03/31/2011 04:13 pm ET Updated May 31, 2011

War's Brutal Tactics

Until now, most of the images the world has seen of women in Libya have consisted of Gaddafi's Amazon-like female bodyguards, or his Ukrainian nurse, the women who have flanked him during his public appearances over the past several years. By various indicators, women had it relatively good in this oil-rich North African country. In matters of human development, as measured by the United Nations, Libya ranks 53rd out of 169 countries, the highest position of any African country. And for women, among issues such as literacy (71%), reproductive health, and workforce participation, Libya appears to be doing better than many of its peers in the Middle East and Africa. In measures of gender inequality, Libya ranks 52nd overall.

Yet when a Libyan woman named Eman al-Obeidy stumbled into a Tripoli hotel on Saturday to beg the foreign press corps to save her from Libyan security forces whom she accused of torturing and gang raping her, the world saw another side of Libya's women. This is the Libya cited in a 2006 Human Rights Watch report for its "rehabilitation centers," where women accused of sexual impropriety are forcibly confined and sometimes sexually assaulted by their captors in the process of being "rehabilitated" for shaming Libyan society. Along these lines, Gaddafi's spokesman Mussa Ibrahim was quick to condemn al-Obeidy as "drunk and mentally unstable," and later accused her of being a prostitute. He added that he couldn't "see anything political about her situation."

Yet al-Obeidy's accusations are anything but apolitical.

Al-Obeidy's visible panic, her frantic words and gestures before the security forces hauled her away, are potent reminders of the dangers women face in wartime. The prevalence of sexual violence in modern conflict prompted former UN peacekeeper Patrick Cammaert to assert that "It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern wars." Not only are women likely to be victims of sexual violence: along with children, they constitute 80% of those displaced by conflict. Victims often face unimaginable stigmas, and in some cases, remain in the same communities with the men who attacked them.

The United Nations has done much to try to raise awareness that rape during wartime is not merely the "collateral damage" of conflict that it was long thought to be. United Nations Resolution 1820, adopted in 2008, recognizes sexual violence against women as both a crucial security issue and a tactic of war. Rape is prohibited under international law. The resolution also calls for women to take part in peace talks, and for perpetrators to be brought to justice. Yet although violence against women during war is increasingly taken seriously as a crime, perpetrators are almost never brought to justice in international tribunals. For example, an estimated 20-50,000 women were raped during the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia, yet only 12 attackers have been tried. In Rwanda, 500,000 women were raped in 100 days of conflict. And in the genocide trials that followed, only 3% contained any convictions for sexual violence.

Although we still don't know exactly what happened to al-Obeidy, al-Jazeera has reported that doctors in Adjabiya have found condoms and Viagra in the pockets of dead Gaddafi soldiers, evidence, they say, that rape is being used as a weapon of war in Libya. As Women's History month draws to a close, we would do well to recall that the effects of violence against women don't go away once conflicts disappear from the news. In patriarchal societies like Libya, where family honor all too often focuses on the virtue of its women, the consequences can be devastating. Women who experience this type of violence not only face physical trauma and depression but also are likely to be ostracized by their families and communities. Children born to rape victims are often prevented from achieving full legal status in society.

In a more democratic Libya, we can hope that those women able to share their stories of rape and torture would be able to see their attackers face justice. The UN also recommends that women play a prominent role in peacekeeping and rebuilding societies post-conflict. And hopefully, a democratic society would be more transparent, allowing human rights abuses like the ones documented in Libya's rehabilitation centers to hopefully be eliminated.

Eman al-Obeidy's bravery in speaking out is commendable. Unfortunately, for many women, rape is still too much of a taboo to discuss openly. And as long as it remains so, as a tactic of war, it will continue.