Beyond Violence 

Protecting War’s Most Vulnerable: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

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Where to begin? There is hardly any sober or non-emotive way of writing about mothers who were raped in front of their children or about women and girls who were gang raped, then burned alive in their huts by the South Sudanese army. What words can you use to describe the plight of over 200 girls who have been missing for 500 days after being kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria; or the hundreds and possibly thousands of Yazidi women and girls who have been forcibly married, sold like cattle or given as “gifts” to Islamic State fighters and their supporters? Many of those held as sexual slaves are children – girls aged 14, 15 or even younger. In fact, 93.5% of forced "bush wives" of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda were sexually abused during their time in the bush; 85% of "bush wives" returned with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Such is the scope and intensity of war related sexual violence, which has increasingly come to include abduction and slavery. Abducted women are routinely subjected to rape, sexual slavery, unwanted pregnancy, indentured servitude, and torture under the guise of “marriage.”

Sexual violence is the most immediate and dangerous type of gender based violence occurring in acute emergencies. This is because in situations of armed conflict, institutions and systems for physical and social protection are weakened or destroyed and there is breakdown of community support systems and protection mechanisms. This translates into brutal conflicts in which rape and violence against women are prevalent; aggravated by impunity and militarized societies in which gender inequality is pronounced. A few days into the Burundi political crisis for instance, the International Rescue Committee was already reporting an increase in cases of assault and other forms of sexual violence experienced by women amid the unrest. Nevertheless, the predominant attitude that sexual abuse and violence in conflict settings is inevitable must be challenged.

The endemic implicit and explicit violence being waged on women and girls in conflict areas is both pervasive and evil and strongly points at the institutionalization of a culture of sexual violence as a means of war. It must be understood that while bullets and bombs kill individuals, rape and sexual violence devastates women and collapses communities. Every atrocity committed in times of war reduces the prospect of achieving peace or makes peace difficult to sustain once it is attained. Therefore, there is an urgent and desperate need to propel sexual violence in conflict up on the world’s agenda, and generate a new willingness by governments around the world to take a firm committed stand on the issue. Furthermore, in light of credible allegations that UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic raped and sexually abused starving and displaced children in exchange for food and more recently, a UN peacekeeper raped a 12 year old girl in Mali, there must be a strong commitment to erode the culture of impunity and stop such sexual exploitation from happening.

The primary responsibility for protection of civilians lies with the state and states must therefore be held accountable to the various human rights, refugee, and humanitarian instruments as a key aspect of protection. A critical factor also lies in rejecting the silence surrounding Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Medieval and archaic perceptions of rape and deliberate policies to keep it quiet should not be allowed to thrive. The available data often represents a very small proportion of the actual number of incidents of sexual violence because women fear the retaliation and social humiliation that reporting it could bring. Some governments have also been known to use their propaganda machines to deny existence of heinous sexual crimes, such as in Tabit, Sudan, where multiple victims and witnesses reported that government officials threatened to imprison or kill anyone who spoke out about sexual abuse that had occurred over a 36 hour military onslaught. In nearby Somalia, security forces have been known to punish women who report rape. Everybody has a responsibility to instill a climate that does not tolerate or ignore sexual assault. Girls and women must also be made aware of the support available to them.

These are defining times. Women’s rights activists need to take a proactive stance by speaking up and drawing attention to this very important issue and direct decision makers towards a solution. The humanitarian community must advocate for inclusion of sexual violence as a consistent agenda item for discussion in meetings of sector groups, working groups, donor meetings, and other coordination and planning meetings in conflict settings. This will increase global awareness and readiness to act. Ultimately, the decision about the best protection option must rest with the threatened group after participatory and consultative consideration. The central element of any protection strategy for women and girls in conflict must place a high focus on gender equality and recognize women’s capacities to participate and contribute to the management and transformation of conflict. We must ensure commitment to practical action and create momentum towards ending rape and sexual violence in conflict worldwide. Sexual violence is not a problem to be tackled by only people in faraway conflict zones with unfamiliar names. It is about our shared humanity and it is not enough to be united in condemnation of this violence; we must be actively united against it.

Sexual abuse and exploitation is a violation of universal human rights protected by international human rights conventions such as the right to security of person, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to life. We cannot afford the luxury of passivity when it comes to eradicating a crime that has become a stain on the collective conscience of humanity. History will point an accusing finger at us if we keep allowing women to be degraded, disgraced, and dehumanized by the atrocities of war. We must demand bold political leadership to prevent rape in conflict, to protect civilians and rape survivors, and call for justice for all; including effective prosecution of those who orchestrate, encourage, permit, and collude in sexual violations. We must ensure full respect for the rights of women and girls in accordance with the letter and spirit of human rights.

Written by Ndunge Wayua and published on 30-August-2015

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