IWD 2016 – We are far from reaching gender equality: Let’s discuss sexual violence used as a weapon of war

On International Women’s Day 2016, I want to discuss how far away we are today from gender equality.

Here are some examples:

  1. EVERY YEAR, 5,000 women and girls are murdered in ‘honour killings’ by family members;
  2. EVERY YEAR, one in seven girls in the developing world are forced into marriage before the age of 15;
  3. EVERY DAY, 6,000 girls around the world are faced with enduring female genital mutilation.

But, I wanted to highlight a human right violation of women’s bodies, souls and spirits identified by psychologists as the most intrusive of traumatic events – a horrific act that leaves the woman or girl traumatised for life, families torn apart and communities affected … and yet it is hardly talked about at all.

Sexual violence is a global human rights injustice of vast proportions with severe health and social consequences – but it is most brutal when used as a weapon of war. The State of the World’s Children 1996 report notes that the disintegration of families in times of war leaves women and girls especially vulnerable to violence.

As has been acknowledged: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”

HOW is rape used as a weapon of war? women rape image
Nearly 80 per cent of the 53 million people uprooted by wars today are women and children.

Warring groups use rape as a weapon because it destroys communities totally, says Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo. “You destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men.”

The lasting psychological harm that rape inflicts on its victims has also been recognized:

Rape is always torture, says Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Violence against Women Infographic

“… rape is a kind of slow murder.”

Women face devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives.

Systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war in ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Sexual violence is not only an epidemic, but it also becomes a business.

In addition to rape, girls and women are also subject to forced prostitution and trafficking during times of war, sometimes with the complicity of governments and military authorities.

Even after conflict has ended, the impacts of sexual violence persist, including unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and stigmatization.

Widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict, as a consequence of insecurity and impunity.

And meeting the needs of survivors — including medical care, HIV treatment, psychological support, economic assistance and legal redress — requires resources that most postconflict countries do not have.

The United Nations has recognised rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security in their Resolution 1820 (2008) on Women and peace and security, in which the Security Council noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

Resolution 1820 takes rape as a weapon of war extremely seriously, noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide,”

The resolution demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians.”

But we don’t know true full scale of this violent human right abuse on women and girls.

Dr. Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu stated, “the magnitude of sexual violence in conflict situations will never be fully known, since the stigma associated with being a victim discourages women and girls from reporting the crime”.

WHO are today’s perpetrators of rape as a weapon of war?
The most common occurrence of rape as a weapon of war today is at the hands of ISIS, Boko Haram and others forms of extremist groups common in the Middle East and Africa.

The horrific violence Islamic State is perpetrating against women and girls including sexual slavery, forced marriage, kidnapping and rape is beyond our comprehension.

It has been reported that ISIS fighters raped four women, then stoned them to death for “committing adultery” in February this year.

in 2014, ISIS massacred an estimated 5,000 civilians on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, causing hundreds of people to flee and condemning hundreds of Yazidi women to sexual slavery.

Zainab Hawa Bengura, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict speaks at the UN following a visit to Iraq and Syria.

Zainab UN Rep

The current United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative Zainab Hawa Bangura

An article in The Guardian last week explained that extremist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram use sexual violence because it disrupts and further destabilises families and communities, and stigmatises women.

The article went on to further state that the abuses ISIS perpetrates are being justified in the name of religion sanctioned by references to the Qur’an, based on their radical interpretations.

The article is co-written by former Sierra Leone policymaker and diplomat and current United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative Zainab Hawa Bangura – who appealed for greater political will, public determination, and improved technical capacity to prevent and prosecute the “vile crime” of rape in war.

Zainab Hawa Bangura goes on to say in the article that the violence of rape in war is coupled with a governing philosophy that seeks to roll back women’s rights in all forms.

ISIS forces women into sexual slavery to satisfy the demands of fighters, keep them committed, and to produce offspring.

It trafficks humans to generate income, selling women and girls to local buyers and through international circuits.

A brief history of rape used as a weapon of war:
These rapes and other acts of sexual violence are being performed with impunity and brutality, and in flagrant violation of age-old laws, customs and norms of war by virtually all sides to the conflict.

A 1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict notes that historically, armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war.

Going as far back as World War I (1914–1918), Dr. Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu stated that rape, forced prostitution and other forms of sexual violence were prevalent:

In Europe during World War I – largely by the German army and the armies of other Axis powers;
In Asia during World War II – involving the Japanese Imperial Army;
In Europe during World War II – involving the German army; and
In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo during the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.

HIV/AIDS used as a weapon of war through rape:
One striking difference between the use of rape as a weapon of war in pre-1990 conflicts and in latter-day wars is the emergence and “willful” transmission of HIV to the victims. The International Crisis Group, in its 2001 report entitled “HIV/AIDS as a Security Issue” categorized HIV/AIDS as:

  • a personal security issue;
  • an economic security issue;
  • a communal security issue;
  • a national security issue; and
  • an international security issue.

There is evidence from the Rwandan genocide, and the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo that shows that armed militias and combatants use HIV as a weapon of war. This evidence also shows that captured women in Rwanda were taken to HIV-positive soldiers specifically to be raped. -Margaret Owen in “Widows Expose HIV War Threat”, Worldwoman News.

