The scale of an unspeakable horror from Bosnia’s rape camps and the horrors of Rwanda’s genocide in the 1990s to the atrocities being perpetrated daily in northern Congo and Sudan’s Darfur region, the tally of body bags runs alongside another grim body count: the numbers of women and girls, but in some places men and boys too, subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Reliable and comprehensive figures are hard to come by: victims are often too traumatised or too fearful to speak out. But a report on “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict” by the Geneva-based Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) picks its way as systematically as it can through conflict after conflict, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, piecing together the evidence.
It is grim reading. In Bosnia’s war up to 50,000 women were subject to sexual violence; over 14 years perhaps 40% of Liberia’s population suffered similar abuse; just under half those interviewed in a randomised study in Sierra Leone in 2000 had been raped, and more than a quarter had been gang-raped.
Such sexual violence can lead to severe physical as well as psychological damage: high numbers of fistula cases have been reported during conflicts in Burundi, Chad, Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere. An earlier DCAF report recorded that an estimated 70% of Rwanda’s rape survivors were infected with HIV/AIDS. The offspring of such violence are often stigmatised or abandoned as “children of hate”. In other words, the damaging health, economic and social consequences live on long after conflicts end.
Can such violence be curbed? In Darfur, marauding militias prey on women and children collecting firewood, food or animal fodder outside refugee camps. In some places, African Union peacekeepers have sent out trucks with soldiers to follow the women and provide as much protection as they can.
Alongside practical initiatives like these “firewood patrols”, DCAF calls, as have earlier UN resolutions, for more women peacekeepers. They get along better with locals and also improve the behaviour of their male counterparts (in Congo in 2005 the UN registered 72 allegations of sexual violence of one sort or another against its own troops; 20 were substantiated). The percentage of women serving in UN military and police units is tiny; but some women have recently had senior posts in UN missions. And earlier this year Liberia received the UN’s first-ever all-female contingent—103 Indian policewomen. It would help, says DCAF, if victims of sexual violence were more involved and better cared for in programmes for disarmament and demobilisation.
But when it comes to curbing sexual violence during conflict, ending a culture of impunity is key. The statute of the International Criminal Court allows for the prosecution of rape and similar violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and even potentially as acts of genocide. Earlier this year the chief prosecutor decided to focus one of the court’s investigations on atrocities carried out in 2002-03 in the Central African Republic—where rapes may have exceeded murders.
The increasing use of rape, by governments as well as militias, as a weapon of war is to be the target of a UN General Assembly resolution that is expected to pass soon. After intense lobbying by Sudan (the resolution named no names, but evidently the shoe fitted) among the UN’s Africa group, backed surprisingly by South Africa, the language of the resolution has been watered down somewhat. But it still calls for the UN secretary-general to report back next year on what is being done to protect civilians against sexual violence—and to hold to account, among others, governments that target their own citizens in this way.
* War’s other victims/Dec 6th 2007/From The Economist print edition