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The human cost


The human cost of sexual violence has different dimensions. Not only does it affect the health of victims, but it can also have severe social consequences. Victims of sexual violence in specific contexts or settings, such as detention, may have particular vulnerabilities.

The consequences of sexual violence can include severe and long-term effects not only on an individual’s physical health (including injuries, the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or developing unwanted pregnancies), but also on their mental health.

The social consequences of sexual violence may also be dramatic, forcing victims into isolation due to the shame and stigma which are too often associated with such violence, but also due to the fear of rejection or reprisals. With all familial and social links broken, some victims are also left with no means of subsistence: most of the testimonies indicate that one of the most urgent and important challenges that victims faced after the attack was economic survival for themselves and their family.


The story of a woman who was a victim of sexual violence in Nariño department, one of the regions of Colombia where the armed conflict has taken its heaviest toll. In 2013, the International ICRC helped 147 victims of sexual violence deal with their experiences by paying for their medical and psychological care and advising them on how to claim compensation.

When I go to bed and I remember what happened, I get up, walk around, realize what is happening and say no, just keep moving forward.

- The voice of M.M.

You can’t imagine what it’s like to stand in front of someone and say you’ve been raped. I thought everyone knew what had happened so I tried to hide.

- I. L., one of the persons who has testified anonymously to the ICRC.


The ICRC is drawing attention to the horror of sexual violence, which is amplified during times of conflict. Many suffer in silence. Deputy director of operations Pascale Meige is calling for a new humanitarian approach.

Victims of sexual violence in detention face particular vulnerabilities, due to their living environment, and have particular needs. Detention places are, by their very essence, coercive environments where the notion of consent cannot be understood in isolation from the relationship of authority between those with power (be they guards or detainees) and those without. The powerful can, often unchallenged by outside oversight, impose formal and informal rules and regulations. Moreover, the scarcity which is a feature of even the best-run detention environment may lead detainees to engage in acts of a sexual nature in order to access basic goods or services, such as food, water and health care. Sex is further used in detention to pay debts, to gain access to means of communication and to obtain protection. As a result, in detention what may seem to be consensual sex is often far from it, and acts of sexual violence may not be perceived as such. By virtue of its mandate, the ICRC comes face-to-face with different manifestations of sexual violence in detention and aims to develop a multidisciplinary approach to securing detainees’ safety from sexual violence. This includes combating torture and other forms of ill-treatment, but also ensuring acceptable conditions of detention and equitable access to food, water, health services, and so on. It also includes supporting better management and oversight, restoration and maintenance of family contacts, and respect for legal safeguards.