The thing about a global crisis like COVID-19 is that people often think of it as a “great equalizer”, it affects the whole world and somehow makes everyone suffer equally. When people living in peaceful countries were hit by COVID-19, they thought that they finally experienced the suffering they always thought was reserved for people who live in less fortunate countries who experience this regularly. They could not be more wrong.
While, of course, COVID-19 hit all countries, and its impact on people’s health and livelihoods has been devastating, not everyone was affected equally. I’m not talking about the health infrastructure and available services that greatly differ from one country to another, of course plays a big role. I’m talking about the additional devastation brought on by a health crisis to an already devastated population living in war. The unspoken dangers of a global crisis are that it detracts from that awareness. And within that unmitigated disaster, lies an even more dangerous threat: sexual violence. This threat is all the more insidious as its danger comes from the fact that it’s silent and its victims helpless, not only due to a lack of support and services, but due to a lack of attention to their suffering. Imagine you are a girl, or woman, living in a war-torn country that is experiencing the effects of COVID-19. Now imagine you’re also experiencing sexual violence.
This crisis has only recently attracted worldwide attention following the global #metoo movement and the awarding of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to Yazidi activist and sexual violence survivor Nadia Murad, and Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege for his commitment in treating women who were raped by armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An attention that deserves real action, given its magnitude and consequences.
I think of sexual violence in many ways similar to a global pandemic like COVID-19 in that it targets women, girls, men and boys regardless of their age, nationality, gender, or ethnicity.
In Bangladesh, like in many other countries, sexual violence has been a recurring theme since the Independence war of 1971, which saw countless victims of this heinous and indefensible crime. Just like in all conflicts and wars, the number of victims of this appalling crime will likely never be accurately measured, as sexual violence is most often associated with feelings of shame by the individual and blame and rejection by families and communities. This impedes victims from reporting or disclosing what happened, afraid of retaliation and stigmatization. People who are exposed to sexual violence carry the mental and physical scars of their experience throughout their lives.
This is why it is essential to actively support victims of sexual violence. Health services, mental health support, and economic support are among the priority assistance needed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been on the frontline of providing support to victims of sexual violence in the aftermath of many crises. Everywhere in the world, we operate in conflict areas under the assumption that sexual violence is happening, regardless of whether or not we have concrete information about its prevalence.
This allows us to prepare an appropriate and quality response to the needs of survivors. This approach, called the reverse burden of proof, is key. Because of the silent nature of this threat, we consider that its invisibility does not imply its inexistence.
During COVID-19, the needs of sexual violence victims should remain on the forefront of humanitarian response. For this reason, ICRC continues to provide life-saving health services at community level, supporting health posts in the camps and in the emergency department of Cox’s Bazar hospital.
Other organizations are involved in supporting victims of sexual violence, and we ensure coordination with them. Our operations are survivor-centered. We work with survivors to provide support that responds to the needs that they express.
Bangladesh has committed to combating sexual violence by adopting a National Action Plan for the implementation of the international Women, Peace and Security Agenda last November. Bangladesh is among the biggest contributors to UN peace keeping missions in war zones. It is therefore paramount for Bangladesh to have in place mechanisms to prevent and respond to these crimes, as well as prosecute alleged violations committed within and outside the country.
We stand by Bangladesh to combat sexual violence in all its forms and to serve victims of this crime. We offer our support to improve peacekeepers’ ability to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. We also provide training to Law Enforcement Agencies which aims to promote the respect of International Law.
Most importantly, we stand with all victims of sexual violence and work incessantly to prevent these crimes from happening worldwide, in peace and war times and during COVID-19. But we need your help.
Today, on the International Day on the Elimination of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, and every day, we call upon you to speak out against this inhumane and preventable crime. Survivors of sexual violence must be heard and respected by all, as they are agents for change themselves and for their communities.
Adam Aboshahba is the Protection Coordinator of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bangladesh