Victims' Rights Working GroupPromoting the rights and interests of victims
April 2021


The assumptions of male and female roles are of particular concern in the context of mass crimes and our responses to such crimes. The experience of women and girls in times of conflict is inextricably tied to pre-existing societal inequities; their positioning in society means that conflict and crimes will have a differentiated impact on their lives and on the process of recovery.

Woman and girls continue to face unimaginable brutality in conflict situations, which is often gender-based. Systematic rape, sexual slavery and the mutilation of reproductive organs are commonly used as weapons of war.

While women and girls face devastating crimes of sexual violence during conflict, such crimes have not been prosecuted as vigorously as gender-neutral crimes in international criminal bodies. There are numerous causes for the unequal attention given to crimes of sexual violence, which mirror the unequal treatment of sexual violence cases at a domestic level more generally. The causes include:

  • Lack of specialised investigative and prosecutorial staff;
  • Perceived difficulties in proving links between sexual violence and command responsibility;
  • Legitimate fears of testimony on behalf of witnesses for psychosocial or security reasons; and
  • Social stigma making victims of sexual violence less visible (to investigators / human rights reporters). E.g. attention is given to the recruitment and use of child soldiers without specifically addressing the harm suffered by girls associated with armed conflict.

Experience from the ad hoc Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, as well as the Special Court for Sierra Leone indicate that in addition to special attention needed to ensure prosecutions, special attention is also required to protect the physical and psychological wellbeing of victims. The ICC needs to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are adequately prepared for the adversarial process, and that unnecessary and harmful lines of questioning are avoided. Questions of medical assistance to witnesses will also need to be addressed as rape victims may have HIV/AIDS or other critical conditions.


Prosecution of gender crimes before the ICC

So far the Court’s record with regards to the prosecution of sexual and gender based crimes has been mixed. No charges relating to sexual violence were brought in the Lubanga case and attempts by victims to expand the scope of the case for sexual slavery were unsuccessful. While sexual violence formed part of the charges in the Katanga and Ngudjolo case, both accused were acquitted in relation to these particular charges. Later cases include sexual and gender based crimes.

Gender was made a key strategic goal in the Office of the Prosecutor's (OTP) 'Strategic plan June 2012-2015' and the OTP has committed to integrating a gender perspective and analysis into all aspects of its work. The OTP also produced a Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes in June 2014.


Relevant documents:

Fifty-year-old Silvia Alak tells her story at Cet Kana, a decongestion camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gulu District, northern Uganda, August 2006. Silvia and her seven children survived the ravages of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Her husband did not.
© Manoocher Deghati/IRIN