In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
AFRICA-ASIA: The responsibilities of the state and civil society in addressing gender-based violence
Girls and women all over the world are waiting for justice for crimes shrouded by the general culture of impunity in relation to sexual violence
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - On 6 July 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed an African Union session in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and urged African governments to take responsibility for the proliferation of gender-based violence (GBV) in their countries.
"I deplore the fact that sexual and gender-based violence continues to be used as a weapon of war in African conflicts. In parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] and in the Darfur region of Sudan, gender-based violence has reached almost epidemic proportions. Every effort must be made to halt this odious practice, and bring the perpetrators to justice," he said.
Annan urged African states to do everything they could to "translate into reality" the objectives of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which was adopted on 31 October 2000 and states that "civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those directly affected by armed conflict".
As Annan's statement attests, the issue of GBV during conflict has been getting increased attention in the global community. Rape and other forms of sexual torture in war-torn countries have been graphically described and denounced from many quarters. Humanitarian organizations have been very vocal about the need for increased support and aid for abused women and girls.
Dennis McNamara, a senior UN official, described to IRIN the plight of women and girls in northern Uganda, where rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army are fighting the armed forces: "We are very concerned about the protection of women and girls, in particular, from sexual abuse and violence. There is a lot of that around. There is no rule of law system up there - soldiers are on the move, the girls very poor, social structures have broken down."
McNamara, who is special adviser to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator on Internal Displacement and Director of the UN Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division, lamented the lack of psychosocial counselling services for survivors of abuse. "We are very concerned about doing more on that - monitoring, reporting, trying to stop it and asking the government to have their courts functioning", he told IRIN.
Save the Children UK, in a recent report on the crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan, said that many rape victims could not distinguish whether their attackers came from the militia or from the regular army. "Many interviewees reported being gang-raped, some of them while pregnant. Rapes initially took place as part of attacks on villages, though many continue in and around camps," it said.
Amnesty International, in a 19 July report titled 'Rape as a weapon of war: sexual violence and its consequences
', said of the Darfur crisis: "Abuses against women are an integral part of the conflict and are too often neglected. They must urgently be taken into account in the Sudanese government and international community's response to the crisis."
The question repeatedly posed by humanitarian organizations is 'whose responsibility is it to stop abuses against women and girls during and after conflict?'
A short history of GBV in conflict
During wars and most forms of civil conflict, women and children have historically been targeted for a particular kind of treatment. Armed conflict has included genocide, rape and sexual violence. These atrocities have often been used to destabilise and dehumanise "the enemy", whose face is often female.
While some of the most brutal violence against women was documented in the early part of the 20th century (the rape of Nanking, the Nazi genocide, the Japanese enslavement and rape of "comfort women" during World War II), the majority of cases that have come to public attention and been condemned have been in the past decade. Rhonda Copelon, a professor of law and an expert on women's rights issues, has said that until a decade ago, it was openly questioned whether rape was a war crime.
The world community was shocked by the facts of the systematic and widespread rape, torture and murder of women and girls in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s. In its 2004 publication 'It's in our hands (Stop Violence against women)', Amnesty International documented a wide range of GBV incidents. It described how during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor from 1975-1999, women were routinely raped or forced into sexual slavery if suspected of sympathising with the pro-independence opposition or being related to its members. Haitian women married to political organisers were raped and brutalised after an attempted 1991 coup. During the conflict between the state of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers - from the 1980s to the recent past - women in custody have been blindfolded, beaten and raped by army, policy and navy officials. While men and boys were also victims of war, these particular forms of violence against unarmed non-combatants were used primarily on the female populations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) noted in 2002 that "in many countries that have suffered violent conflict, the rates of interpersonal violence remain high even after cessation of hostilities - among other reasons because of the way violence has become more socially acceptable and the availability of weapons." A US army study 'Hidden Casualties
' published in 2003 in Southern Exposure magazine reported "severe aggression" against spouses to be three times higher in army families than in civilian ones. In countries such as Liberia and the DRC, which are officially in a "post-conflict" state, violence against the female population has not ceased. In the DRC, the DOCS (Doctors on Call for Service) hospital reported that in the eastern town of Goma, child rape had increased by 20.6 percent in the first five months of 2004.
The issue of impunity
Impunity - the absence of punishment - is the failure to bring to justice perpetrators of human rights violations. UN Security council Resolution 1325 emphasises the responsibility of all states to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for "genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls".
Impunity builds a climate of normalcy and acceptability to crimes of beating, rape and other forms of violence. According to Amnesty International, impunity continues even when there are laws prohibiting violence against women because "social institutions, cultural norms and political structures in every country sustain and maintain it, making the law a dead letter". Women know this and so do not seek justice, and the cycle of violence continues. A WHO report published in 2003 into attitudes among Ugandan men and women said that beating a female partner was viewed as justifiable in certain circumstances by 70 percent of men and 90 percent of female respondents.
The UN's Dennis McNamara summed up to IRIN the predicament of rape victims in Sudan's Darfur crisis. "A raped woman in Sudan must go to the police before she can go to hospital. And most of them don't want to go to the police," he said.
WHO has pointed out that communities which condemn violence, take action to end it and provide support for survivors, have lower levels of violence than communities that do not take action. During conflict periods, the challenge for the community is greater with fewer resources, but the will for justice is often greater still.
The need for accountability
The classification of rape in war has changed very slowly, according to gender experts. They say that in the 1907 Hague Convention, rape was seen as a violation of family honour - a moral offence, rather than a crime of violence.
In 1948, the international community signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaimed that everyone should enjoy human rights without discrimination. However, gender experts say that due to the prevailing global "gender blindness", women's human rights were overlooked in the following years of "man-made" legislation. Many international agreements have included gender equality, most notably the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but it was not until the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna that women's rights were officially declared as human rights. This was achieved after intense lobbying from the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights. In December 1993, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Violence against Women was adopted.
|Varbah Gayflor; Interior Minister for Gender, Liberia
The most significant of the international lobbying events was the far-reaching Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, agreed upon at the Fourth World UN Conference on Women in 1995. Subsequent world conferences have developed more precise and practical steps that civil society and governments can take to prevent violence against women and girls, as well as how to provide redress to victims.
Pressure has been kept up on the world community to honour these UN agreements through follow-up lobbying from women's groups across national and regional boundaries. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia began to prosecute rape and sexual violence as war crimes against humanity, while the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998 prosecuted rape as genocide.
Dr Kelly D.Askin, director of the International Criminal Justice Institute, has said that provisions are needed in international humanitarian law that take women's experiences of sexual violence as a starting point rather than just a by-product of war. The UN's Resolution 1325, which is due to be reviewed by the Security Council in October, emerged from the leadership of supportive governments, the advocacy of non-governmental organizations and technical assistance from the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and other gender advocates in the UN system. The resolution was seen as setting a new threshold of action for the Security Council, the UN system and for all governments.
Whose responsibility to protect?
A Somali male journalist said of violence against women: "Here in Africa we're still in denial about violence against women, absolutely. Honestly, anyone in their right mind wouldn't deny it. It isn't even an aberration - it happens daily".
African men do not have a monopoly on violence against women. It happens in every country. WHO says that "worldwide, it has been estimated that violence against women is as serious a cause of death as cancer and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined".
Traditional family systems where men were seen as the defenders of wife and children have been eroded in many instances due to poverty, men leaving home to seek work, illness (due to HIV/AIDS and other fatal ailments) and war. Men who do survive regional wars and return home are often without employment and angry. Instead of rebuilding their family lives, many take out their frustrations on their families, especially their wives.
With the breakdown of traditional family roles, a vacuum is left. Wars make these situations even worse. Women and girls' vulnerability during conflict becomes even more severe. Many are forced to flee their homes and become refugees or internally displaced persons - IDPs. This is where international laws are most needed.
While it is in women's interest to lobby the world "authorities" to make effective laws that protect women's rights, the onus of protection is still on men's shoulders, according to a 2002 UNIFEM report. Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, authors of 'Women War and Peace', summarised the situation since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001: "Across the world 30,000 children under the age of five died of preventable diseases on September 11, September 12 and every day since; the plague of HIV/AIDS has marched on; and decision-making on matters of peace and security remains male dominated," they said.
Kofi Annan's appeal to African nations in July to translate into reality Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security can be seen as a call to all member nations to act to ensure, as Annan hopes, that impunity becomes "a relic of the past".