5 Ways that Arms Control and Disarmament can help to prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict
By Hana Salama
On 7th March, the Security Council will host an Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), this time looking forward to the agenda’s 25th anniversary. Although women’s participation in peace and political processes has progressed, persistent challenges remain. For example, sexual violence in conflict was first addressed in Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), yet it continues to be widespread and systematic in many conflicts. In fact, 3,293 cases of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) across 18 countries were reported by the UN in 2021, with 97% of these cases affecting women and girls as victims and/or survivors. This is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, due to challenges in reporting these incidents.
Sexual violence is rooted in structural gender inequalities, which are prevalent in most societies. Why sexual violence occurs in conflict is a complex question. The answers can be found in multiple factors, often linked to the conflict itself. As we mark the first-ever International Day for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Awareness on 5th March, it is important to look at the gendered implications of the proliferation of weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons (SALW).
While systematic data collection about sexual violence in conflict remains challenging, there is some evidence of a connection between sexual violence and weapons. For example, in 2020, the non-governmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières reported that out of 10,810 survivors of sexual violence treated in its facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “more than 60% were attacked by aggressors bearing weapons.” Insecurity Insight, an organization which monitors sexual violence incidents in conflict, noted that out of 91 incidents recorded in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between January 2021 and May 2022, over 80% of them involved the presence of a firearm. In Ukraine, a Save the Children report indicated increased domestic violence (mainly directed at women) in families living along the contact line since the start of the 2014 conflict. Survivors noted that “the violence seemed to be taking on more violent and severe forms due to the ease of access to weapons.”
Even if weapons are not used in the act, their presence can intimidate individuals and groups of victims. Not only are these weapons used to threaten, coerce, injure and kill victims of sexual violence during a conflict, but the proliferation of these weapons also contributes to the escalation of the conflict violence, a UNIDIR report notes. This, in turn, continues to propagate the conditions that exacerbate sexual violence.
UNIDIR’s ongoing research has identified five ways in where arms control and disarmament can play a role in preventing sexual violence and strengthen the Prevention and Protection pillars of WPS:
1. Arms Control treaties and instruments
Among other treaties and instruments, better and more transparent implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) can support the prevention of sexual violence. By conducting assessments on the risk that weapons could be used in CRSV, before approving an arms transfer, exporting states can contribute to the prevention of sexual violence even before a conflict occurs.
2. Reporting on weapons
When monitoring CRSV incidents, prevention actors, such as the UN or humanitarian agencies, should systematically record the use or presence of a weapon during an incident. This could contribute to better early warning, trigger preventative action, and inform different protection strategies such as setting up protection sites, weapon-free zones, or protective patrols, which in specific contexts, such as in South Sudan, have led to a reduction of incidents of sexual violence.
3. Arms Embargoes
Sanction regimes should ensure that the Panel of Experts monitoring these sanctions have gender and CRSV expertise. A study by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security argues that by applying targeted arms embargoes as part of sanctions against known perpetrators of CRSV, this can reduce the risk of sexual violence committed with weapons during a conflict.
4. Weapons collection
Including the participation of women’s groups, survivor groups and civil society in weapons collection programmes is crucial to ensuring that weapons collection initiatives are far reaching and respond to these needs of the various groups. Weapons collection programmes as part of disarmament processes are an effective way to reduce weapons availability and can further contribute to prevention by including CRSV prevention messaging as part of the process.
5. Weapons and ammunition management (WAM)
Implementing gender-responsive approaches to Weapons and Ammunition Management (WAM) in the context of both Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR) could play a role in preventing the reoccurrence of sexual violence as societies transitions out of conflict.
Although Member States and the UN have recognized that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) is among the factors fueling systematic and widespread sexual violence in conflict. UNIDIR’s research show that, in addition to acknowledging the problem, more can be done to tackle weapons proliferation and prevent sexual violence in conflict. As we take stock of 25 years of WPS, addressing the upward trends in militarization, including through arms control and disarmament, will be a key aspect not only to address issues such as sexual violence in conflict but also to realize the broader goals of the Women, Peace and Security agenda for the next 25 years.
Hana Salama is a Gender and Disarmament Researcher at The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)