Oxfam welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Commission on Human Rights. This is a really important area of work, and one in which Oxfam is involved in a variety of ways. So Oxfam will provide two separate submissions covering different aspects of our work. This submission will focus on women’s rights abroad and preventing sexual violence in conflict, in particular the following questions:

  1. In which countries are women’s rights seriously under threat, and why?
  2. Where is sexual violence against women most acute in the world?
  3. Has the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) introduced by the Coalition Government been effective in supporting women?
  4. What should the Foreign and Commonwealth Office now be doing to promote women’s rights?

Countries where women’s rights are seriously under threat

No country has achieved gender equality and the realisation of women’s rights as laid out in the Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on Eliminating all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In different contexts, rising ideological fundamentalisms, conflict and humanitarian crises, climate change and extreme economic inequality affect and threaten the realisation of women’s rights in different ways.

The spread of armed violence is a particular concern, especially in protracted conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Such conflicts can create negative conditions – such as a diminished rule of law and the proliferation of arms – which in turn exacerbate existing threats and vulnerabilities while fostering a concomitant culture of impunity.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has experienced continuing violence and instability since the outbreak of the various uprisings in the Arab world since late 2010. This is threatening women’s rights in various ways:

Compounding existing inequalities - Before the current conflict, millions of women and girls in Yemen already faced a daily struggle to survive as well as deeply entrenched social and gender inequalities. Yemen was ranked last out of 142 countries in the 2014 Gender Gap Index (as it has been since 2009).58 Nearly 1.3 million young girls are out of school and 3.6 million girls need protection. In Yemen, young girls are particularly at risk of child marriage and Oxfam is seeing more cases. Parents unable to meet the basic needs of their families, see early marriage as a way to alleviate the economic pressure, and secure their children’s future. In recent assessments, women have told Oxfam that they have been increasingly unable to travel freely as the practice of mahram (being accompanied by a male relative) is now more strictly enforced. As a result of this and other restrictions on movement caused by the conflict, women say that opportunities to earn an income have been much reduced.

Forced migration – Many studies have shown that increased political instability and armed violence increases the vulnerability of women, who, in times of conflict and displacement, are disproportionately impacted by the disruption of livelihoods, access to resources, essential services and coping mechanisms. They are more likely than men to become subject to sexual and gender-based violence (GBV). Women and children make up 75 percent of Syrian refugees.59

Violence against women and girls - with the rise of conflict and insecurity in the MENA region since 2010, an increase of VAWG has been recorded.60Specifics include:

  • A study on women Syrian refugees in Lebanon61 found that overcrowding and lack of facilities contributed to gender-based violence in refugee communities.
  • In Jordan, 28 percent of the women refugee community have reported that they left Syria fearing violence, including sexual and gender-based violence. Almost all of them reported increased violence from their partners on arrival in Jordan.
  • There has been a systematic rise in sexual violence against girls and women in Iraq, especially among the Christian and Yezidi minorities aged between 8 and 35.
  •  A pattern of sexual violence, slavery, abduction and trafficking of women carried out by the extremist armed group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been recorded in Iraq. Of 105 girls and women who survived abduction by ISIL, 67% showed medical signs of having been raped.
  • From 2014 there has been an alarming increase in reports of sexual violence such as rape, slavery and forced marriage in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other countries in conflict.

Threats against women human rights defenders: Both women and men human rights defenders (HRD) face many risks, with women facing specific types of challenges and threats.67 Especially in Tunisia, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco, a trend has been recorded of physical abuse against women HRD and women working on gender issues.68

Women’s leadership and participation in decision making - MENA is ranked the lowest of all regions by the Social Watch Gender Equity Index, which measures the gap between men and women in terms of education as well as at the economic and political levels.69 MENA also has one of the lowest regional averages regarding women’s participation in Parliaments.

Where sexual violence is most acute

Sexual violence is a global phenomenon which affects 1 in 3 women worldwide. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of VAWG, and the home is often the most dangerous place for women. Sexual violence often increases and is systematised in conflict affected states.

In Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), VAWG has rising in recent years, with an increase in so-called honour killings by almost 50% from 2014 to 2015.71 AIHRC also reported that child marriage in Afghanistan has been increasing in the last three years. Deterioration of the security situation is impacting on women rights. For example, the fall of Kunduz province to Taliban forces has resulted in major crimes and VAWG, including rape and torture.72

With the rise of conflict and insecurity in the MENA region, an increase of VAWG has been recorded.73 Research has shown a systemic correlation between the rise in sexual violence in conflict and the prevalence of GBV as well as women’s exclusion from politics.74 There is a trend of armed groups using sexual violence as a terror tactic. It has been reported that sexual violence is closely related to the aims and ideology of extremists: spreading fear, increasing revenue through selling girls and women, and increasing religious conversions through forced marriages.75

It is difficult to obtain valid data on sexual violence in conflict. The various reasons for this include fear, insecurity and lack of ‘normal’ security and justice protection and reporting mechanisms which lead to mass underreporting,76 lack of adequate services for women and girls, and challenges in data collection.

Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) and its effectiveness

PSVI has been successful in raising awareness of the issue of sexual violence in conflict and pushing it higher up the UK and international agenda. This is particularly evident in the UK leadership shown hosting the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2014, in which 1,700 delegates and 123 country delegations, including 79 ministers, took part. The PSVI has focused on tackling the culture of impunity for the crimes through prosecution and comprehensive justice for survivors.

A comprehensive analysis of impacts is difficult, however, partly because of a lack of effective and transparent, monitoring and reporting mechanisms including communicating information about PSVI to women’s rights groups in developing countries. Further efforts are needed to translate commitments into action for women and girls using locally-tailored approaches. There is a need for a more comprehensive and holistic approach that addresses the root causes of all types of GBV and VAWG (as identified in DFID’s Theory of Change) and maximises prevention. It would be more effective if accompanied by a cross-government approach, which focuses on preventing sexual and GBV over the longer term and ensures survivors have access to services in conflict affected countries. The current focus on combatant-perpetrated sexual violence also overlooks the rise of other forms of VAWG during and after conflict.

As part of this more holistic and coordinated approach, PSVI should be integrated into the UK National Action Plan (NAP) for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This should include ensuring that all UK embassies and country offices in fragile and conflict-affected countries have dedicated capacity (e.g. Women, Peace and Security leads/desk officers and training programmes in addition to funding) as well as in diplomatic missions to regional and global institutions.

Foreign office role to promote women’s rights

Working with DFID, MoD and other UK government departments as appropriate, as well as the United Nations and relevant Member States where necessary, the FCO should address the following issues including by leading or supporting the implementation of the recommendations below.

Participation: Ensure women’s roles and demands are effectively integrated into all international, regional and national peace and security processes, events and institutions in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions framing the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Leading by example, the government should ensure no that UK- hosted peace and security events and processes take place without facilitating women’s effective participation, including consultation on the design and agenda of events. Women representing communities should be enabled to participate meaningfully at all levels.

Preventing conflict and gender-based violence : Increase comprehensive efforts to prevent conflict, supported by systematic gender analysis and the promotion of gender equality, that place a greater focus on root causes of conflict such as social and economic inequalities, inequitable access to basic services and resources, climate change impacts, poor governance and accountability, and militarism.

Pursue greater, more holistic efforts to prevent gender-based violence with more attention and resources to address underlying causes of gender-based violence and gender inequality, increased support for the recruitment, retention and capacity of women in security services, and tackling impunity by consistently and visibly holding to account all perpetrators of gender- based violence.

Ensure stricter adherence to the UK’s legal obligations under Article 7 (4) of the Arms Trade Treaty and other commitments that require analysis and avoidance of risks to the safety of women and children, and act swiftly to prevent the sale of UK-made arms and ammunition where there is a risk of their use in violations of international humanitarian law or violence against women and children. Similarly, in line with UN SCR 2242 and other commitments, the UK should ensure its strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism analyse and mitigate their impacts on women and girls.

Ensure the issue of human rights features prominently in UK diplomacy at international and country level with specific attention to gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and support for women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Monitoring and implementation: Improve reporting, monitoring and implementation of the UK NAP for implementing UNSCR 1325, including an integrated PSVI, by establishing formal mechanisms to engage women’s rights groups and civil society experts in relevant planning and review processes. There should be regular, transparent reporting of progress through parliamentary statements, public briefings and publications, as well as mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation of results with clear indicators and timeframes.

Financing and resources: Substantially increase funding in support of Women, Peace and Security and related efforts to address gender inequality and violence against women and girls, based on the 2015 UN Global Study recommendation that 15 percent of development aid to crisis contexts is allocated to address women’s needs and gender equality, and ensuring that by 2020 at least 15 percent of peace and security spending principally targets gender equality (in line with UN peacebuilding targets). As part of this, donors should commit to multi- year, core funding and sizeable grants for women’s organizations on the frontline of efforts to support the rights of women and girls.