Back to top

Gender Persecution

Using International Law to End Gender-Based Violence

In conflicts and atrocities across the globe, MADRE’s grassroots partners too frequently witness and document acts of violence against women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ persons. Often, these crimes are based on the victim’s gender and are used by perpetrators to enforce oppressive, discriminatory gender-based beliefs that deprive victims of fundamental human rights. In international law, these types of crimes are called gender persecution – a category of crime that includes violence such as murder and torture and, importantly, recognizes a perpetrator’s intent to discriminate against a group based on their gender.

Despite existing as law for decades, the crime of gender persecution has not been well understood and is often overlooked. Perpetrators have not been held accountable, and justice for victims and survivors of gender persecution has been neglected. 

Yet, hope is on the horizon. MADRE and our partners are working together to document gender-based crimes that may amount to gender persecution. These crimes can include incidents such as attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, women tortured in Mali because their skirts are deemed too short, or people in Colombia subjected to sexual violence because they are perceived to identify as LGBTIQ+. We then pair this documentation with legal expertise and feminist analysis to build awareness of this type of crime to ensure that it is no longer overlooked. With this lens, it becomes clear that justice for gender-based violence will only be achieved when we understand why a perpetrator committed a crime, not only how they did so. With a better understanding of the different forms of gender persecution and the discrimination that underlies these crimes, we can strengthen work to support victims and end cycles of gender-based violence in communities across the globe. 

From filing legal cases to producing training resources to creating documentation databases, MADRE has been at the forefront of this new era for gender justice, working alongside international and national policymakers, local civil society groups, and feminist allies to bridge the gap. From the halls of the International Criminal Court to grassroots movements in local communities, our work has shined a light on the need to understand gender persecution and hold perpetrators accountable for this crime. We have already seen impactful progress across the globe, and together we can go even further to counter gender persecution and build a new era for gender justice.


The Policy Paper on Gender Persecution

In an effort to promote accountability, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) has developed a Policy Paper on Gender Persecution. This Policy Paper strengthens recognition of the crime of gender persecution in investigations and legal proceedings and reaffirms the understanding of gender in international criminal law. This moment reaffirms – once and for all – that targeting women and LGBTIQ+ persons in peacetime and conflict can amount to a crime against humanity, and that survivors of these crimes cannot be silenced. The Policy Paper provides a powerful tool for women’s and LGBTIQ+ rights activists as they work to dismantle oppressive, discriminatory gender narratives and build sustainable peace.

The Office of the Prosecutor released the Policy Paper during the Assembly of States Parties in December 2022 after a year-long consultation and drafting process. Building on our long history of fighting for accountability for gender-based crimes within international law frameworks, MADRE served as the secretariat to bring together civil society groups to participate in the development of the Policy Paper on Gender Persecution. Along with our partners, MADRE facilitated input from nearly 400 organizations and 150 activists from over 100 countries and territories, including an open letter that compiled perspectives from over 220 organizations from 80 countries and territories. Governments, UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts, UN agencies, legal scholars, and other civil society movements also shared input with the Office of the Prosecutor, leading to a truly expansive consultation process with global reach.

Click here to read more about MADRE’s work to include civil society voices in the development of the new policy paper on gender persecution.

Documenting Gender Persecution in Afghanistan

MADRE was the first international organization to name Taliban gender-based crimes as gender persecution. In June 2022, we brought together Afghan women human rights defenders living as refugees in Pakistan after fleeing the Taliban, and we discussed the types of crimes they witnessed and documented, including targeting women human rights defenders with threats, violence, arbitrary arrest and disappearance for exercising their right to assembly and protest. It was clear that the Taliban were committing acts of gender persecution, using violence to impose oppressive gender-based beliefs that deprived women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ persons of their human rights. We shared this analysis with UN experts and stakeholders who took up our call for accountability. The result is that  the international community has begun to recognize the importance of understanding gender persecution. 

Building on this work, in April 2023 MADRE, together with the Institute on Gender, Law, and Transformative Peace at CUNY School of Law, launched a groundbreaking report, titled Gender Persecution in Afghanistan. This report provides in-depth analysis of the Taliban’s acts to deprive Afghans of fundamental rights on the basis of gender—acts that may amount to the crime against humanity of gender persecution. Issued as a Part One of forthcoming analyses, this report focuses on deprivations of three representative sample rights: the rights to education, assembly, and expression. It examines Taliban policies to deprive each of these fundamental rights on a discriminatory basis, and provides examples of crimes they reportedly committed in order to enforce these rights violations. For example, the Taliban have routinely beaten, unlawfully arrested, held incommunicado, inhumanely treated, and tortured women who protest against discriminatory regulations, including the bans on girls’ education, women’s access to work, and dress regulations. The report also describes legal analysis and evidence demonstrating how these acts or crimes can amount to gender persecution.

Transitional Justice in Colombia

MADRE is providing technical legal support to Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the legal body in Colombia trying armed actors accused of major rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity as part of Colombia’s peace process. MADRE has been sharing its expertise with JEP officials to strengthen their focus on gender persecution, including where it intersects with persecution based on race or ethnicity. MADRE is also working alongside our Colombian partners to train civil society groups on how to document persecution and represent victims in court.

The Toolkit for Identifying Gender Persecution

With support from UNWOMEN, MADRE and the Human Rights and Gender Justice (HRGJ) Clinic at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law developed the “Identifying Gender Persecution in Conflicts and Atrocities Toolkit.” The toolkit is designed to provide investigators, lawyers, advocates, documenters, and first responders with a framework for recognizing and understanding the legal context of gender persecution. 

Developed with the input of legal experts, feminist scholars, and practitioners, the toolkit’s four main sections (1) provide an overview of the international crime of persecution on gender grounds as a crime against humanity; (2) outline how persecution on gender grounds manifests, including past and current examples of gender persecution across a range of geographic, cultural and political contexts; (3) provide exercises and tools to assist the reader with identifying and documenting gender persecution; and (4) concludes with recommendations for ensuring accountability for gender persecution.

The toolkit is available in English, French, Russian, Spanish, and available on request in Arabic and Kurdish.

On the Frontlines

In the 1990s, MADRE housed the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice coalition to address gender gaps in the draft Rome Statute, which created the ICC. The coalition’s success in winning recognition of sexual violence as a violation of international law stands as one of the great advances of the global women’s movement. We also succeeded in exchanging the word “gender” for “sex” in the Rome Statute, which remains a key safeguard for gender justice under international criminal law.

Building on this history, in 2019 MADRE and our partners won a worldwide, movement-driven campaign to challenge the inclusion of the Rome Statute’s opaque definition to gender within the new draft Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) treaty. MADRE mobilized nearly 600 organizations and academics representing over 100 countries or territories to call for the definition to be removed. We built a global, cross-movement advocacy effort and served as a bridge to advocate successfully with policymakers. Ultimately, a majority of States working on the treaty affirmed that the rights of women and LGBTIQ persons are protected under international criminal law and that the pending treaty must reflect this principle.