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

AFRICA-ASIA: Rape as a tool of war

Photo: IRIN
In Liberia an estimated 40% of women and girls have experienced some form of sexual violence
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - The sexual abuse of women in war is nothing new and has long been tolerated as one of the inevitable features of military conflict. That in itself has been a cause for concern among human rights advocates. However, the large-scale use of rape as an instrument for delivering a psychological blow during armed conflict has caused even more concern.

The use of rape as an organised and systematic weapon of war, employed to destabilise and threaten an element of the civilian population is a phenomenon that the international community must address with greater vigour, Sarah Maguire, UK-based lawyer and human rights consultant, told IRIN.

In recent years, mass rape in war has been documented in various countries, including Cambodia, Liberia, Peru, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Uganda. A European Community fact-finding team estimated that more than 20,000 Muslim women were raped during the war in Bosnia. At least 250,000, perhaps as many as 500,000 women were systematically raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, according to reports from the World Bank and UNIFEM. Most recently in Darfur, Western Sudan, displaced people have described a pattern of systematic and unlawful attacks against civilians by a government-sponsored Arab militia and the Sudanese military forces.

Women and girls are singled out because the harm and humiliation inflicted not only hurts them, but also deeply harms and affects the men in the targeted community, Maguire told IRIN. Such sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can.

"This kind of systematic rape is an effort to humiliate the targeted community," Maguire said. "Although it involves women, it's specifically aimed at the men of that community. This type of rape is about 'cleansing' or changing the ethnic makeup of a group, which in my opinion is tantamount to genocide."

Such horrors were seen in Bosnia, where Muslim women were systematically raped as part of the "ethnic cleansing" campaign by Serb forces. Over 20,000 women are thought to have been raped during the war in order to humiliate and intimidate Bosnian Muslims; they were forcibly impregnated with half-Serbian children in order to dilute the Bosniak identity in the former Yugoslav republics, according to the United Nations Women's Fund, UNIFEM.

Maguire cited a report by UNIFEM, in which women's bodies were described as being 'used as an envelope from one group of men to another'. "Those committing the atrocities were effectively saying 'we're going to kill you, or destroy your capacity to breed'," she said.

Preventative action

While the outlook was bleak, Maguire maintained that much could be done at both the local and the international level to prevent and discourage the use of rape as a weapon in conflict, and to mitigate the effects of it within a targeted community.

More could be done to communicate the issue to warring factions, she said. "We must, as a community, make it clear that the use of rape in war is a breach of International Humanitarian Law and international conventions. We must treat it as a priority, and references should be made in every Security Council resolution, and in every indictment," she said.

Monitoring and reporting was also crucial, yet often challenging to put in place. Too often, the international community has had to acquiesce when belligerents refused to accept certain measures, such as the deployment of human rights monitors into a crisis, she said.

Maguire maintained that a new frame of reference for sexual violence was overdue. "Perhaps we need to start talking about sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security. That might affect our perception of the issue," she said.

"Part of the problem is that sexual violence is not unique to conflict situations. It also occurs in peaceful societies, therefore we tend to be more accepting of it than we would of the burning of houses, which is clearly linked to conflict. We have, as a society, a level of acceptability about rape. It happens. It's collateral damage. However, this means that we need to have a more energetic response to it," said Maguire.

Her statements were backed up by a UNIFEM report: "Violence against women in wartime is a reflection of violence against women in peacetime. As long as violence against women is pervasive and accepted, stress, small arms proliferation and a culture of violence push violence against women to epidemic proportions, especially when civilians are the main targets of warfare." [The report, titled Women, War, Peace andViolence Against Women, is available at]

Comfort Lamptey, gender advisor with the United Nation's Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO) in New York, told IRIN that a legal process as a means of tackling the pervasive culture of impunity was crucial.

"A legal response in terms of prosecution, truth and reconciliation, can redress crimes and serve as a deterrent," she said. To this end, the Rome Treaty, which established the International Criminal Court in 2000, had been fundamental in underlining rape as a crime against humanity.

