June 5, 2024

Written by Uma Menon ’24.

On May 22, I attended a panel event of the United Nations Protection of Civilians Week titled “Advancing Gender-Transformative and Gender-Responsive Approaches in Protection Interventions Trafficking, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and Financial Exclusion” alongside Dr. Barbara Buckinx of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and a delegation of Princeton students. With armed conflict on the rise globally, the protection of civilians ought to be the primary focus of international institutions such as the UN. As Richard Arbeiter, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, noted during the event, there has been a 72% increase in civilian deaths resulting from armed conflict between 2022 and 2023. Yet, as panelists at this event highlighted, loss of life is not the only harm caused: conflict can also make civilians more vulnerable to modern slavery, human trafficking, and sexual violence.

Historically, women and girls have been the focus of efforts to prevent and mitigate conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) since they are disproportionately likely to be targeted. However, men, boys, and transgender individuals are also frequently targeted by CRSV, though there is very limited existing data on their experiences due to underreporting. Speakers discussed several causes for the severe underreporting of CRSV, especially for men and boys. In the words of United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, survivors are “shamed and silenced” by patriarchal gender norms and social stigma around discussions of sexual violence. Gender norms, toxic masculinity, and heteronormativity harm the ability of people of all genders to disclose their experiences of CRSV safely. Additionally, the criminalization of LGBTQI+ identity and same-sex relations in many countries instills fear that survivors who speak publicly about their experiences may be arrested and subject to criminal proceedings. In many conflict zones, healthcare services for CRSV survivors are severely limited due to lack of infrastructure, and they are often unavailable entirely to men and boys. Lack of social support and services can also discourage survivors from reporting.

How does conflict amplify the harms of trafficking and sexual violence?

As Vulnerable Populations Lead for the Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAST) Dr. Leona Vaughn stated, conflict, poverty, and financial exclusion are “known risk multipliers for modern slavery.” Crisis can strengthen pre-existing gender stereotypes. In times of conflict, boys are often expected to work or become child soldiers, exposing them to exploitation and CRSV. Additionally, individuals who are detained and displaced, especially in refugee and post-conflict camps, are extremely vulnerable to trafficking by armed groups. Because the rule of law has typically eroded during a crisis, traffickers enjoy significant impunity, making it difficult to prevent the proliferation of CRSV. Simply put, CRSV has emerged as “a weapon of war” that disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable.

How can we address these harms?

Speakers at the May 22 panel presented a variety of gender-transformative and gender-responsive approaches to addressing conflict-related sexual violence. 

  1. Strengthen monitoring and data collection: Limited existing data exists on the prevalence of CRSV, particularly that which targets men, boys, LGBTQI+ people, disabled individuals, and religious/ethnic minorities. Systematic data collection can be made possible by safe spaces where survivors feel comfortable disclosing their experiences.
  2. Lower the burden of proof for trafficking: In addition to the challenge of weak rule of law in conflict states, Amanuel Mehari of IOM argued that the complex definition of trafficking and high burden of proof in many jurisdictions make it difficult to prosecute perpetrators. Facilitating access to justice ought to be a priority to ensure accountability and prevent the proliferation of conflict.
  3. Promote financial inclusion: Conflict makes financial exclusion more likely, particularly when large shares of the population are engaged in informal labor. The financial services sector can play an important role in trafficking prevention by detecting and reporting suspicious transactions. As such, financial inclusion efforts can strengthen the rule of law and promote economic mobility in post-conflict societies.
  4. Coordinate approaches between countries of origin, transit, and destination: Given the vulnerability to trafficking that displaced individuals face, several speakers highlighted the importance between countries of origin, transit, and destination. Deputy Permanent Representative Arbeiter highlighted an initiative by the Canadian government that provides temporary residence permits to family violence survivors, as well as helplines and collaboration with civil society organizations, as examples of how destination countries may support CRSV survivors.
  5. Focus on long-term capacity building: As Dr. Toni Cela of Haiti’s Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED) noted, short-term humanitarian interventions can never be gender-transformative: long-term assistance and capacity building is necessary to educate societies and dismantle patriarchal and heteronormative structures.

These approaches indicate several areas of opportunity for the protection of civilians. International institutions must work to advance these recommendations so that civilians living in conflict zones are not subject to some of the worst violations of their human rights.

The workshop was organized by All Survivors Project and Finance against Slavery and Trafficking, United Nations University - Center for Policy Research and co-sponsored by the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination, Princeton University; UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children; UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially in Women and Children; UN Office on Drugs and Crime; UN Inter Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking (ICAT); Permanent Missions to the UN of Canada, Haiti, Liechtenstein, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium; and Plan International.

Uma Menon is a writer and human rights advocate from Winter Park, Florida. She is a 2024 graduate of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and she is now a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School.