Sexual and gender-based violence: A glossary from A to Z

Manual and Guideline
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Sexual and gender-based violence is prevalent globally. It is a weapon used in all wars and in times of unrest and conflict. It is perpetrated, often behind closed doors, in all countries around the world in times of peace. For a long time, however, it has gone unacknowledged and was considered a marginal issue. Because it has not received the attention it so desperately needs, putting an end to it has been a challenge. Crimes and violations of a sexual and gender-based character continue to be under-documented, under-investigated and under-prosecuted. The vast majority of perpetrators benefit from impunity, while victims do not receive redress.

Sexual and gender-based violence is complex as it is directly linked to social and political power dynamics and norms such as inequality of the sexes, patriarchy, engrained biases, misconceptions, myths and stereotypes that continue to exist and proliferate from North to South. This often results in sexual and gender-based violence being considered “merely as a women’s issue” and dismissed as a “lesser” crime or a crime that is difficult to “identify and prosecute”. Thus crimes and violations of a sexual and gender-based character largely go unpunished. Moreover, despite the existence of international and regional legal frameworks, these are often not, or insufficiently, implemented at the domestic level. There continues to be a misunderstanding, misuse or lack of knowledge of key legal definitions or essential standards and practices by practitioners. This in turn has significantly increased obstacles to accountability and justice, and contributed to harmful, unethical practices towards victims and witnesses.

Slowly, the tides are turning. It seems that, finally, the plight of victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence is being increasingly recognised, and action is being taken to address it, including by States and international organisations and institutions. This is largely due to the hard work of human rights defenders, feminists, victim movements, gender rights advocates, general practitioners and academics. Today, the prevention and prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence and reparation to its victims is part and parcel of the global discourse on the fight against impunity.

Civil society organisations globally, at local, national and international levels, have developed responses to tackle crimes and violations of a sexual and gender-based character. Other actors, including the media, academia or service providers, have also increasingly engaged with victims and witnesses of these crimes. The multiplicity and diversity of actors engaged in working on these issues requires an accurate understanding and use of appropriate terminology on sexual and gender-based violence. It is imperative that the words, concepts and terms, i.e. the language we use to talk about this often complex issue, be representative of the experiences of victims and survivors, and that it be based on international standards that we have all fought so hard to realise.

Based on our engagement with multiple stakeholders involved in the movement to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) decided to develop this Glossary to identify and clarify key definitions that practitioners should, at a minimum, be well acquainted with when working on issues of sexual and gender-based crimes or violations, and when engaging with victims and witnesses of these crimes. The Glossary is, by nature, not an exhaustive analysis of these terms, nor does it cover all terms and standards relevant to this topic. However, we hope it offers a starting point for explaining essential terms, rights, standards and other concepts that are often unknown, misunderstood or misused. It is a Glossary based on existing international standards, so that it can be used globally, even though some States may apply different definitions or follow different approaches. Those wishing to go more in depth in relation to each of the issues raised herein will find a significant number of references for further reading.

While a reader may be familiar with many of the terms included, the Glossary seeks to contribute to correcting common misconceptions, and to highlight jurisprudence or other significant developments from all parts of the world. More broadly, the Glossary is a contribution to the development of a common language around sexual and gender-based violence and crimes, and to the creation of a coherent platform for civil society, governments, judicial institutions and other stakeholders to combat these violations and crimes.

By bringing together available information on key terms, as well as providing a brief background and explanation for each, this simplified and practical Glossary aims at supporting the day-to-day work of those working on sexual and gender-based violence, in all contexts. It should be used in conjunction with other relevant documents that have been developed over the years and as highlighted throughout this glossary. The Glossary will also be produced in several other languages including Spanish, French, Persian and Arabic.

Engaging against sexual and gender-based violence is a cornerstone of FIDH and its movement of more than 190 member organisations, in more than 110 countries around the globe. This Glossary is one of many initiatives and a continuation of the work conducted by FIDH on this issue.

This Glossary was written by Dr. Dorine Llanta, FIDH Programme Officer, under the supervision of Jürgen Schurr, Interim Head of FIDH International Justice Desk, and Amal Nassar, FIDH Permanent Representative to the International Criminal Court. The Glossary’s development and execution was guided by Guissou Jahangiri, FIDH Vice-President and Executive Director of OPEN ASIA | Armanshahr Foundation, and benefited from significant contributions from Patricia Huyghebaert, FIDH Deputy Director of Operations, and Justine Duby, FIDH Women’s Rights Officer. Julia Tétrault-Provencher, FIDH Legal Intern, and Melissa Eichhorn, Intern with the International Justice Desk, assisted with the research.