In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones

AFRICA-ASIA: Gender-based violence: A silent, vicious epidemic

Photo on the cover of the MSF report on sexual violence (Victim of sexual violence in the DRC)
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - As Elizabeth and her captors arrived at the militia camp, she realized that dozens of other girls had also been kidnapped. "When we got there we were so many," she said. "We were taken into the bush, when a big man came and took me."

Life with the Mayi Mayi, an ethnic milita, was a nightmare of almost continuous abuse. "All they did was come and 'take' us often. They used to tie up the women and tie their husbands to trees then take us [the girls]," the 17-year-old told IRIN." I stayed with them for so long and it didn't matter any more who took me."

Elizabeth's ordeal happened in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but it could well have been in Sierra Leone, Liberia or a variety of other countries. Wherever there is armed conflict, there are stories like hers, stories of rape, of trauma; stories of unimaginable horror, of girls and women who have been gang-raped, held indefinitely as sex-slaves, beaten, mutilated, killed. Sometimes the victims are in their 70s or 80s, sometimes they are younger women, or teenagers. Some are as young as six months old.

Social workers and aid professionals working against gender-based violence (GBV) are overwhelmed with cases of violations as indiscriminate as they are vicious. One young mother in eastern DRC told IRIN about the time she went home to find a paramilitary raping her 10 month-old baby. In Liberia, a worker at a non-governmental organization helping rape victims said that during 14 years of vicious civil war, tens of thousands of women were assaulted. "Even the old were raped here," she said.

Photo: IOM
Globally, hundreds of thousands of women carry the physical and mental wounds of sexual violence
Unprepared for the "searing magnitude" of the problem

Despite their considerable knowledge and experience, even gender experts Elizabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, "were completely unprepared for the searing magnitude of what we saw and heard in the conflict and post-conflict areas we visited" as they assessed the impact of armed conflict on women and women's role in peace-building in various countries.

They knew the data, they said in a 2002 report titled Women War and Peace, in which they recorded their findings; they had read reports, "but knowing all this did not prepare us for the horrors women described".

Despite the scarcity of data, the few statistics that women's groups have managed to patch together illustrate the scourge of gender-based violence only too well. An estimated half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A staggering 50% of all women in Sierra Leone were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, torture and sexual slavery, according to a 2002 report by Physicians for Human Rights. In Liberia, an estimated 40 percent of all girls and women have fallen victim to abuse. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped.

Indeed, wherever there has been conflict - whether it's the DRC, Algeria, Myanmar, Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, East Timor or Kosovo - violence against women has reached epidemic proportions. Many researchers feel this is not just the result of violent male opportunism, but rather a weapon of war. This is particularly true of ethnic conflicts, during which systematic rape is commonly used to destabilise populations and destroy community and family bonds. Amnesty International now considers rape a commonly used as a tool for "ethnic cleansing", including the forced impregnation of girls.

Rape is also used to humiliate and demoralise families and communities. In many cases men are forced to watch the rape of their wives or daughters. In Bosnia-Herzegovina sons and fathers were forced to commit sexual atrocities against each other.

Current reports from DRC and Darfur in western Sudan suggest there this no reason to believe the 'epidemic' is near ending. Aid agencies and human rights bodies such as Amnesty International and Save the Children have been recording unabated and widespread sexual attacks in Darfur despite the presence of international observers, and thousands of aid workers. In some of these attacks Arab militias also force female genital mutilation upon their non-Arab victims. In such cases, rape and sexual abuse no longer appear to be the result of male opportunism or the breakdown of social and moral systems caused by war but a deliberate effort to wreck a people and their culture.

What is Gender Based Violence? [Definitions]

According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the term 'gender-based violence' (GBV) is used to distinguish violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender from other forms of violence. GBV includes violent acts such as rape, torture, mutilation, sexual slavery, forced impregnation and murder. When involving women, GBV is violence that is directed against a woman or girl because she is female, or that affects women disproportionately.

Photo: Sylvia Spring/IRIN
A mother tells IRIN how her 10-month-old baby was raped by a soldier
The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) considers that the term 'gender-based' provides a new context for understanding violence against women because it reflects the unequal power relationship between women and men in society.

