Victim of sexual violence in conflict

International Community Must Take Stronger Steps to Implement Reparations for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Conflict 

By Lisa-Marie Rudi, Consultant Legal Officer 

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 19 June the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict to emphasise the need to put an end to such violence, to honour survivors around the world and to pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to standing up for the eradication of these crimes.  

Survivors of sexual violence often experience long-lasting harm, which includes physical injuries, psychological impacts and trauma, as well as stigma and shame. Many are ostracized by their communities, have lost their families, property and life plans, and live in situations of poverty and exclusion. Their relatives and communities can also be affected, with children and grandchildren often experiencing trauma and discriminations for decades.  

Given the seriousness of the harms inflicted on victims, a combination of transformative, individual and collective reparations measures is often essential in order to enable survivors to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, such measures are rarely granted, or their implementation is not enforced. Moreover, they are rarely designed in consultation with survivors themselves resulting in initiatives that do not fit their expectations and needs. 

This is why we must highlight the significance and potential of delivering reparations to survivors of such violence on this day. Reparations can help restore a sense of dignity and justice, address the profound consequences of sexual violence, and help break the cycle of gender-based discrimination.  

Obstacles to Implementation of Reparations  

Even though survivors of conflict-related violence have a right to receive adequate and prompt reparations, the reality is bleak. Most of them face numerous obstacles to see their rights implemented in practice. Justice processes can last many years and receiving reparations from the State or from the perpetrators can take a lifetime. Many survivors die before their harm is acknowledged and redressed.  

For decades, REDRESS has been working alongside survivors to enforce their right to gender-sensitive and survivor-centric reparations. Our own work representing and working with survivors of sexual violence in conflict illustrates some of the difficulties that survivors face in this regard.   

In Kenya, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence that took place in the post-election period in 2007-2008 have spent more than a decade trying to get an official recognition of the violations. These violations included rape, defilement, gang rape, forced pregnancy and other forms of violence in the case of women and girls. Men and boys were subjected to sodomy, forced circumcision and amputation of their genitals.  

In 2013, a group of eight survivors filed a constitutional petition at the High Court in Kenya with the assistance of IMLU, ICJ Kenya, COVAW and PHR. REDRESS intervened in the case as amicus curiae. In a landmark decision issued in December 2020 in the COVAW, IMLU et al. v Attorney-General of Kenya et al case, the High Court found the Kenyan government responsible for failure to protect, investigate and prosecute the violence against 4 of the survivors. The Court awarded approximately 37,000 USD (4 million KSH) in reparations in favour of each of the 4 petitioners in relation to which the Court found violations. It did not, however, find responsibility in relation to the other four victims (who had been attacked by private actors) as the Court did not find evidence of State involvement.  

This decision is emblematic in that it is the first time that the responsibility of the State is acknowledged for these events. Yet, victims now continue their struggle to see the reparations order implemented in practice and continue their fight for justice for those not acknowledged by the Court´s decision.    

In other cases, victims experience frustration and further revictimization as a consequence of the lack of political will of the State and apathy of the international community to enforce reparation awards. 

In Chad, five years after a historic judgment in Senegal against the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, victims of his brutal regime have not seen a cent of the $150 million court-ordered reparations (this includes civil party survivors of sexual violence who were accorded the highest amount of 37.000 USD each).  

The African Union was mandated to establish a Trust Fund to administer these reparations and, despite adopting the Fund’s statute in 2017 and allocating $5 million to it, has failed to operationalize it until today. Efforts on the domestic level have also stalled: the Chadian government and Habré-era security agents have yet to pay $139 million in reparations ordered by a Chadian court in 2015 when it convicted 20 of Habré’s accomplices on murder and torture charges. Despite a complaint filed with the African Commission against Chad for failure to implement the reparations judgment and numerous international calls on the African Union to establish the Trust Fund, survivors are still waiting to receive the reparations they are owed.  

Some of the same obstacles are also present in relation to reparation decisions issued at the international level. In 2017 the UN Human Rights Committee published a decision in which it agreed that a survivor who had been gang-raped in 2004 during Nepal’s internal armed conflict, was subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment and discrimination. It urged Nepal to conduct an investigation into the facts; to prosecute, try and punish those responsible, and to provide her with full reparation, including reimbursement for the medical expenses incurred. Until today Purna Maya’s case has not been investigated and, similar to the Chadian survivors, she has not received any reparations for harms suffered. Despite the fact that the events took place in 2004 Purna Maya is still waiting for urgent psycho-social and medical support.  

In Uganda, despite the approval of the National Transitional Justice Policy (NTJP) in 2019, female and male survivors of confict-related violence are still waiting for urgent interim measures and reparations from the government, more than 15 years after the end of the conflict. The NTJP was approved after a protracted process and its lack of implementation casts doubt on the government’s real commitment to addressing the suffering of survivors. 

As Elizabeth Adongo Ayonyo, a survivor of sexual violence during the conflict in Uganda told REDRESS during a victims’ forum: “My father was killed at my watch. My house was burnt. My husband died. I gave birth to a child. I was the only woman who participated in the digging of mass graves. We are traumatized, we’are stigmatized, so many things have been spoken about us. I really need help.”  

The described lack of implementation highlights a structural problem that requires the strongest response by States, donors and other stakeholders in the international community. Further efforts need to be made to study the reasons for this lack of implementation, to overcome the obstacles and to find creative alternatives to realise the right of survivors to reparations.  

Global Survivors Fund Project 

In this regard, REDRESS is currently partnering with the Global Survivors Fund on a new project involving a multi-country study which takes stock of the scope of sexual violence, the obstacles and opportunities in awarding reparations for victims in a number of countries, and makes recommendations on the way forward. The study includes a detailed analysis of key legal and practical obstacles in a variety of countries, including intersectional issues and challenges faced by survivors of conflict-related sexual violence with its main focus being on opportunities and the pathway to realise the survivors’ right to reparations. 

REDRESS is currently working on this study with Kdei Karuna in Cambodia and ATPDH in Chad, with other countries to follow in the future. One of the aims of the project is to produce a practitioner-focused tool to support efforts by all relevant stakeholders legally obliged or morally committed to restore the dignity of survivor of sexual violence in conflict through the implementation of effective reparations. 

On this International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict we reiterate our commitment to fight for the rights of survivors of such violence to access holistic and survivor-centered reparations measures. We call on States, donors, the international community and other relevant actors to reinforce their efforts to ensure that survivors get redress. This is the most important measure to provide relief for the harm done and contribute to the prevention of this type of violence in the future.  

Photo credit: Gwenn-Dubourthoumieu/IRIN