I remember reading these words at a Women to Women International meeting a few years ago. They were spoken by Patrick Cammaert, the Deputy Force Commander of the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2008, who said “It is probably more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.” This exact equation has been demonstrated and repeated hundreds of times since.
How can that be? War evokes images of young men, literally led to slaughter. For most people in our world, exposure to violent conflict comes in the form of occasional newspaper pages filled with pictures of young men and a few women who die as soldiers fighting wars in other countries. We don’t see pictures of women who die as civilians or those who are raped violently and repeatedly in conflict as a war strategy. We tend to think of children and women as collaterally damaged during war, when in truth, all over the world, they are fully, bodily engaged in conflict involving the regular use of men’s bodies as weapons against them.
In the span of one year, between 2006 and 2007, more than 400,000 women were raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is 48 women raped every hour. In Columbia, between 2001 and 2009, a period of violent insurgency, 500,000 women reported being raped.
It is exceedingly difficult to obtain accurate data regarding the incidence of rape even in daily, civilian life. Obtaining it during times of war and in cultures where the stigma attached to being a rape victim results in ostracization or death, it is exponentially more difficult. On thing is certain however, rape is when men weaponize themselves and conflict is the time when rape as a mass phenomenon of power and control is most obvious and widespread.
Can rape during conflict be stopped? This is the goal of The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, a collaboration between more than 400 Nobel Peace Laureates, international advocacy organizations, and groups working in conflict zones that launched this week.
The campaign, based on the practice of three principles, PREVENT, PROTECT, PROSECUTE, urges political leaders to acknowledge the widespread use of rape as a weapon during conflict and to protect civilians and those already victimized, often repeatedly, by these crimes. It requires that perpetrators of rape be identified, arrested and prosecuted – often by the very regimes engaged in the practice.
The Campaign is currently focused on four countries that need urgent attention: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Burma, and Colombia. In these countries, rape continues to be used in widespread ways as a systematic method of control and terror.
I am including here a trigger warning for the following four paragraphs.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is hell on earth for women. It is known as the “rape capital of the world.” Despite an almost ten-year-old peace agreement, conflict is pervasive and deadly. Between 2006-2007 at a rate of 48 rapes an hour, the level of sexualized violence was terrifying. During this period, girls and women, assaulted with weapons, including bayonets, made daily make decisions between starving and being raped as they search for food. There were widespread reports of rebel rape camps and regular, frequent gang rapes, often including baby girls. Children conceived in rape, also died in rape. Rape is now a “normal” part of life involving civilians and members of various militias, including state forces and rebels. Men rape to humiliate, control, terrorize. Some believe it provides them with “magical powers” before fighting. The occurrence of rape remains high and common and is notable because it is now happening in women’s homes, where rape is largely accepted and perpetrators entirely unpunished. Several aid organizations have also begun tracking a high incidence of male rape, increasingly recognized worldwide as a frequent occurrence in conflict, even harder to document.
In Burma, a report produced by ShanWomen.org, a grass-roots organization, documents the repeated rapes of more than 625 girls and women and the use of violent sexual assault as a weapon. These girls and women were often raped by commanding officers in front of their troops, as part of an ongoing program of torture, shame and violence including choking, suffocation and various forms of mutilation. Twenty-five percent of rapes ended in death. Out of the total 173 documented cases, only one man was punished. On the other hand, women coming forward to report their rapes, were imprisoned, assaulted and sometimes killed.
In Columbia, a country were low-grade conflict regularly involving civilians has existed since the 1940’s, girls (as young as at least eleven) and women are regularly subjected to rape and assault by members of the military, paramilitary and guerilla forces. A survey on the incidence of sexual violence due to conflict in Columbia found that six girls and or women were raped every hour between 2001 and 2009. “82.15% of the 489,678 women victims of some type of sexual violence (meaning 402,264 women) did not report the abuses. 73.93% of the victims consider that the presence of armed actors…is an obstacle to reporting sexual violence.”
Lastly, Kenya, where, although there is no ongoing war, rape is used as a tool of ethnic subjugation defined as conflict related to 2007 post-election violence. A study conducted by The Centre for Rights Education and Awareness in 2008 found that “The Kenya Police Crime Report data for 2007 indicated that there were 876 cases of rape reported, 1,984 cases of defilement, 181 cases of incest, 198 cases of sodomy, 191 cases of indecent assault and 173 cases of abduction reported in the year.” Post-election rapes in Kenya included incidences of forced genital mutilation and widespread gang rapes. The next Kenyan election is in 2013.
The Sudan, Liberia, Peru, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico. These are places where mass conflict-driven rape were and sometimes are still common – as a weapon of ethnic cleansing. Women, described as sperm “envelopes” to be passed from man to man, are subject to violent forced impregnation or sterilization, psychological terror, humiliation and bodily mutilation. Gender inequities are at the core of these assaults because even though girls and women are overwhelming victims, men in these communities are often the primary targets. Girls and women are viewed as property and an attack on them is a form of theft and destruction against men. In this way, rape is a strategy and a reward both. Raping females is one of the most effective ways of eviscerating the social fabric of a community at every level.
The four countries above have been identified as those requiring the most immediate and urgent help. But, they are not the only ones in which conflict-related sexual violence is taking place.
Rape used in these ways, first defined as a weapon of war in the 1990 after the atrocities of the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwandan wars, is now recognized by the Geneva Conventions torture, a human rights violation and a war crime. Despite this, rape is used widely and systematically in conflict areas worldwide. It is often explicitly ordered by commanders, who participate themselves and penalize those that don’t. In the countries above, a major problem is a consistent pattern of government and political inaction or complicity in the face of obvious and grave injustice and violence. Despite the work undertaken by humanitarian aid groups, grass-roots organizations, activists and human rights advocates, perpetrators remain largely free to do as they like. Rapes like the ones described above continue to be conducted and reported in conflict areas around the world. The highly gender-specific nature of this crime against humanity means that it is more often than not still thought of as sexual and “relatively” harmless. Rape is about power and humiliation and control and degradation. The consequences are devastating. War and conflict, relying as they do on the dehumanization of men to fight, is the perfect environment for an exponential increase in the dehumanization of women, already assumed to be subhuman.
So, what can you do? The organizers are aware that the goal of eliminating conflict-driven rape and sexual assault seems improbably to many, if not most, people. But, there are conflicts where widespread rape does not occur. If that is the case, then there is noting inevitable about it. In which case, it is indeed preventable.
The Campaign, launched this week, is designed to raise awareness and brings supporters together online. www.stoprapeinconflict.org. Events will be taking place throughout the week of May 6-13, in countries around the world. Everyone interested should take the initiative’s Pledge, which involves a series of action steps related to using social media to share information, raising funds and generating political momentum to change the way government perceive and deal with this issue. You can do other things as well – for example, taking a photo of your #IPLEDGE and sharing it on the StopRape in Conflict wall; contacting your local government official and informing them of the Campaign and your pledge; sharing the information on your Facebook wall, and encouraging others to learn more. If you are a Tweeter, use the hashtag #IPLEDGE. Tweet your representatives and make sure you include @stoprapecmpgn in your Tweets.
It’s not impossible.
The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict is the first ever global collaboration between Nobel Peace Laureates, international advocacy organizations, and groups working at the regional and community levels in conflict. The Campaign demands urgent and bold political leadership to prevent rape in conflict, to protect civilians and rape survivors, and call for justice for all—including effective prosecution of those responsible. These three pillars of the Campaign—PREVENT, PROTECT, PROSECUTE—signal a comprehensive effort to stop rape in conflict. Join the campaign by taking the pledge. Then, tweet about it to @stoprapecmpgn using #IPLEDGE.