Photo: Sylvia Spring/IRIN
A young woman in Goma, blinded by her rapists to prevent identification, tries to rebuild her life 2 years after the event
The ultimate aim was to discourage the belligerents from conducting a proxy war through their women. "The challenge is to communicate to men that sexual violence, and rape in particular, should not serve as a weapon of war," she said.

The importance of psychosocial support

Maguire added that there was also a need for psycho-social support, in coping with the trauma of such attacks. Sometimes just asking the right questions could be crucial. While serving as a lawyer in the UK defending asylum cases, Maguire recalled a Kurdish woman who complained of daily migraines for five years following an armed raid on her home and the torture of her husband. While the case had focused on the attack on her husband, no-one had thought to ask his wife if she had been maltreated. She had in fact been gang-raped, yet had never spoken of it. "She stopped having the headaches soon after," said Maguire.

"People need a channel to discuss these things. We, as a community, need to treat the use of rape with the same level of intolerability as we do when we see houses being destroyed, or children killed in conflict," she said.

Maguire referred to what she saw as a resistance within the international community to take on these psycho-social activities - partly because they seemed intangible, but also due to a common perception that rape was an "unavoidable" and "inevitable" element of conflict.

Lamptey agreed that there was a need to improve the mechanisms to support women confronted with such traumas, the dilemmas of unwanted children, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, or being rejected by their community or husband.

A survey in 2000 by Avega, an umbrella association in Rwanda that caters for the interest of 25,000 widows whose husbands were massacred during the 1994 genocide, found that two-thirds of the women were living with HIV/AIDS, while 80 percent were still seriously traumatized by the horrors and brutality they suffered during the genocide, UNIFEM reported.

Persistent sexual violence can also numb the targeted individual or community to other abuse or exploitation. Lamptey cited one situation during the protracted civil war in Sierra Leone where a young girl who had been abducted by rebels in Sierra Leone, had been released and was living as a prostitute. She considered herself fortunate as she was now being paid.

Lamptey said there were opportunities to influence attitudes to sexual violence and confront conflicts where systematic rape had become ubiquitous. "In Darfur, for example, what are the terms of reference for the monitors of the African Union? And will this include monitoring compliance with human rights issues, and sexual violence?"

Protecting displaced women

A particular area of concern for the humanitarian community is sexual violence against displaced women and children and the need to re-establish, as quickly as possible, structures and systems to ensure their safety in displaced settlements. Maguire cited examples of displaced communities in Darfur that opted to send women rather than men out to collect firewood. While they ran the risk of being raped or attacked by the roaming militias, their men would most certainly be killed, she said.

"It's a hugely difficult environment," Maguire said. "But we need to start asking ourselves how we can provide these displaced women with all that they need, to avoid having them run the daily risk of leaving these camps. We need to start thinking about how we can keep these women safe."

Masculinity and Gender-Based Violence

The inequities of gender relations are at the core of sexual violence and depend on perceptions of male and female roles in society and the social structures around this, Lamptey told IRIN. "In cultures that see women as the property of a man, then an affront on women is an attack at the man," she said.

Changing the mindset of people is key. "If we go to the heart of where this comes from - it relates to the notions of masculinity, sexual violence is still about men fighting men, they are just using the vessel of a woman's body. Fundamentally, it's about a lack of respect for women and their bodies as equals," said Lamptey.

There are also other factors such as poverty and economic instability, which have resulted in a "crisis of masculinity" in many parts of the world, according to analysis by UNIFEM. Men's traditional roles have been threatened and rather than finding alternate roles, men have in some cases sought to assert their masculinity "through irresponsible sexual behaviour or domestic violence".

What is positive however is that the approach to gender-based violence and the implications of masculinity have begun to change. It is now recognized that from an early age, a preconceived mould of masculinity is imposed on boys and men, just as stereotypes of femininity are imposed on girls and women. And as men change, entire cultures can begin to change, laying the foundations for a richer lifestyle, UNIFEM reported.

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 Documentary: Our Bodies...their battleground: Gender-based Violence during Conflict
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