Developing a working definition of an “act of sexual violence”

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What Makes Violence Sexual? 

Creating a working definition of sexual violence for criminal justice mechanisms

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute) is the first international criminal law instrument to expressly include crimes of sexual violence. As a result of advocacy of the women’s rights movement, represented by the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, the Rome Statute recognises “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as sexual violence as a constitutive act of genocide. Twenty years since the adoption of the Rome Statute, there has been limited accountability for conflict-related sexual violence in both the International Criminal Court (ICC), and in national courts. A review of relevant cases reveals a lack of clarity about what makes violence sexual, and a disparity between how sexual violence is deliberated in courts and how it is perceived and experienced by victims. 

The Rome Statute does not define the term “sexual violence”, nor does it provide examples of acts which might be captured by the residual crime of “any other form of sexual violence”. Furthermore, in the Elements of Crimes, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, any “other act of sexual violence”, and sexual violence as the constitutive act for genocide, include in their definitions an “act of a sexual nature”, also undefined. Jurisprudence highlights the need for a working definition of “acts of a sexual nature”. 

Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice is calling for civil society actors to join us in creating a definition of sexual violence to guide prosecutors, defence counsel, victims’ representatives, and other judicial actors to better understand what an “act of a sexual nature” could entail. Importantly, such a definition would consider acts that may be intended as sexual by perpetrators, and/or perceived as such by victims in specific cultural environments. A survey is being conducted to collect inputs into a non-exhaustive list of acts of a sexual nature, and a group of civil society actors being formed to draft and adopt the civil society declaration, and guide advocacy actions for its use. Further actions may include formally presenting the civil society declaration to the ICC, and in the longer term, potentially incorporate this working definition into the Elements of Crimes of the Rome Statute.

Please join us in developing this working definition of “an act of a sexual nature” and advocating for an inclusive definition by completing a short survey.