Event Highlight

IGP Addresses Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

By Katherine Noel
Posted Feb 16 2024
Sandberg IGP panel
L-R: Hala Al-Karib and Oleksandra Matviichuk (via videolink); Jeffrey Gettleman, Sheryl Sandberg. [ all photos / Shahar Azran]


“We have seen an epidemic, an alarming epidemic of gender-based violence as a weapon of war,” said Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, chair of the IGP Faculty Advisory Board. “This should be viewed as the global problem that it is, but sadly it is nothing new.”

Clinton’s remarks came at a February 9 discussion, sponsored by SIPA’s Institute of Global Politics, about preventing and addressing conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) around the world. The event, cohosted with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS), convened leading experts, scholars, policymakers, and activists to discuss the use of rape, torture, and other forms of gender-based violence in armed conflicts — and the policies and international frameworks that can help counter it.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed a forum on conflict-related sexual violence.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield gave keynote remarks.

“Sexual violence continues to terrorize predominantly women and girls in conflicts raging around the globe,” said Melanne Verveer, former US ambassador for global women’s issues and executive director of GIWPS. “Sexual violence in conflict is one of the most widespread and persistent human rights abuses, stemming from deeply rooted notions of women’s unequal status.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, spoke in her keynote address about visiting a refugee camp in Adré, Chad, last fall, where she met with women and children who had fled from sexual violence in bordering Sudan.

“I know that for every story of conflict-related violence that gets told, there are so many more that we never, ever hear,” said Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. “Stories of girls being kidnapped from the streets as they walked to school in Khartoum, of women being handcuffed to the backs of trucks and transported to Darfur.”

The event included three panel discussions, the first of which focused on the role of evidence-based research to help policymakers understand the complex issue of CRSV in order to strengthen the international legal frameworks in place to hold perpetrators accountable. The second panel welcomed US and UK government representatives for discussion of progress made on addressing CRSV through policy measures, including sanctions and funding. The final panel brought together activists and a journalist to talk about the key role that accountability and justice plays in addressing and preventing conflict-related sexual violence.

Nordaas Orentlicher Panel
L-R: Diane Orentlicher, Ragnhild Nordaas, Yasmine Ergas

Ragnhild Nordaas, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan and senior researcher at the Peace Institute in Oslo, defined CRSV as “sexual violence perpetrated by the armed organizations involved in a conflict” — a group that she said could include state militaries, pro-government militias, or rebel organizations.

Nordaas explained that CRSV can take other forms besides rape, including sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, and torture.

While international human rights treaties and international criminal law — the two principal legal frameworks for addressing CRSV — sometimes fall short, prosecutions are symbolically important for victims of CRSV, said Diane Orentlicher, a professor of international law at American University. She said we need to “do a better job” integrating the urgent medical, psychological, and economic integration needs of victims into the process.

According to Geeta Rao Gupta, US ambassador at large for global women’s issues, the greatest challenge is the scale of the problem, given that the world currently faces the highest number of conflicts since World War II. She also spoke up about the need to integrate gender inequality into other work being done to forecast and prevent violence, as the phenomenon of CRSV is often an “early warning sign” of other atrocities. 

I know that for every story of conflict-related violence that gets told, there are so many more that we never, ever hear. 

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Gupta also stressed the need to focus on prevention, not just response, as a core pillar of CRSV programming and policy, and said more emphasis must be placed on identifying and addressing the root causes of gender inequality in fragile countries more likely to be conflict-afflicted. “There’s evidence to show this, that countries that are more unequal in terms of access to resources and opportunities for men as compared to women, are more likely to enter into conflict,” said Ambassador Gupta.

Rachel Vogelstein, a special assistant to President Biden who is deputy director of the White House Gender Policy Council, highlighted the administration’s efforts devoted to preventative action, including the Safe from the Start initiative, a humanitarian initiative focused on gender-based violence prevention; a $10 million investment in documentation of sexual violence and conflict; and a 2022 presidential memorandum to promote accountability for CRSV.

“It really strengthened the standard under which the United States could impose consequences — sanctions, visa restrictions — on perpetrators of this crime,” Vogelstein said of the memorandum. “And that has been a really important tool for us to move from condemnation to imposition of consequences.”

Panelists dispelled the common narrative that CRSV is an inevitable byproduct of war, noting that not all wars are associated with mass rape or other forms of sexual violence and that the decision not to deploy such tools is a strategic one by combatants.

Verveer Gupta Vogelstein
L-R: Rachel Vogelstein, Ambassador Geeta Rao Gupta; Ambassador Melanne Verveer. Not pictured: Lord Tariq Ahmad.

In the final panel, Sheryl Sandberg, the former Meta COO who has worked to raise the profile of this issue, moderated a conversation on justice and accountability for CRSV with the Ukrainian lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk, who leads a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization in Kyiv, New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman, and Hala Al-Karib, regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA).

Gettleman, who interviewed 200 people in Israel in reporting on accounts of sexual violence committed by Hamas on October 7, said the role of the media is not just to gather information but also to make readers, and policymakers, care. He observed — and Matviichuk, who heads the Ukraine-based Center for Civil Liberties, agreed — that it is challenging when survivors are unwilling to come forward with information about sexual violence.

Speaking about her experience documenting crimes of sexual violence in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine, Matviichuk described how survivors don’t report the crimes to police due to the shame associated with rape.

“Russian soldiers use sexual violence as a weapon in this war,” said Matviichuk. Among survivors, she said, “The synergy of... feelings like shame, guilt, and fear weakens social connection and makes it easier for Russian soldiers to establish control over occupied territories [and] local communities.”

In response to protestors who interrupted the event at one point, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield noted that “there are a lot of emotions – a lot of emotions about all of these issues. Please be assured that there is no issue that’s related to sexual violence — violence anywhere in the world, that we’re not concerned about and we’re not working on every single day.”

Watch the complete discussion: