Masood Karimipour writes that terrorist groups who commit sexual and gender-based violence should be held accountable
It has been described as a global pandemic that destroys lives, fractures communities and holds back development. It is used as a weapon of war and terror, used to inflict suffering and instil fear in thousands of victims. Sexual and gender-based violence is not a pathogen, nor a bomb, yet it does devastate people and communities.
Sexual and gender-based violence affects an estimated one in three women worldwide. Men and boys can also be targets. Sexual and gender-based violence can be manifested in physical, sexual and psychological forms. It is defined as a harmful act directed against a person on the basis of their gender, and includes sexual acts inflicted against a person using coercion.
It is one of the most prevalent human rights violations taking place across the world, occurring in contexts of conflict, instability, and during peacetime, but is largely underreported due to a culture of impunity, stigma and shame that surrounds the crime in communities and families.
One of the worst manifestations of sexual and gender-based violence to emerge in recent years is its use to further the strategic and tactical objectives, ideology and funding of terrorist groups like Boko Haram. Terrorists have deliberately weaponised this form of violence to increase recruitment, terrorise populations into compliance, generate revenue through ransoms, and to serve operational purposes, with traumatised victims also being used as human shields and suicide bombers.
According to a 2017 report of the UN Secretary-General, Boko Haram is responsible for perpetrating widespread sexual violence against 7,000 women and girls between 2009 and 2017, including following abductions and forced marriage.
The Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin, adopted in 2018 by Nigeria and her neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger also acknowledges that “while violence against women and girls is a serious patriarchal and cultural issue, it has been even more pronounced throughout the conflict as women and girls are subjected to sexual abuses and harassment as a weapon of war”. It adds that, while gender-based violence is predominantly caused by Boko Haram, women and girls “are regrettably victims of abuses and harassment by security providers also. Upon their return into communities, they continue to live in trauma and stigma undermining their social and economic reintegration.”
The devastating impacts of sexual and gender-based violence used by terrorist groups on victims have been widely recognised and condemned by the international community. The UN Security Council and Secretary-General have called upon states to recognise victims of sexual violence committed by terrorist groups as victims of terrorism, and duly reflect this in domestic criminal law and victim assistance measures.
In Nigeria, UNODC in partnership with the Nigerian government, the European Union and the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate has been leading efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Nigerian criminal justice system to hold accountable members of terrorist groups who perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence and to support victims.
Through this project, UNODC supports Nigeria to ensure that individuals belonging to terrorist groups who commit sexual and gender-based violence are held accountable for these crimes and that the rights of victims are protected, through a three-pronged approach.
First, by building the capacity of criminal justice sector actors to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes through a thorough understanding of the applicable domestic legal frameworks, and key strategies to investigate and prosecute these crimes.
Second, by training women and men in the law enforcement, security and judicial systems to adopt gender-sensitive practices throughout the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of terrorism cases in order to protect victims’ rights, encourage reporting of these crimes, and prevent secondary victimisation by contact with the judicial system and stigmatisation by families or communities.
And third, by recognising the need to provide victims of sexual and gender-based violence with specific support, assistance and remedies. UNODC has been pushing for sexual and gender-based violence to be specifically addressed in the new Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Bill currently before the National Assembly.
Today UNODC and its partners are launching the ‘Nigeria Training Module on Gender Dimensions of Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism’, a training and reference resource tailored to the Nigerian context for criminal justice and security sector personnel, as well as policymakers. This publication, which was developed jointly by Nigerian and international experts, includes dedicated chapters on accountability for sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by terrorist groups, as well as access to justice and remedies for victims.
We hope that by building on the foundation of these initiatives, together with our Nigerian counterparts and our partners at the European Union, those who commit these terrible crimes will be brought to justice, that the voices of victims will be heard and respected, and that we can bring an end to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of terrorism.
Karimipour is Chief of the Terrorism Prevention Branch, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime