“When wars begin, so does the terror and devastation of sexual violence. The bodies of women and girls become battlefields. Rape is used as a weapon of war just as surely as the bomb that blows up a building or the tank that ploughs through a crowd.”
— United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem
Despite all the good and positive things in today’s world, evil exists. One such unspeakable axis of evil is that of conflict-related sexual violence.
According to the UN, the term “conflict-related sexual violence” refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilisation, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls, or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.
The UN adds that a consistent concern is that fear and cultural stigma will converge to prevent the vast majority of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from coming forward to report such violence. Alarmingly, practitioners in the field estimate that for each rape reported in connection with a conflict, 10 to 20 cases go undocumented.
On June 19, 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed June 19 of each year International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict in order to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes.
The date was chosen to commemorate the adoption on June 19, 2008 of a Security Council resolution in which the council condemned sexual violence as a tactic of war and an impediment to peace-building, and further affirmed that victims of trafficking and sexual violence committed by terrorist groups should be eligible for official redress as victims of terrorism.
The UN added that rising inequality, increased militarisation, reduced civic space, and the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons also contributed, among other factors, to fuelling widespread and systematic conflict-related sexual violence, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Women peace-builders and human rights defenders were often specifically targeted, including through sexual violence and harassment as a form of reprisal in order to exclude them from public life. Activists and advocates working to highlight the plight and defend the rights of survivors and support their access to justice and services were also subjected to reprisals and intimidation.
WEAPONISED RAPE IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR
By now most of the world is aware of the Russia-Ukraine War. We have seen and continue to see and read about the atrocities being committed in Ukraine. The following are brutal and graphic accounts of Ukrainian women who have been raped by invading soldiers. The stories were reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
In a quiet, rural neighbourhood, 70km (45 miles) west of Kyiv, the BBC spoke to Anna, who is 50. The BBC changed her name to protect her identity. Anna said that on March 7 she had been at home with her husband when a foreign soldier barged in. “At gunpoint, he took me to a house nearby. He ordered me: ‘Take your clothes off or I’ll shoot you.’ He kept threatening to kill me if I didn’t do as he said. Then he started raping me,” she said. Anna described her attacker as a young, thin, Chechen fighter allied with Russia.
“While he was raping me, four more soldiers entered. I thought that I was done for. But they took him away. I never saw him again,” she said. She believes she was saved by a separate unit of Russian soldiers.
Down the road from Anna’s house neighbours told another chilling story. A woman was allegedly raped and killed, and neighbours say it was done by the same man who raped Anna before he went to Anna’s house.
The woman was in her 40s. She was taken out of her home, says neighbours, and held in the bedroom of a nearby house, the occupants of which had evacuated when the war began. The well-decorated room is now a disturbing crime scene. There are large bloodstains on the mattress and duvet. In a corner is a mirror with a note written in lipstick, appearing to suggest where the victim was buried.
A family of three, a couple in their 30s and their young child, lived in a house on the edge of the village. On March 9 several soldiers of the Russian army entered the house. “The husband tried to protect his wife and child so they shot him in the yard,” said a neighbour. “After that, two soldiers repeatedly raped the wife. They would leave and then come back. They returned three times to rape her. They threatened that if she resisted they would harm her little boy. To protect her child she didn’t resist.” When the soldiers left, they burnt down the house and shot the family’s dogs.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THE CONTEXT OF COVID-19
Undoubtedly, sexual violence has further impeded women’s livelihood activities, and this is especially so against the backdrop of economic shocks and poverty driven by protracted conflict and pandemic-related restrictions. These trends emerged at a time when the global public health crisis as a result of the novel coronavirus had already diminished humanitarian access and diverted resources away from life-saving services to address gender-based violence and deeply affecting survivors, in particular displaced women and girls.
Despite this, governments continue to invest more in their military and weapons acquisition than in their fragile health-care systems, more so in conflict-affected countries.
IN PURSUIT OF A PROTECTIVE CULTURE
There was a time in most cultures when women and children were protected. Unfortunately, such times have disappeared and we now operate in an era in which women are specifically targeted regarding conflict-related sexual violence.
Those of us who know our history will remember that the liberating forces of the former Soviet Union, present-day Russia, also used rape as a weapon during World War II.
Russia is not alone in committing these monstrous acts. Other countries have been guilty, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, the Cameroon, Myanmar, Mali, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. Wherever we have had war, women and girls have been subjected to rape, sexual torture, and violence.
Sadly, in many instances, the perpetrators are not brought to justice and the victims are left without getting justice.
In many societies victims of rape are stigmatised and discriminated against. Oftentimes those voiceless victims become severely depressed, especially if they are not given psycho-social support.
There also tends to be a generalisation that only women and girls are victims of conflict-related sexual violence; however, documented evidence has proven otherwise, as men and boys are also victims.
We are experts at theorising issues; however, practical steps are needed in the pursuit of a protective culture. One which deters as much as provides support for the victims. This protective culture should also be one in which perpetrators are brought to justice.
As the war in Ukraine pushes on, we must be mindful that sexual violence is a violation of human rights and a crime under international humanitarian law. The international community needs to galvanise around this issue and do more. It is not enough to issue condemnations; words alone will not suffice. The time for collective action in order to eradicate this horrendous practice is now.
According to Ban Ki-Moon, former UN secretary general, sexual violence is now widely recognised as a deliberate strategy used to shred the fabric of society, control and intimidate communities, and force people from their homes. It is rightly seen as a threat to international peace and security, a serious violation of human rights, and a major impediment to post-conflict reconciliation and economic development.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.