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Sexual and gender based violence

Médecins Sans Frontières offers patients who have suffered sexual violence medical care, treatment to prevent the development of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and psychological support.

In settings where the rate of sexual violence is high, such as in conflict zones or refugee camps, dedicated teams provide assistance, and staff work with the community to raise awareness of the problem of sexual violence, provide information about the care that MSF provides, and promote social and legal support.

MSF runs projects that provide treatment and support to victims of sexual violence in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea (PNG), Zimbabwe and Kenya.

What is Sexual Violence?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sexual violence is any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, unwanted sexual comments or advances, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person's sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim, in any setting.

In conflicts, rape is regularly employed as a weapon of war, as a form of torture, and as a means of terrorising civilian populations. Not all rape in conflict zones is carried out by soldiers though, often it is just people taking advantage of the chaos.

Since 2007, MSF has treated more than 35,000 survivors of sexual violence in the DRC alone. There are likely many more cases, and their first and most urgent need is medical care.

Medical Consequences

Medically, sexual violence has important adverse consequences on women’s sexual and reproductive health. Women who are raped have increased risk of transmission of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhoea as well as HIV.

In addition, many women face unwanted pregnancy, miscarriage or serious complications for reproductive health. Treatment within 72 hours is vital to prevent some of these problems.

Non-medical Consequences

The non-medical consequences of sexual violence are often just as severe as the medical effects. Victims can live in fear, isolation, and shame.

Some also suffer from nightmares, anxiety or psychosomatic body pain. Survivors can be stigmatised or cast out of their communities, and many live in isolation and face socioeconomic hardship. 

How we respond?

MSF offers patients who have suffered sexual violence medical care, treatment to prevent the development of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and psychological support. We also provide medical certificates to assist in any legal case, should the patient choose to pursue one.

In settings where the rate of sexual violence is high, such as in conflict zones or refugee camps, dedicated teams provide assistance, and staff work with the community to raise awareness of the problem of sexual violence, provide information about the care that MSF provides, and links to social and legal support.

MSF provides sexual violence survivors with

  • Physical exam
  • Treatment for wounds and injuries
  • Emergency contraceptives
  • Treatment for sexually transmitted infections
  • Antiretroviral treatment to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS
  • Hepatitis B and tetanus vaccinations
  • Psychological support
  • Certificate for legal purposes

Time is of the essence when treating cases of sexual violence: both for the prevention of HIV and pregnancy. MSF urges other actors involved in the treatment of sexual violence to work towards providing timely, high-quality, appropriate medical care to survivors.

Consent and confidentiality

In the desire to pursue the perpetrator of sexual violence with legal action, the consent of the victim for this action is absolutely essential. Sometimes this consent is either assumed or not actively sought. People have all sorts of reasons for choosing not to pursue the perpetrator and it must be their choice.

Linked to this, MSF have serious concerns about the handling of sensitive personal medical data regarding rape cases. Medical confidentiality is vital and must be secured.