Menik Farm were returning to highly militarized areas to lead households on their own with no or little compensation (para.65).

The USIP report is right to argue that methods for documenting sexual violence are not sufficiently robust.   What the Sri Lanka case demonstrates is that this is not because reports of sexual violence are not available but because we have yet to diversify our methods for keeping track of their sheer volume. There is a pressing need for more systematic surveillance of reports made every day, in multiple languages, formats, and locations, of situations where sexual violence is reported or suspected. Only through the daily accumulation of information about sexual violence can we begin to assemble an accurate record of what is happening.

How could this be possible?  In the area of public health, multi-language surveillance of social, news and humanitarian reports for coughs, diarrhea and rashes has been occurring since the 1990s. Disparate disease rumors are identified and analyzed to pick up early signs of infectious disease outbreaks.  Government affiliated and independent internet surveillance programs scan the Web every hour of every day for reports that vary from mass purchases of masks and vinegar (one of first signs of SARS) to an NGO worker reporting unusually high caseload of children with diarrhea (led to identification of a particularly virulent strain of Hand, Foot & Mouth disease). Jacqui True and I are starting to develop ways of applying these tools to monitor events of sexual violence around the world.  One way to counter the efforts of governments, rebels and individuals who seek to commit these crimes and keep them secret, is to keep an open-source record of the reports of all acts of sexual violence. Gaps in our knowledge and measurement of sexual violence are not just caused by the stigma associated with reporting, they are also a product of the fact that noone is watching systematically.  This means monitoring all acts of sexual violence not just in wartime, but in every place, every minute of every day.

Sara Davies

Human Protection Hub