Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, communities across Africa have reported escalating hostilities. These have correlated with an increase in sexual violence against civilians – particularly where peace operations are deployed.
In 2014, the African Union Commission (AUC) and the United Nations (UN) Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC) signed a joint framework to address conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in Africa where peace operations are deployed. Since then, the SRSG-SVC has made great strides in responding to CRSV, which includes a further eight joint frameworks between states and regional organisations.
According to the UN 2020 Factsheet, countries across Africa reported the highest number of CRSV cases worldwide. The scale and prevalence of such crimes are often not sufficiently documented due to societal barriers that have bred chronic underreporting. Efforts have been made by peace operations in Africa to create reporting accessibility and support structures for victims. Yet to address CRSV, conflict-affected areas often require a flexible, comprehensive and multi-faceted response – particularly due to the changing nature of conflict.
Efforts have been made by peace operations in Africa to create reporting accessibility and support structures for victims.
For peace operations in Africa, response mechanisms to sexual violence need to adapt by improving mechanisms and stations to report offenses, enhancing knowledge of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) through education and awareness campaigns, and improving healthcare for civilians and victims. Additionally, access to judiciary systems should be strengthened for victims to resolve reported cases, and addressing the needs of those offended should be prioritised.
The UN 2020 factsheet on CRSV further reported that 2 542 cases of CRSV were filed globally, which included cases from Mali, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC alone accounted for 40% of the cases, whilst in Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and CAR, reported cases implicated members of state defence and security forces.
The majority of CRSV victims were perceived by perpetrators as belonging to a particular political, ethnic or religious group, or were targeted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In some cases, victims were often further persecuted by members of their community. An example would be the ongoing mistreatment of mothers whose children had been conceived through rape, or the societal exclusion of men who had been victims of sexual violence and who are no longer viewed as protectors.
These cases have put a spotlight on the lack of public service accessibility for civilians, particularly those based in rural and remote areas, which include reporting stations for victims of SGBV. The presence of COVID-19 has also impaired the availability of such services. This has limited what governments and peace operations can address and attend to, and has further exacerbated the conflict environment.
It has become mandatory for peace operations to ensure the protection of civilians in host states. However, the need to respond to COVID-19 and its restrictions have limited civilian mobility and access to services. The pandemic has also limited the capability and services offered by the peace operations, thereby compounding existing structural, institutional and socio-cultural barriers.
The pandemic has also limited the capability and services offered by the peace operations, thereby compounding existing barriers.
In the DRC over the last year, the United Nations mission there (MONUSCO) has been confronted by rising political tensions in the coalition government and increasing violence in the east, which has affected the humanitarian situation. This includes a surge in displacement in Ituri, severe flooding across several eastern provinces and the re-emergence of the Ebola virus.
While peace operations may be a symbol of hope and stability for most civilians, restrictions and regulations around COVID-19 have had a significant impact on operations. Due to the pandemic, peace operations lack strategic movement, personal protective equipment and rotational staff to re-energise a mission and its operations. This in turn affects the reputation of the mission and its trust relationship with civilians. While nothing could have prepared the UN or the AU for the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related need to expand services and resources, most conflict-affected states managed to contain the challenges associated with COVID-19. This indicates that delicate and hard-won gains in these states played a role in combating conflict. However, this also indicates the need for peace operations to further recommit themselves to the host states and increase their presence by extending their mandates.
The nexus between COVID-19 and conflict has profoundly affected the health, livelihoods and physical wellbeing of women, men, youth and children.
The nexus between COVID-19 and conflict has profoundly affected the health, livelihoods and physical wellbeing of women, men, youth and children. Due to the severity of CRSV on women and girls in conflict-affected areas, the UN Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda addresses sexual violence in seven of its nine resolutions. Similarly, the AU has established the WPS Continental Results Framework to monitor and report on the African WPS Agenda to protect women and girls from violence, including sexual and gender-based violence.
To further ensure that state structures respond to SGBV, 23 African states adopted national action plans on WPS. These include the DRC, Mali, South Sudan and CAR. While CRSV is primarily thought to affect women and girls, boys and men also require protection from this form of violence. The complex nature of such cases, including the victimisation of boys and men, has been highlighted by the UN as a point of concern.
Peace operations have been spread thin and, in certain areas, have reduced their footprint to prevent the spread of the virus, which has greatly reduced their capacity to deter violence.
Peace operations are deployed in war-stricken or unstable environments, which pave the way for war-crime impunities such as CRSV. The presence of COVID-19 has exacerbated or further complicated conditions in these unstable environments. Peace operations have been spread thin and, in certain areas, have reduced their footprint to prevent the spread of the virus, which has greatly reduced their capacity to deter violence. Such circumstances require adaptable and multi-faceted approaches that explore shared ownership among local representatives, civil society, governments, peace operations and the international community for a comprehensive and holistic approach to address CRSV. Cultivating shared ownership may also give rise to innovative solutions, particularly in the context of COVID-19.
Wandile Langa is a Programme Manager at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, and works, among others, on the TfP programme.