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The humanitarian response


Despite the unprecedented attention dedicated to the problem, sexual violence still remains to a large extent a silent and hidden crime. Victims may be reluctant to come forward due to the fear of stigmatization or reprisals, but they may also face material barriers when seeking help: geographical distance from adequate medical infrastructure and the impact of conflict on health care, cost of transportation, absence of qualified personnel due to poor security conditions in the area, and so on.

Victims of sexual violence may find it difficult to report their experiences. This is why the ICRC has chosen to adopt a proactive approach, assuming that sexual violence occurs in armed conflict unless it can be proved otherwise by an in-depth assessment. This allows the ICRC to be prepared to take remedial actions and to work preventively wherever potential risks are identified and with all armed actors likely to be involved in violence.


Widespread sexual violence unfortunately remains a largely invisible phenomenon due to cultural taboos, feelings of shame or fear of retaliation. Its prevalence and its consequences are thus vastly underestimated. This is a serious challenge for those striving to provide effective humanitarian responses to the victims of sexual violence – women, girls, boys and men. Drawing on the experience and lessons learned of their organizations, high-level panellists recently participated in a conference debating the question of how to better respond to sexual violence in situations of conflict.

Sexual violence has long remained insufficiently addressed by humanitarian responders, often in view of their lack of expertise or their limited capacities when also faced with people’s immediate “visible” needs for food, water and/or shelter. Humanitarian organizations were sometimes reluctant to engage on this issue because of its highly sensitive nature and the risk of being perceived as interfering with local customs or religious beliefs. Nevertheless, over time an improved understanding of the consequences of sexual violence for victims has resulted in an enhanced ability to sensitize local communities, and consequently, to better protect and respond to the needs of the victims.

The relatively sudden and massive recent attention given to sexual violence in armed conflicts may also have unintended detrimental consequences. For example, Laura Heaton Laura Heaton, Reporter and writer based in East Africa Laura Heaton is an East Africa-based writer and reporter whose extensive field research throughout the region has focused primarily on conflict and human rights, humanitarian assistance, and women’s experiences in war. Her reporting has appeared in several magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Foreign Policy, National Geographic, and the Daily Telegraph. She is currently contributing to a book on the role of women’s leadership in the rebuilding of post-genocide Rwanda. questions the framing of the dominant narrative relating to sexual violence as a “weapon of war” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in her view, there is a risk that the instrumentalization of such discourse might obscure the broader picture and draw attention and resources away from key aspects of the problem.

A major finding from many studies on sexual violence is that it varies drastically in nature and severity depending on the context. These variations, as well as the victim’s own circumstances, will determine the nature and amount of support each person will need. If victims of sexual violence are to be effectively assisted and supported, it is essential to take into account their multiple needs and provide a response that respects their autonomy and dignity. Such a response may include the delivery of medical, mental health and psychosocial assistance, together with awareness-raising sessions with local communities, economic support to vulnerable victims, and dialogue with authorities to improve access to adequate support for victims, including legal measures, as well as to prevent violations from occurring.


In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), victims of sexual violence are often rejected by their communities and even their own families. They are so afraid of being stigmatized that they don’t tell anyone what has happened to them and don’t seek help. This can lead to serious psychological, social and medical consequences for both the individual and the community as a whole. The ICRC runs awareness-raising campaigns involving community leaders to try and prevent the rejection and stigmatization of victims of sexual violence.

Growing recognition of men and boys as victims of sexual violence has yet to be adequately reflected in policy and practice in the humanitarian, as well as law enforcement and military world.

Global response

At the global level, numerous initiatives have aimed at improving knowledge sharing among actors involved in the response to sexual violence. The June 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, for instance, gathered around 1,700 delegates and 123 country delegations. Trainings and guidelines on how to respond to sexual or gender-based violence, and how to better coordinate assistance, are now available to humanitarian practitioners.


Every day, ICRC staff see sexual violence in the places where we are striving to make a difference. We witness the effects of this silent crime on individuals, families and communities. Over the next four years, the ICRC is prioritizing an effective response to sexual violence. This is the speech that our president Peter Maurer made to the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict on 12 June 2014.

Humanitarian actors also know that their efforts will be futile if States do not act upon their primary responsibility in addressing the needs of victims and providing appropriate remedies for them and their families, in full compliance with their own obligations under international law. To this end, the ICRC is calling on States to honor their obligations under international law – specifically the obligation to respect and ensure respect for the absolute prohibition of rape and other acts of sexual violence under international humanitarian law (IHL) and to fulfill their obligation to prohibit sexual violence under international human rights law (IHRL).

In December 2015, the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent adopted a Resolution for joint action on prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. The resolution condemns SGBV in all circumstances, particularly in armed conflict, disasters and other emergencies. Furthermore, the resolution recognises that, while women and girls are disproportionately affected, men and boys can also be victims/survivors of SGBV. The resolution also recognises that SGBV is often invisible (because of taboos, stigma or fear of retribution that prevents victims/survivors from coming forward) and underlines that it is important to work towards the prevention and elimination of such violence and to prepare appropriate responses to address the needs of victims/survivors before specific incidents arise.