Syrian women and girls register with the United Nations refugee agency upon arrival at Arsal in Lebanon. More women than before are fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty. In today’s crises, it is women and girls who are paying the highest price. Photo by: M. Hofer / UNHCR / CC BY-NC

Recent news stories and reports testify to a horrifying reality for women and girls caught in crisis situations. From rape to child marriage to sexual slavery, women and girls in conflict face severe threats and violations of their human rights that most of us cannot begin to imagine.

While it is good news that some of the women and girls abducted by Boko Haram were recently rescued, they face trauma, stigma and health concerns. As we provide services to them, we cannot forget countless others in many countries who face an ongoing nightmare of fear and violence. An estimated 4 million Syrian women and girls of childbearing age are in need of humanitarian assistance.

In times of crisis, all women worry about the future and whether they will even survive. Many women become heads of household with the sole responsibility of caring for their children. Pregnant women fear for their health and wonder if they will deliver safely. Women and girls who are raped are often confronted with blame and shame instead of the loving care and support they need. And these hardships are compounded for women who are pregnant as a result of rape.

The challenges are daunting. For one thing, more women than before are fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty. Many have suffered exploitation and trauma. As we see in the Mediterranean, they risk their lives, often paying ruthless smugglers, to cross seas and borders for a better future for themselves and their families. The world has not seen a migrant and refugee crisis like this since World War II.

At the same time, the number and the strength of natural disasters is rising, causing increased damage, insecurity and demands for international humanitarian support. The complex emergencies we are responding to include protracted conflicts, which are further exacerbated by poor or failed governance, the consequences of climate change, and the engagement of extremist groups claiming territory, resources and power.

In today’s crises, it is women and girls who are paying the highest price — as their bodies become battlefields in war zones, and they struggle in dangerous circumstances to maintain their dignity and the health and welfare of their families.

During this century, we have made tremendous gains in advancing the global agenda for women, peace and security. U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 adopted in 2000, and subsequent resolutions have triggered new partnerships, resources, and norms and standards to expand women’s role in peacemaking and peacebuilding, and to end sexual violence in conflict.

When the council adopted resolution 1820 in 2008, it sent the strongest message yet condemning the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, and declared that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

Along with condemnation, and increasing prosecution of these crimes, has come growing recognition that women are more than victims. They are peacemakers, backbones of their families and communities, and builders of recovery and resilience. Yet, the rising acceptance of women as public leaders is juxtaposed with rising brutality exercised by extremist groups whose ideology rejects women’s rights and public participation, and the education of girls.

In a recent report to the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. secretary-general outlined sexual violence in conflict in 19 countries, noting that 2014 was “marked by harrowing accounts of rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage being used by extremist groups, including as a tactic of terror.”

As we work to strengthen our humanitarian response, I cannot help but reflect on the threats facing women and girls in different parts of the world.  How can we step up our efforts, as humanitarian and rights-based organizations, as representatives of the international community, and as governments, so that together we can make a big difference to these women and girls whose rights we seek to protect and promote?

The United Nations organization that I lead, UNFPA, is one of 13 U.N. entities that are part of U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict — a network focused on taking concerted action against such violence. We are working hard to meet pressing and unprecedented needs and also recognize that stronger action is required from the international community.

In particular, here are three steps the international community must take together to protect the health and rights of women and girls in crisis situations:

First, we must summon the resources needed to effectively and systematically prioritize and address gender-based violence in emergencies, and deliver services to protect sexual and reproductive health. This requires increased commitment and funding to advance women’s health, empowerment and gender equality, to protect vulnerable populations from gender-based violence, and to provide a full range of services to survivors, with appropriate responses for all those who are targeted.

Second, it is time to increase the number and readiness of experienced personnel, locally and globally, who can deliver sexual and reproductive health services and prevent and respond to gender-based violence. This requires personnel who are trained to meet the medical, psychosocial, legal, security, and livelihood needs of survivors of sexual violence in both conflict and disaster contexts. Innovation and partnership are needed to fully utilize new technologies for training and capacity-building, such as mobile phones and e-learning. UNFPA is strengthening a roster of qualified experts to enable rapid response to emergencies to protect the health and rights of women and girls.

Third, we must strengthen accountability. In all countries affected by crisis and conflict, women and girls are demanding their rights to health and safety, and to full and equal participation to have a voice in shaping a better future. Protection and accountability to people affected by crisis must be backed by political will, corrective action and justice.

We must work together to enable women to play their full role in peace talks, peace building and recovery, to ensure government compliance with international law, and to bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice.

Accountability is at the heart of commitments made in Security Council resolutions, the 2006 Brussels Call to Action to Address Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, the 2013 Call to Action on Protecting Women and Girls in Emergencies, and at the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Never before have so many governments and leaders pledged to end sexual violence in conflict and empower women to play their full role in advancing peace, recovery and security. Now we need to close the gaps.

By prioritizing health, rights, and full participation of women in public life, we increase our prospects for a more just, stable and peaceful world.

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About the author

  • Babatunde Osotimehin

    Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is executive director of the U.N. Population Fund since January 2011. A renowned physician and public health expert, he was previously Nigerian minister of health and director-general of the country’s agency on AIDS. At UNFPA, Babatunde supervises efforts to promote the rights and ability of young people to build a better world in the context of sexual and reproductive health.