Trigger warning for graphic detail.
"It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars." These words were spoken by Major General Patrick Cammaert, the Deputy Force Commander of the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2008, as he described the the terrifying scorched earth rape strategy being employed in that country (and others like it). Not only is rampant sexual violence a human rights violation and war crime, but it is a recognized core security issue for international peace and conflict resolution.
How can this be? War evokes images of young men, literally led to slaughter. For most people exposure to conflict most frequently comes in the form of newspaper pages filled with pictures of young men and a few women who've die as soldiers fighting wars in other countries. We don't see pictures of women who die as civilians or those who are raped violently and repeatedly in conflict as a war strategy. Rape, invisible and ubiquitous, is perceived as sexual and inevitable, and we tend to think of children and women as collaterally damaged during war. In truth, all over the world, girls and women are fully, bodily engaged in conflict involving the regular use of men's bodies, and other objects, as weapons against them. Women, enslaved and described as sperm "envelopes" to be passed from man to man, are subject to violent forced impregnation or sterilization, psychological terror, humiliation, bodily mutilation and death.
It is exceedingly difficult to obtain accurate data regarding the incidence of rape even in daily, civilian life. Obtaining it during times of war and in cultures where the stigma attached to being a rape victim and an unmarried pregnant girl or woman results in ostracization or death, it is exponentially more difficult. Women Under Siege documents the use of rape as an instrument of torture and genocide worldwide. It is currently tracking and mapping rapes in Syria. Its goal is to learn from historical events and change outcomes in the future. One thing is certain, however; rape is when men weaponize themselves, and conflict is the time when rape as a mass phenomenon of power and control is most obvious.
Can rape during conflict be stopped? This is the goal of The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, a collaboration between more than 400 Nobel Peace Laureates, international advocacy organizations, and groups working in conflict zones that launched this week.
The campaign, based on the practice of three principles, PREVENT, PROTECT, PROSECUTE, urges political leaders to acknowledge the widespread use of rape as a weapon during conflict and to protect civilians and those already victimized, often repeatedly, by these crimes. It requires that perpetrators of rape be identified, arrested and prosecuted -- often by the very regimes engaged in the practice.
The Campaign is currently focused on four countries that need urgent attention:
The Democratic Republic of Congo is hell on earth for women. It is known as the "rape capital of the world." Despite an almost ten-year-old peace agreement, conflict is pervasive and deadly. Between 2006 and 2007, more than 400,000 women were raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last month, The Atlantic ran a story and photographs of a woman who had been cannibalized after her rape. At a rate of 48 rapes an hour, the level of sexualized violence was terrifying. During this period, girls and women, assaulted with weapons, including bayonets, made daily decisions between starving and being raped as they search for food. There were widespread reports of rebel rape camps and regular, frequent gang rapes, often including baby girls. Children conceived in rape, also died in rape. Rape is now a "normal" part of life involving civilians and members of various militias, including state forces and rebels. Men rape to humiliate, control, terrorize. Some believe it provides them with "magical powers" before fighting. The occurrence of rape remains high and common and is notable because it is now happening in women's homes, where rape is largely accepted and perpetrators entirely unpunished. Several aid organizations have also begun tracking a high incidence of male rape, increasingly recognized worldwide as a frequent occurrence in conflict, even harder to document.
In Burma, a report produced by ShanWomen.org, a grass-roots organization, documents the repeated rapes of more than 625 girls and women and the use of violent sexual assault as a weapon. These girls and women were often raped by commanding officers in front of their troops as part of an ongoing program of torture, shame and violence including choking, suffocation and various forms of mutilation. Twenty-five percent of rapes ended in death. Out of the total 173 documented cases, only one man was punished. On the other hand, women coming forward to report their rapes were imprisoned, assaulted and sometimes killed.
In Colombia, a country were low-grade conflict regularly involving civilians has existed since the 1940s, girls (as young as at least 11) and women are regularly subjected to rape and assault by members of the military, paramilitary and guerilla forces. A survey on the incidence of sexual violence due to conflict in Colombia found that six girls and/or women were raped every hour between 2001 and 2009. During this period 500,000 girls and women reported being raped. "82.15% of the 489,678 women victims of some type of sexual violence (meaning 402,264 women) did not report the abuses. 73.93% of the victims consider that the presence of armed actors...is an obstacle to reporting sexual violence."
Lastly, Kenya, where, although there is no ongoing war, rape is used as a tool of ethnic subjugation defined as conflict related to 2007 post-election violence. A study conducted by The Centre for Rights Education and Awareness in 2008 found that "The Kenya Police Crime Report data for 2007 indicated that there were 876 cases of rape reported, 1,984 cases of defilement, 181 cases of incest, 198 cases of sodomy, 191 cases of indecent assault and 173 cases of abduction reported in the year." Post-election rapes in Kenya included incidences of forced genital mutilation and widespread gang rapes. The next Kenyan election is in 2013.
Darfur-Sudan, Egypt, Liberia, Peru, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda (where 500,000 women were raped in 100 days), Cambodia, Bosnia, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico. These are places where mass conflict-driven rape were and are sometimes are still common, often as a tool of ethnic cleansing.
Gender inequities are at the core of these assaults because even though girls and women are overwhelming victims, men in these communities are often the primary targets. Girls and women are viewed as property and an attack on them is a form of theft and destruction against men. In this way, rape is a strategy and a reward both. Raping females is one of the most effective ways of eviscerating the social fabric of a community at every level.
Susan Brownmiller first described rape's role in conflict in what she called the "hit and run rapes of Bengali women" by Pakistani troops in 1971 in her landmark book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.
So, what can you do? The organizers are aware that the goal of eliminating conflict-driven rape and sexual assault seems improbable to many, if not most, people. There is a tendency for self-fulfilling mythology to dominate conversations about rape in conflict. But, there are conflicts where industrialized, terrorizing rape does not occur. If that is the case, then there is nothing inevitable about it.
The campaign, launched this week, is designed to raise awareness and brings supporters together online.
It's not impossible.
Events will be taking place throughout the week of May 6-13, in countries around the world. Everyone interested should take the initiative's Pledge, which involves a series of action steps related to using social media to share information, raising funds and generating political momentum to change the way government perceive and deal with this issue. You can do, for example, taking a photo of your #IPLEDGE and sharing it on the StopRape in Conflict wall; contacting your local government official and informing them of the Campaign and your pledge; sharing the information on your Facebook wall, and encouraging others to learn more. If you are a Tweeter, use the hashtag #IPLEDGE. Tweet your representatives and make sure you include @stoprapecmpgn in your Tweets.
This post originally appeared on Fem2.0 and is crossposted with permission.
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly