#WPSAdvice: Time to Act: Meeting Canada’s Commitments on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Annie Bodmer-Roy, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children Canada

It was in northern Mali in 2013 that I met Aissatou. She was 14 years old and at the end of her pregnancy when she had been forced to flee her home after the rebels entered her town. She later gave birth to her son while on the run. 

“The rebels went into the village and took girls. They were 15, 16, 17. They said they needed the girls to go prepare food for them. They took them into their cars and brought them into the bush. They left them in the bush after they were done raping them – but they beat them before leaving.”

Aissatou tells me how the girls were threatened with weapons and raped. “There were 20 men but only 16 girls – so some of the men shared the same girl between them.” One of Aissatou’s friends “was lucky; there was only one man who took her. Afterwards though, he hit her five times with a long rod before she managed to escape.”

Aissatou fled her town soon after – but the impact of these attacks, months later, in a different part of the country – has stayed with her. “Even now, even if I’m here, I can’t forget what happened. My head is full of these things – what happened to my friends, my family. “It’s not peaceful in my head.”    


Aissatou’s story is far from unique. Adolescent girls in conflict face enormous risks of sexual and gender-based violence. Yet they often lack dedicated services such as prevention, mitigation and response to gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health care, such as emergency obstetrics. 

Through Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, Canada has committed to addressing gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in humanitarian settings. These are welcome commitments and must be implemented in practice – including through adequate funding for programming that tackles gender-based violence faced by girls. 

In Canada’s recent statement  at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, Ambassador Jacqueline O’Neill emphasized the importance of inclusion and of funding in advancing the WPS agenda. “Where are the young people?”, she asked, while also highlighting Canada’s funding commitments for GBV and SRH.

Both points are critical. Girls and young women are essential to the successful implementation of the WPS agenda – and as such must be supported, including through efforts to ensure their safe and equal participation in humanitarian response and peace negotiations. Support must also include adequate funding to ensure their specific needs are met in conflict and fragility. Yet according to recent research from Save the Children in collaboration with the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action and the Child Protection Area of Responsibility, a mere 0.12% of all humanitarian aid goes to GBV against girls and boys – despite the fact that in some cases, up to 80% of those affected by GBV are children.  

So, our first piece of WPS advice to the new government? In following through on their platform commitment to increase Overseas Development Assistance, the new government must commit adequate and consistent funding to support a survivor-centered, gender-responsive and age appropriate approach to addressing SGBV, while also working at local level to prevent sexual violence in conflict. This would be a critical component of Canada’s gender-responsive humanitarian assistance policy, and must include providing redress and protection for survivors of sexual violence, access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and access to justice, including for often neglected groups such as adolescent and very young adolescent girls. 

Secondly, one measure to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict is accountability – a core component of the WPS agenda. In fulfilling its commitments under the National Action Plan, Canada must build on efforts to push for accountability for sexual violence – ensuring these efforts are both gender and age sensitive. Specifically, Canada must support efforts to ensure that legal and judicial investigators and prosecutions are fully equipped with both gender-sensitive and child-specific expertise, as well as training for gathering data and working with survivors and witnesses of sexual violence. To ensure inclusivity, this includes ensuring dedicated training and funding to help build the necessary knowledge, technical expertise, resources and confidence to support national and international justice systems to more systematically investigate and prosecute sexual violence crimes against or otherwise involving both girls and women, ensuring girls are not left out because of their age. 

Finally, and in line with the ambitions set forth in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada must support local and international actors to design and advocate for gender transformative interventions to empower women and girls, along with other marginalized communities, and respond to the root causes of sexual violence, including power imbalances resulting from gender inequality. This must be done in peace time as well as conflict in order to reduce the impact of gender inequalities that will inexorably worsen in conflict situations – including sexual violence. It must also be done in conjunction with organisations using a transformative approach, including local women’s rights organizations, LGBT rights organizations, disability rights organizations and others. Such an approach explicitly recognizes a truth we must never forget: the root cause of sexual violence is gender inequality. If we want to end sexual violence in conflict, we must keep our focus on shifting harmful gender norms, in peace and in conflict. 

If Canada is to follow through on its commitments, the time to act is now. 

Please note that the views in blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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