Sexual Violence During Conflicts is a ‘Major Challenge for Health Sector’
Sudanese women are being targeted by soldiers using rape as a weapon of war.

The “weaponization of sexual violence” during conflicts is a major challenge facing the health sector, and it needs the serious attention of the international community, said World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.

Tedros broke down  while recounting that his own cousins had been raped and his uncle had been killed during recent violence in Tigray in Ethiopia as gender-based violence has become an instrument of war.

“Tens of thousands of women have been raped during that conflict, and there is no capacity in the region or within WHO to handle it. But you see it not only in Ethiopia, but you see it in DRC, you see it in Haiti, you see it in Sudan. You see it everywhere,” said Tedros during a  high-level dialogue with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk in Geneva on Monday – a day after International Health Day and the WHO’s 76th anniversary.

Tedros admitted that addressing gender-based violence was “beyond the capacity” of the WHO.

“I say beyond our capacity, or beyond the capacities of any player I know in conflict,” said Tedros.  “Many thousands of women haven’t received any services whatsoever – nothing, zero – and it’s the same in many countries where there is active conflict,” said Tedros.

“The magnitude is so high, and the international community should take it seriously,” he stressed, adding that women didn’t just need medical services, but psychosocial support.

Strategic dialogue with OHCHR

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk recalled that a number of countries, including Sudan, denied that their soldiers were involved in rape “but it happens in every army”.

Türk proposed a strategic dialogue between his Office – known as OHCHR – and the WHO to address human rights in the health sector and how to secure the right to health.

The two organisations have a framework of cooperation, said Türk, but they hadn’t been able to “bring it to the next level” during the pandemic.

“I think it would be good to take stock, and look strategically at how both worlds can be much closer together on a number of fronts,” he proposed – with Tedros immediately agreeing to a meeting during the course of the year.


The two leaders also raised the deliberate targeting of health facilities during conflict and the impact of this on health workers, and the high fatality rates of civilians in current conflicts. The WHO has documented the destruction of 300 health facilities and the deaths of 742 health works in this year alone.

Türk said that after “two massive world wars, after atrocity crimes, horrible war crimes, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression, there was a real recognition that, when it comes to health in conflict, hospitals and medical personnel are sacrosanct”.

But this has been replaced by a “flagrant blatant disregard for the laws of the war when it comes to hospitals and medical personnel”, he added.

In Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, there had been an almost deliberate targeting of hospitals and of health personnel, said Türk, who described what is happening in Gaza as “an unmitigated disaster” with “hardly any health facilities working”.

“We need to regain the space of the normative values that go back to the origins of why it is important to protect healthcare personnel, and health infrastructure in all situations around the world. I mean, we are talking about 55 active conflict situations,” he added.

‘Target fossil fuel’

The two leaders also raised the impact of changing climate on health, with Tedros supporting the focus on phasing out the use of fossil fuels, which is responsible for “70% of greenhouse gases.

“Because of climate change, asthma is on the increase. Cardiovascular diseases are on the increase. Vector borne diseases like malaria, dengue are actually invading places they have never been known before,” said Tedros.  

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

“Universal health coverage is a question of rights, and it has to influence the budgetary decisions that states make, and which brings us to the issue of the human rights economy,” said Türk. 

“If there was any lesson to be learnt from a COVID pandemic, it is precisely that it is that you need to have universal health coverage in order to be able to deal with the big challenges or the stress factors that a pandemic can unleash,” he added.

“We want to be sure that we’re prepared for whatever comes next, and universal health coverage is absolutely critical, both in terms of rights, but also in terms of sustainable development for any country in the world.”

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