This does not mean that all acts against a woman are gender-based violence, or that all victims of gender-based violence are female.

The term 'sexual violence' is used to denote sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It refers to any act, attempt, or threat of a sexual nature that results, or is likely to result in, physical, psychological and emotional harm. Sexual violence is therefore a form of gender-based violence.

The growth of a movement

While GBV can be said to have been present in society since earliest recorded history, it is only in the past 10 years that it has been defined as and declared an international human rights issue, according to Jeanne Ward, a gender-based-violence expert with the Reproductive Health Response in Conflict Consortium (RHRC). Ward explains in her 2002 report, If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Post-conflict Settings, that these changes are due to the rise of the women's and human rights movements across the world that demanded that violence against women be considered an affront to basic human rights.

But it is the rising number of cases of GBV and the wide-scale use of sexual violence in on-going armed conflicts around the world that command the world's attention and drive an increased demand to see change. The increased media attention on issues of sexual violence and the establishment of a defined humanitarian sector have led to greater interest in the development of legal instruments and institutions that promote and reinforce international standards of human rights.

The effect of the increased focus on GBV has been both positive and negative. Many more aid agencies, donors and local organizations have now included GBV as part, or the main focus, of their activities, resulting in more money and attention.

However, GBV experts who have been working on the issue for many years are cautious of this sudden interest, which they fear may be short-lived. Sophie Read-Hamilton of the International Rescue Committee in Liberia told IRIN that "when an issue gets sexy it doesn't help". She explained that if support systems are not in place for the victims "you can drown in funding that's not well used". People do not see results for all the funds spent, so they can dry up, then nobody benefits. But, at the end of the day, the legal frameworks and humanitarian assistance for victims count for very little if the authorities in places where the crimes are committed lack the power, or will, to act.

No-risk environments for perpetrators

Universally, gender-based violence goes largely unpunished. During conflict, violence against women becomes an excepted norm while militarisation and the increased presence of weapons result in high levels of brutality and even greater levels of impunity.

Fighting the reality of impunity is critical to the reduction of GBV. At present, those committing violations in conflicts or post-conflict environments run virtually no risk of investigation let alone prosecution and punishment. Local authorities in eastern DRC told IRIN that, despite many thousands of cases of violent sexual abuse, they knew of only one man being prosecuted. He was later acquitted. A combination of social and political disorder, absence of rule of law, corruption, the lack of an impartial or functioning judiciary, and fear allow these crimes to be committed with almost total impunity. Perpetrators act in a no-risk environment.

Even those trusted to keep the peace and offer stability - UN peacekeepers - are sometimes accused of sexual violations, but generally evade prosecution.

Lyn Lusi, founder of a clinic for sexually abused women in Goma, eastern DRC, feels the constant publicity of the failure of the government to apprehend those who commit the violations only fuels the problem. "Unfortunately I don't think the problem is reduced despite all the publicity it's getting," she told IRIN, "…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". Since the end of the fighting in Goma, her clinic continues to receive new cases of rape, but "the girls are younger and younger", she said.

International agreements and frameworks

The defining of the international community's responsibilities in response to gender inequality and sexual violence was slow until recent years. Although statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex appeared in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it is only in the last decade that the issue of sexual violence in conflict has been addressed rigorously.

Various international agreements have sought to address the issue of sexual vulnerability of women in war, most notably, additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. But the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court in 1998 marked a turning point: it declared for the first time that "rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, and other forms of sexual violence of comparative gravity" are to be considered war crimes. If these acts are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, they constitute "crimes against humanity", it said.

Whatever laws are drafted internationally, however, the facts on the ground remain stark, with no improvement in sight. In Rwanda it is said that almost every adolescent girl who survived the genocide of 1994 had been raped. The World Health Organization says gender-based violence accounts for more death and disability among women aged 15-44 years than cancer, malaria, traffic injuries and war combined. As long as there is no real progress on addressing the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, the number of women medically and psychologically scarred for life will increase as the epidemic continues unrestrained.

Lead Feature
Film and PDF file

 Documentary: Our Bodies...their battleground: Gender-based Violence during Conflict
(18:59 min)
 Download this in-depth report
2 MB

Links & References
In-Depth Feedback

IRIN welcomes feedback. Send your messages to feedback.