Sexual Assault: General Information
last updated February 1, 2006

Sexual assault is a violation of women's human rights that may be perpetrated by state actors as well as by non-state actors whom the state cannot or will not control. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are often underreported both in CEE/FSU and worldwide. Whether the assault is perpetrated by an agent of the government or a family member, victims of sexual assault often face many obstacles in obtaining needed protection and assistance.

Sexual assault may be perpetrated by non-state actors, such as acquaintances, dating partners, or intimate partners such as current or former husbands and boyfriends. Such assaults constitute violations of women's human rights when the state fails to take sufficient steps to protect women from such violence or to punish perpetrators. As the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radika Coomaraswamy, has explained in the context of domestic violence, General Recommendation 19 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women provides that states are not only obligated to refrain from committing violations of women's human rights, but they are also required to ensure that their laws adequate protect women and hold perpetrators accountable. When a state fails to do so, it has not acted with "due diligence" to prevent, investigate and punish violations of women's human rights. States are also obligated to provide all citizens with equal protection of the law. For example, if a state punishes those who sexually assault strangers but fails to provide protection to a woman because her assailant was her acquaintance, friend, boyfriend or spouse, it has failed to live up to its obligation to provide all women with equal protection of the law.

From Radika Coomaraswamy, Combating Domestic Violence: Obligations of the State, 6 Innocenti Digest 10, 10 (2000).

Sexual assault may also be committed by state actors such as the police or military. In particular, women are vulnerable to particular forms of sexual abuse and assault when they are in state custody. State custody, in this context, can include any situation in which an individual's freedom is restrained by a state official. Women who are imprisoned, held in detention facilities, or even stopped and questioned by the police, may be in state custody. In these situations, state officials may use their power as custodians to force or coerce sexual contact. Women may also be sexually assaulted or abused by state "custodians" while in hospitals or nursing homes. Often, prisons and nursing homes are state-funded or state-run, and thus abuse experienced by women in such situations is committed by an individual under the authority of the state.

Women are also sexually assaulted and abused during and after armed conflict. During conflict, rape is used as a weapon of war. Even when not used as a military strategy, however, rape and sexual assault are commonly perpetrated by military forces, and may even be perpetrated by peacekeepers after the cessation of hostilities. Refugee and internally displaced women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.