November 14, 2023
In today's global violent armed conflicts and violent spaces of insecurity, women are among the most vulnerable and adversely impacted people in our societies including in Ukraine, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, and other hotspots around the world.

According to the United Nations, 600 million women and girls were living in countries affected by conflict – a 50 per cent increase since 2017. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports the highest rates of maternal deaths occur in 10 countries that either are at war today or have recently emerged from war. The reality is that women and children bear the brunt of war and conflicts and constitute the majority of all non-combatant civilian casualties.  Many women also suffer great health hazards in these environments, including having low-birth-weight babies, miscarriages, and increased susceptibility to sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., HIV/AIDS, syphilis, or human papillomavirus which increases the chances of cervical and other cancers).

Women are not only more likely to be terrorized -- killed, tortured, raped or sexually exploited – but also to be exploited as a psychological “weapon of war”. For example, such atrocities and war crimes leave lasting mental and physical scars on survivors that lead to increased levels of trauma and further disruption of the family structure, family livelihood, and social integration in impacted communities during conflicts.
In the past decades we have seen Iraqi soldiers rape Kuwaiti women during their short-lived invasion in 1990. Similar sexual violence has occurred in Bosnia, Rwanda, and other conflicts throughout our recent history.

Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) abducted Yezidi women and forcibly converted them to Islam, sold them as sex slaves, and traded women among terrorists as chattel. As we witnessed in the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict, terrorist groups such as Hamas will also kidnap women and children as hostages to negotiate grievances as an extension of war.  In Gaza, too many innocent civilians especially women and children have been killed by Israeli bombings.

In some parts of the world, women and children are often recruited and used in human trafficking illicit enterprises in armed conflicts or by criminal organizations profiting from instability. For example, as a consequence of Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine, the UNODC has estimated that there is at least a 5% increase in Ukrainian human trafficking victims in 2023.  Far from the front lines, internet searches for sexual content featuring Ukrainian women have risen 600% since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. “Ukraine refugee porn” has become a trending search term across the internet. According to the Washington Post in February 2023, one sexual services website, Escort-Ireland,  reported a 250 percent spike in its traffic, including Ukrainian women advertising their availability, within weeks of the invasion. According to the OSCE, the site claimed to offer users a way to live out their “war-inspired fantasies.”

In South Sudan, violence against civilians and conflict related sexual violence by armed militias continue to rise, including trafficking in persons, particularly against women and children.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ongoing conflict has displaced more than 1 million people since March 2022, with thousands of women and children exploited by organized sex trafficking operations.
Women and girls are also not safe in refugee camps where they constitute about 80 percent of all displaced people and refugees worldwide.  A report by the UN finds that an estimated 1 in 5 female refugees living in humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence. Unfortunately, UN peacekeepers too have been found to conduct gender-based violent crimes in refugee camps against women and children. Sextortion related to the currency of corruption is also a challenge, with police forces complicit in the abuse of women’s human rights.

Seven in ten human trafficking victims are women and girls, many of whom also encounter high rates of physical and sexual violence from their criminal exploiters. Criminal groups and gangs continue to traffick, exploit, and extort people in many parts of the world as they flee and move from their home country to another for humanitarian reasons or for political asylum. As many families leave their countries due to persecution, conflict, criminal violence, or economic conditions, women and girls are often kidnapped, enslaved, raped, tortured, and murdered as witnessed in Mexico and Central America for many years.

Make no mistake - power differentials impact the poor, women, and other vulnerable groups. Women’s disempowerment in society, shaped by factors like socioeconomic inequalities, cultural norms, and other causes, makes women disproportionately more vulnerable to conflicts, violent crime, and corruption.

An estimated 70 percent of the world’s poor are women. The lack of transparency, mismanagement of public services, and corruption all constitute enormous obstacles for women trying to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. These obstacles impede access to or degrade the quality of services like health, education, and public safety, thereby restricting avenues for social mobility.

A Diplomatic Necessity: Inclusion of Women at the Peace Negotiating Table
Another stark reality is that historically, women have been left out of peace talks and conflict prevention despite data showing a substantially higher degree of success for enduring peace negotiated by women.  This is why UNA-NCA unequivocally supports UN Security Council Res. 1325, especially as the international community also celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In trying to build a new era of lasting global peace and security, we must work across borders and societies to ensure that we add more legal protections and measures to prevent the disproportionate effects of war and conflicts on women and children. 

We too must promote the equal participation of women in conflict prevention, negotiating the peace, and security peacekeeping operations.  According the UN Secretary General António Guterres, out of 18 peace agreements reached in 2022, “only one was signed or witnessed by a representative of a women’s group or organization”. Women also comprised just 16 per cent of negotiators or delegates at UN-led, or co-led, peace processes, said Guterres

Finally, we must also hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and gender-based violence during conflicts against women and children, including at the International Criminal Court.

David M. Luna
Co-Chair, Peace and Security Committee, UNANCA 
Former U.S. Diplomat and Executive Director, International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE)

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