In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
AFRICA-ASIA: Impunity and gender-based violence: The second wound of rape
The extreme youth of some victims of sexual violence did not protect them from attack
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - The terrible trauma of rape is not the only crime committed against victims of sexual assault. In most cases, a second wound is inflicted by the fact that perpetrators rarely face any form of justice. In times of war, impunity for rapists is only more flagrant.
Lyn Lusi, founder of a clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo for victims of sexual violence, told IRIN: “Unfortunately I don’t think the problem is reduced despite all the publicity it’s getting”.
“ …all that publicity is saying, there’s impunity, there’s impunity. There’s nothing to frighten people … now they know they can do it without paying the consequences,” said Lusi, whose clinic is in the town of Goma.
Both international and internal conflicts are normally characterized by a breakdown of state structures and authority. Judicial systems are often among the first casualties. In many cases, countries where widespread gender-based violence occurs today did not have a functioning or incorruptible judiciary before conflict.
In addition, the culture may be a male-dominated one in which traditional values encourage men to have proprietary attitudes towards women. The prosecution of sexual criminals is often only a declaration of intentions by the authorities that results in inaction, thus providing a non-risk environment for perpetrators.
Misconceptions concerning the rationale of inflicting sexual violence in conflict have hindered the prosecution of culprits. According to Dorothy Thomas and Regan Ralph, from the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, “rape in conflict must be understood as an abuse that targets women for political and strategic reasons” (Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity
). Sexual violence is increasingly a strategic tool of war, especially in conflicts driven by identity politics.
Recent examples of organized campaigns of mass rape in the former Yugoslavia attest to this logic that sexual assault is committed “in order to punish a group of civilians for perceived sympathies with armed insurgents, and to demonstrate the soldiers' domination over civilians”. As such, rape is the ultimate weapon of ethnic cleansing, dehumanizing the victim, intending to terrorize populations into flight, and sometimes forcibly impregnating women to force their ethnicity onto their victims in societies where ‘male descent’ defines identity. This was not only prevalent in the Balkans war, but overwhelmingly used by the Hutu against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.
But when sexual violence is a planned part of the military campaign, it is highly unlikely that authorities will prosecute their own troops for acts which they enjoined soldiers to commit in the first place.
Photo: IRIN/Sylvia Spring
|In DRC where hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped, people told IRIN they knew of only one man sentenced for sexual violence
The fact that rape as been “narrowly portrayed as sexual or personal in nature, [is] a portrayal that depoliticises sexual abuse in conflict and results in its being ignored as a war crime”, according to Thomas and Ralph. The recognition of this political aspect of rape in war is essential to ending the impunity of most perpetrators. It is only in 1998 that the International Criminal Court included in its statutes the categorization of “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity […] when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” as both a crime against humanity and a war crime. (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
, article 7).
But, in many countries, the legal framework addressing sexual violence is weak and the instruments in place to implement the laws are flawed. According to Amnesty International (AI), which recently launched its “Stop violence against women
” campaign, “in many countries, the laws are inadequate, the police force is uninterested and the criminal justice system is remote, expensive and biased against women”. It is therefore essential to change the perception of violence against women from a private matter to one of public concern, AI said as it called on countries to take action.
However, most mechanisms for holding war criminals accountable apply to crimes committed in international conflicts only. By contrast, similar instruments for abuses committed in internal conflicts are rarely supported by means for enforcement. Accountability may be particularly difficult to establish when abusers cross national borders.
|Sophie Read-Hamilton, working to end the culture of impunity in DRC
Certain individuals are also statutorily immune to legal action. The fact that UN peacekeepers accused of sexually abusing local women cannot be prosecuted by local authorities has often been criticized. (GREAT LAKES: Focus on sexual misconduct by UN personnel
Regardless of legal norms and their applicability, the specific nature of sexual assaults paradoxically facilitates assailants’ impunity. Many cultures and religions shy away from discussing sex and, especially, sexual violence.
Rape is sometimes seen as a stigma, degrading not only the victim, but also his or her entire family or community. In such cases, the focus is usually on concealing the assault, rather than bringing the culprits to justice. This is especially true in societies in which men's domination of women is culturally imbedded. According to Thomas and Ralph, “in a bizarre twist, [the sufferer] changes from a victim into a guilty party, responsible for bringing dishonor upon her family or community”. In order to report a crime, a victim has to perceive herself as such in the first place.
Mischaracterising rape as a crime against honour contributes to the perpetrator’s impunity, as fear of subsequent rejection by society may lead the victim to simply not report the crime. Such impunity may encourage further sexual violence against women.
Perpetrators’ impunity is also enhanced by the lack of access to education, health issues and proper information about basic rights. For many women, the prospect of reporting sexual violations to police or judicial authorities is intimidating and, moreover, there is also the fear of retribution. In many countries rural populations have little cause for confidence when dealing with any representatives of the state or rebel power structures. Reporting a crime may also entail expenses and travel, whereas their priorities are survival and seeking medical assistance.
Women learn fast that they are rarely offered justice and only open themselves up to possible harassment or abuse if they persist in seeking to identify and prosecute perpetrators. One young woman who spoke to IRIN in Goma told how she returned home one day to find a soldier raping her 10-month-old daughter. The soldier was initially reprimanded, but then released without punishment. A local court judge confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that virtually all cases of sexual violation were dropped when the accused bribed judges and court officials.
Not only do the legal mechanisms need to be in place for impunity to end, but attitudinal and behavioural changes are needed in cultures where widespread sexual violence is tolerated and the political will to end the epidemic is absent.