Rape in War: Why We Need More Than a Day to Overturn Centuries of Violence

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Written by by Samantha Stafford

On May 15, 2017, United Nations (UN) Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed declared sexual violence in conflict to be “rightly viewed as legitimate threat to security and durable peace.” She, along with many others in the UN, recognize that although the awareness of sexual violence in conflict as a legitimate crime is shifting (positively), the problem remains prominent worldwide.

The ultimate solution is to eliminate the root causes of such violence, namely: gender inequality, discrimination, and the lack of repercussions often experienced by the offender. Such a change is difficult and slow, but still possible. The recognition of an International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, June 19, is a small but important step in revealing the pervasiveness and significance of this issue across the globe. For a problem to truly be solved, the extent of the problem must first be recognized.

But hasn’t sexual violence in conflict been recognized as a legitimate crime?  Technically, yes, but only recently, and the true extent of the problem is still impossible to quantify. It has been ingrained in many cultures for centuries that rape and other forms of sexual abuse are just acceptable, unavoidable, “spoils of war.”

It was not until 1992 that the UN Security Council, in addressing the “massive, organized and systematic detention and rape” of women in the former Yugoslavia, decided that sexual violence in conflict was a problem that needed to be classified as an international crime. Therefore, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first international court to explicitly consider rape a crime against humanity if committed in conflict against civilians, and the first international court to find a person guilty of rape in the context of conflict. In 1994 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda followed suit, as did the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002. The ICC incorporates “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization” and “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” into their definition. This definition parallels the UN’s definition of “conflict-related sexual violence.”

On June 19, 2015, the UN General Assembly declared June 19th the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, to raise awareness, honor the victims, and commemorate the adoption of Security Council resolution 1820 (2008), which classifies sexual violence as a strategy of warfare.

How often does sexual violence in conflict really occur? Unfortunately, the answer is more often than we know, or would like to acknowledge. The 2017 Report of the Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence focuses on 19 countries where sexual violence in conflict is especially pervasive. And for every reported instance of abuse, there are likely countless more stories unheard, making the extent of the issue especially difficult to analyze, report, and create solutions for.

Workers in the field estimate that 10 to 20 cases go unreported for every case reported in connection with a conflict. Despite this unfortunate reality, historical estimations of occurrences are staggering. A 1993 European Commission report estimated 20,000 cases of rape during the Bosnian war. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the estimate was 250,000 to 500,000; this is likely a large underestimate due to the way in which the numbers were extrapolated. Currently, the refugee crisis, in which many unprotected and displaced women and children are fleeing high-conflict areas, is a huge cause of concern in respect to sexual violence in conflict. According to a study commissioned by UNICEF, based on interviews with 60 unaccompanied refugee children between the ages of 11-17, no children go out at night for fear of rape, and all girls encounter proposals for sex in exchange for a potential passage to Western Europe.

Progress is slowly being made to stop such human rights abuses, by governments, activists, and non-state actors; however, the progress is slow, and meanwhile sexual violence in conflict persists. According to Zeinab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, positive developments include: normative progress such as the rising accountability for committing sexual crimes, the recognition of the issue by governments as a state concern, and the rise of concerned non-state actors. Organizations such as the Mukwege Foundation, set up in 2016, are taking matters into their own hands; specifically focusing efforts on ending sexual violence in conflict by providing support to survivors, working to change gender norms, and ensuring accountability.

Sexual violence in conflict is often considered a “complicated” issue, but this is false. The issue is clear, the extent of the problem is immeasurably high, and the people affected are ignored. More needs to be done to enforce what is already an international crime. The solution is the complicated part. The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict is not the solution, but the recognition of a horrific problem that despite progress, still needs a solution. It’s time to not only rewrite the rules of warfare, but to actually follow them. It’s time for a new ending.

Photo: Students in El Fasher, North Darfur, Sudan. UN Photo/Albert González Farran