By Priyanka Sinha:
‘‘Four women every five minutes are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),’’ says Esperance Kavira Furaha. In 2009, on her way back home after appearing for her school exams, she was ambushed by members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and sexually assaulted. She was able to get help from SOFEPADI, a DRC-based NGO that promotes and defends women’s rights, and now works as an activist with them.
The situation in the DRC is not unique: sexual violence against women has been a feature of war for generations, across the world. The UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict report shows that in the context of armed conflict, the victims are far more likely to be civilians — mostly women and children — than soldiers.
Rape as a tool of war
Rape in armed conflict is used as a deliberate tool to destabilise and control civilian populations. Women and girls are particularly targeted because of their status in society: sexual violence is used to humiliate and control their families and the wider community.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report shows that the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) has carried out systematic sexual violence against captured Yezidi women and girls who have been given to the fighters as as ‘‘spoils of war’’.
In addition, through reproductive violations, systematic rape is used as part of ethnic cleansing. In the 90s, Bosnian Serbs were responsible for carrying out systematic gender-specific political torture against mostly Muslim women. It has been estimated that over 60,000 women were raped during the war.
Refugee crisis and sexual violence
With the world witnessing the worst displacement crisis since the Second World War, as conflicts in Syria, and recent developments in the Central African Republic and South Sudan have forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes, the situation for women and children caught in the conflict is likely to worsen.
The UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Global Trends report shows a marked increase in the number of refugees, with nearly 60 million people displaced at the end of 2014 compared to 51.2 million in 2013.
When forcibly displaced, women and girls are often separated from their families and are at particular risk of trafficking for the purposes of sexual slavery and exploitation.
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, women face sexualised violence along migration routes through Libya. While male refugees are subjected to torture and other forms of abuse, women are more vulnerable to sexual assault.
Global summit against use of rape in conflict
A summit on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by Angelina Jolie, actress and Special Envoy for the UNHCR and the former UK foreign secretary, William Hague, in June 2014, resulted in a protocol to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts, signed by 151 countries.
The declaration, however, does not create a legal obligation for countries to follow through on their endorsement of the protocol.
The UK government has been criticised for organising this summit while at the same time ignoring the plight of female asylum seekers who have suffered sexual violence in their home countries.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2000 to counter the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls has had limited impact.
While UN intervention has led to increased prosecution in cases, where high levels of rape have been part of the conflict such as in the DRC, there has been an increase in mass abductions by extremist groups in countries such as Syria and Myanmar.
These women continue to suffer stigma and discrimination even after they return home and are unable to access adequate post-traumatic support. In certain cultures, rape is conflated with adultery. For example, in Sudan, women who report rape can be accused of committing adultery (zinna) under Article 149 of the Sudanese Criminal Code of 1991. The promises of Resolution 1325 must be supported to ensure that women’s rights are protected during conflict and perpetrators are held to account.
In recent times, social media campaigns have helped bring to focus, the abuse faced by women in conflict-affected areas. The #bringbackourgirls movement started on Twitter in 2014, endorsed by celebrities and activists from Michelle Obama to Malala Yousafzai, was the global response to the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Although such campaigns play an important role in spreading awareness, the effectiveness of ‘clicktivism’ — a term used to describe activists who use social media to organise protests and show support for causes — has been criticised. Of the 276 schoolgirls, 219 are still missing and the online campaign is not as active anymore.