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Accountability for women and girls in humanitarian settings

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13 July 2020

44th session of the Human Rights Council

Statement by Nada Al- Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

13 July 2020

Madam President,
Excellencies, Colleagues,

This Council has increasingly addressed aspects of women’s and girls’ rights in the context of humanitarian settings – from sexual and gender-based violence, to maternal health, to child, early and forced marriage. Today we have an opportunity to identify common threads across all these areas, focusing on addressing the critical vulnerabilities and needs of those caught up in humanitarian crises.

Crises around the world have become increasingly protracted and complex – both for humanitarian actors, and for the people affected by them. Last year UNFPA estimated that 35 million women and girls aged 15–49 require humanitarian assistance for reasons related to conflict and natural disasters – and we know that this number is likely to grow. The compounded impact of climate change, COVID-19 and conflict mean that more than 200 million people may need humanitarian assistance by 2022, if the current trend continue.

While conflicts and disasters have deep negative impacts on all affected people, women and girls – already burdened by wide-ranging discrimination – often face heightened vulnerability and even deeper discrimination. Experience demonstrates that insecurity and displacement fuel increases in sexual and gender-based violence, as well as other crimes and human rights violations such as child, early and forced marriages or denial of access to sexual and reproductive health services.

COVID-19 has generated additional hardships for women and girls. And at the same time, disintegrating judicial systems, corruption, discrimination against the displaced, fear of reprisals, and the stigma often associated with gender-based violations all prevent women and girls from seeking protection, vital services, justice and redress.

In the rare cases where accountability mechanisms still function, their focus tends to be on a narrow conception of justice limited to the identification and punishment of perpetrators of crimes such as sexual violence, without consideration to preventing or eradicating the continuum of human rights violations suffered by women and girls. The adoption of specific laws and policies, as well as addressing the root causes of the lack of accountability for women and girls are most important to provide adequate safeguards to protect them in humanitarian settings.

This Council has emphasized that even in crisis situations, a broad vision of human rights-based accountability is essential. Our urgent task today is to consider how accountability mechanisms – beyond criminal prosecution – can be responsive to the range of such abuses faced by women and girls in these settings, and how to restore their full equality and rights in dignity.

To achieve this, we need to see inclusive processes that focus on the voices and needs of women and girls, with corrective action to address the consequences of the violations and to prevent further violations from taking place.

Human rights investigations, including those conducted by investigative bodies established by this Council, are a vital step towards accountability for individual violations – and also, crucially for the systemic issues that enable these violations to persist. Recent years have seen progress in ensuring that these investigations integrate a gender perspective and make sure that we are paying greater attention to all such violations.

  • For example, last year, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar documented intersecting rights violations against Rohingya women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence. It also found a backdrop of wide-ranging gender inequality and the denial of freedom of movement, as well as access to education, basic health care and other economic and social rights.
  • In Venezuela, in 2019, our Office documented limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, with zero contraceptives available in several cities, alongside severe restrictions on abortion. The resulting high rates of teen pregnancies have been a major factor driving many girls to leave school, while preventable maternal mortality is also increasing – with an estimated 1 in 5 maternal deaths linked to unsafe abortions.
  • In South Sudan, we recently took an in-depth look at the adequacy of health care available for victims of sexual violence. On average, we found only one health facility per 10,000 people, and many did not have enough qualified personnel to treat the survivors of sexual violence. As a result, victims may only seek assistance when they develop serious medical conditions and, of course, stigmatization forces many to continue to suffer in silence.

These investigations highlight the importance of understanding this full continuum of violations which women and girls suffer in these contexts. If they survive sexual violence and other abuses, they should see those crimes investigated and punished. In addition they should have access to comprehensive health services, including obstetric and antenatal care for pregnant women, and access to contraception and safe abortion, as and when needed.

Although the State is primarily responsible for supporting justice and services, ensuring these and other services in humanitarian settings requires coordinated engagement by many actors, including regionally and globally. Their responsibility for upholding the dignity and rights of women and girls who have suffered must be acknowledged and acted upon in order to ensure that no-one is left behind. On the United Nations front, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has issued guidance for integrating gender-based violence in humanitarian responses and also on identifying and mitigating gender-based violence risks within the COVID-19 response. These are jus two examples of how we have tried to uphold these rights. 

Respectful and attentive dialogue with women and girls, by all national authorities and other actors –, is critical to this effort, with culturally sensitive mechanisms where they can safely voice their concerns.

We must dedicate our attention to these issues as an urgent priority. For millions of people, humanitarian settings have, tragically, become decades long. Without explicit action to ensure the rights of women and girls in these contexts, our collective promise to “leave no one behind” will ring hollow. Let us use the opportunity of today’s discussion to reaffirm our commitment to their rights, to our common future based on those rights and to the sustainable development outcomes that we have together pledged to achieve.

Thank you


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