One rape victim in Rwanda was taunted by their rapist, saying: “We are not killing you. We are giving you something worse. You will die a slow death”.

WHAT is the International community doing about these abhorrent crimes?
The post-World War II Nuremberg trials condemned rape as a crime against humanity.

The Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, 1993) included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination, when committed in armed conflict and directed against a civilian population.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR, 1994) also declared rape to be a war crime and a crime against humanity.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in force since July 2002, includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, or “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as a crime against humanity when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way.

The following Security Council Resolutions are siginifacnt moves towards highlighting and eradicating sexual violence against women:

Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) called on Member States to increase the participation of women in the “prevention and resolution of conflicts” and in the “maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”

Security Council resolution 1888 (2009) detailed measures to further protect women and children from sexual violence in conflict situations, such as asking the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative to lead and coordinate the UN’s work on the issue, to send a team of experts to situations of particular concern, and to mandate peacekeepers to protect women and children.

Security Council resolution 2106 (2013) aimed to strengthen the monitoring and prevention of sexual violence in conflict.

Security Council resolution 2122 (2013) reiterated the importance of women’s involvement in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building.

A Case Study:
International Humanitarian Law provide set norms that generally criminalise genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Precedents now abound on the criminal conviction of individuals who systematically deployed rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.

In the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu for genocide before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Tribunal found the accused guilty of aiding and abetting acts of sexual violence involving the systematic rape of Tutsi women. These acts of systematic rape of Tutsi women were accompanied with the intent to kill these women on the grounds of their ethnicity.

In 2007, the work of various UN agencies to combat sexual violence was put under one umbrella: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, uniting the work of 13 UN entities.

Funded by the Australian Government’s Aid Agency (AusAID), UN Action has also, together with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, documented best peacekeeping practices in addressing conflict-related sexual violence.

In 2008, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched UNiTE to End Violence against Women — a campaign to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, in times of war and peace.

The 2012 report, “Conflict-related sexual violence: report of the Secretary-General,” released on 13 January 2012, for the first time named some of the military forces, militia and other armed groups suspected of being among the worst offenders.

The report also provides examples of how sexual violence has threatened security and impeded peacebuilding in post-conflict situations, such as in Chad, the Central African Republic, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how it has been used in the context of elections, political strife and civil unrest in Egypt, Guinea, Kenya and Syria, among others.

The latest report of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict was presented to the Security Council on 14 March 2013.

WHEN will it all end?
Although changing international and national laws are major steps towards punishing and ending sexual violence, they cannot be successful without a fundamental change in people’s attitudes towards the sexual abuse of women.

Given that not all victims will come forward, that rape used as a weapon of war is a commonly brutal act perpetrated by all sides of conflict, and that a culture and philosophy that seeks to roll back women’s rights, while enforcing the subjugation, abuse and commodificaiton of women through rape – particularly in times of conflict persists, it is hard to imagine the eradication of such a vile and abhorrent violent attack on women’s rights.

A sensible response to these atrocious acts were put forward by the current United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative Zainab Hawa Bangura and Melanne Verveer, stating; “if we are to counter extremism, particularly the use of sexual violence, we cannot afford to separate the acts of violence in conflict from larger systems that objectify and subjugate women during conflict and peace.”

Addressing sexual violence is a necessity to protect human rights and ensure peace and security.

Perpetrators need to be held accountable.

Other measures suggested:

  1. The international community must place a high priority on ensuring the full implementation of the existing laws sic as the UN security council resolution 1325 – which has not been fully implemented, and commitments that advance women’s protection and empowerment.
  2. To dismantle the culture of impunity surrounding conflict-related sexual violence, with a strong focus on bringing those responsible to justice.
  3. Addressing impunity also requires governments to provide reparations.
  4. The provision of holistic services for survivors and their families – including psychological services, physical care and psychosocial treatment – must be prioritised and made available in a coordinated humanitarian response.
  5. Dealing with the root cause of violence against women: their unequal status in society and the resulting objectification. Alternatively, focus on placing a premium on protecting women’s human rights and ensuring their full and meaningful participation in peace-building, security operations, the economy and decision-making. 

WHAT about the victims?
Governments must be willing to enforce international law and codes of conduct, while also supporting counselling and other services for victims.

Women who were victims of rape during conflicts have an inalienable right to reparation, psychological and physical rehabilitation, access to social measures, and health security. In efforts to reconstruct post-conflict societies, the UN recommends that the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes should include sustainable policies and programs aimed at holistic reparation for victims of rape during wars and conflicts.

Victims of rape intended as a weapon of war have an inalienable right to financial reparation, psychological and physical rehabilitation, access to social measures, and health security.

WHAT can I do?
Share this Blog.

Have a conversation with someone about this reality.

By doing so, you will be advocating on behalf of the many victims of rape in war.

You can also make a difference in your own community by setting a higher standard of respect for women, saying NO to violence against women in your home, your workplace and your community.

You can make a difference by speaking out, and ensuring perpetrators do not remain undetected.

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