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Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Sexual Violence

Marion Hayden, GFMER, Switzerland


Sexual Violence, as defined in the WHO World Report on Violence and Health is “Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”


Rape is a particular type of sexual violence, committed with the act of the physical force of penetration of the body, including the vulva or anus, using a penis or other body parts or an object. The attempt of this physical force is Attempted Rape, with multiple (two or more) perpetrators defined as Gang Rape. Rape can be prevalent within marriage or dating relationships, by a stranger, and during armed conflict. The WHO Guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence classifies sexual violence as “…a violent, aggressive and hostile act used as a means to degrade, dominate, humiliate, terrorize and control. The hostility, aggression and/or sadism displayed by the perpetrator are intended to threaten the victim’s sense of self.” Sexual violent acts occur in different settings and in different forms, including, but not limited to: Unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment, including demanding sex in return for favors; Sexual abuse of mentally and physically disabled people; Sexual abuse of children; Forced marriage or cohabitation, including the marriage of children; Denial of the right to use contraception or to adopt other measures to protect against sexually transmitted diseases; Forced Abortion; Violence acts against the sexual integrity of women, including female genital mutilation and obligatory inspections for virginity; Forced prostitution and trafficking of people for the purpose of sexual exploitation.


Due to the limited resources and research available to document the level of prevalence of Sexual Violence, an accurate account is difficult for researchers to measure. The nature of Sexual Violence, including the sensitive cultural connotations, fear of retribution, and shame, make the reporting of sexual violent acts at a minimum. Campaigns such as UNITE and population based studies indicate that between 6% and 46% of women report experiencing an attempted or completed sexual violent act by a current or ex-partner. Between 7% and 36% of young girls, and 3% and 29% of young boys, are reported to experiencing a sexual violent act in childhood.  Between one to two million women and children are trafficked each year for sexual slavery, with most from lower socio-economic status. 

Health Consequences

Described in WHO Violence Against Women Fact Sheet the health consequences of Sexual Violence include (and are not limited to) physical effects such as gastrointestinal disorders, abdominal pains, miscarriage, unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and gynaecological problems. Psychological effects include depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicidal attempts, sleep difficulties and extreme emotional distress.

Criminal Act

Throughout our communities and media, the most common thought of sexual violence is rape and sexual assault. Although this is true, as communicated in the Triffterer Commentary on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “Sexual violence is a term boarder than rape. The term is used to describe any kind of violence carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality.” Article 7 in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies sexual violence as a Crime Against Humanity “Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as well as described in Article 8 as a War Crime. Other International Humanitarian Law articles include Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Relevant articles include 3 & 27 and Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions (Non-International Armed Conflicts), Relevant Articles include 4.

International Declarations and Resolutions (Sexual Violence Research Initiative - Human Rights)

Open access documents