History's Greatest Silence
Rape in conflict is not a new phenomenon. But with increased data, research, and media visibility, we are able to demonstrate the widespread nature of gender violence around the world. Rape is no longer considered an inevitable part of armed conflict—evidence shows that it is employed as a strategic weapon to destroy people, communities, and entire nations.
Gender violence is a tactical weapon used by state security forces and armed groups alike. It includes rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, sterilization, mutilation, and insertion of objects into cavities. In international law, rape and gender violence are considered crimes against humanity – war crime and rape can even be a crime of genocide.
The motives for conflict-related rape and gender violence are varied –ranging from tactical to personal. Rape is often used to destroy the social and cultural bonds of communities, gang rape can be used to create cohesion within army units, it can be used to ensure terror among the enemy or during looting.
Rape continues to often be used as a weapon after peace has been negotiated, as various sides in conflicts struggle to demobilize and resume their lives alongside each other—often still fearing renewed clashes. Gender violence tears the social fabric of society apart, continuing to leave a deep impact on survivors and communities in the years after the attack and conflict. Medical problems such as sexually transmitted diseases or gynecological fistula, only compound the psychological trauma.
Our collective efforts have brought gender violence to the forefront of policy and public discussions. Now, our united actions will stop rape in conflict.
A Future Free of Sexual Violence
Rape is not an inevitable part of armed conflict –and we all hold an important role in stopping it. Research has shown that there have been wars waged where there is an absence of gender violence –and we are certain that with the proper structures firmly in place within our society and institutions, preventing rape in conflict will be a reality.
Over the years, the international system has significantly evolved to acknowledge the prevalence of rape in conflict. Now placed on the international security agenda, sexual violence and women have finally been prioritized. The United Nations has passed a number of resolutions on Women, Peace and Security including Security Council Resolution 1960. This most recent resolution creates institutional tools to combat impunity for rape in conflict by allowing referrals to UN Sanctions Committees and the International Criminal Court, international condemnation, reparations, as well as listing of perpetrators in the UN Secretary General’s annual report.
Yet, there is a clear lack of effectively preventing rape in conflict. Legislation is drafted at local, national, and international levels in support of stopping rape—but a significant lack of political will and resources hinders any meaningful implementation of these new laws, leaving women at risk.
An important aspect of prevention is monitoring and reporting. Collecting data and investing in research on the causes, characteristics, and consequences of rape in conflict allows us to build our knowledge of the scale of gender violence. It also allows us to properly prepare strategies in insecure contexts where gender violence could be anticipated. Without fully understanding the causes and scope of the violence, we will never be able to prevent it in the future.
Raising awareness on gender violence is key to long-term prevention and stopping rape in conflict. As we work towards preventing conflict-related rape, we will address the institutionalized discrimination in our society, while changing people’s mindsets towards violence and women. Overall, it will constitute of re-defining the concept of masculinity to remove the emphasis of power and violence to allow a more equal and peaceful gender relationship.
Armed forces are obliged to protect civilians from harm in conflict, including regional and United Nations peacekeepers. Sadly, many times states fall short on their duties—targeting their own population for violence or failing to adequately address safety concerns of civilians and survivors of gender violence. Survivors of rape have unique protection needs and often fall victim to repeat attacks due to insecurity, institutionalized sexual violence, or domestic violence.
There needs to be an emphasis by government’s around the world that are engaged in conflict to put their will and resources into stopping rape and gender violence committed by their own security forces. Too often, as in our four focus countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Burma, and Kenya—the government has been incapable or unwilling to stop rape committed by those tasked with protecting the country’s civilians. Comprehensive security sector reform is needed so that armies are properly vetted, trained, paid, and respectful of human rights.
Demobilization and reintegration programs have continually failed and often caused more chaos within communities—such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former combatants who return to their homes are not provided with a means to survive and tend to revert back to violent tendencies, including rape. In regions of the world with significant conflict, domestic violence and rape among non-military personnel has also spiked.
Those tasked with protecting civilians and rape survivors need to be properly coordinated and outfitted for the task. This requires legislation and resolutions to be implemented without limitations. Militaries are in a position to stop rape rather than incite it. They have to be given the proper capacity to do so.
One of the most important aspects of protection is the vital services and support provided to survivors of rape and gender violence—ranging from physical protection, medical attention, psychosocial support, and assistance with achieving justice. All survivors need to receive attention and be able to report their attack, while remaining free from further victimization.
Impunity for rape and gender violence in conflict prevails. While prosecution for perpetrators of rape is still rare, there have been courts at different levels that have taken on this challenge. Rape and gender violence in conflict have been included in charges at local and national courts, international tribunals, as well as the International Criminal Court.
The legal definition of rape has developed over the past two decades, and in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had the first successful conviction for rape as a crime of genocide. Since then, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Special Court for Sierra Leone have included judgments—the latter saw the first convictions for sexual slavery and forced marriage.
Yet, justice is elusive for survivors as attackers often continue to hold their jobs within the security forces, live alongside their victims, and face no reprisal for their actions. In many countries around the world, security forces are privilege to special justice mechanisms including being tried only within military courts—providing many challenges for survivors to obtain a fair trial.
While prosecution is a significant part of reaching justice—ensuring that perpetrators account for their actions—justice also includes a number of other elements. Breaking the silence and shedding light on the truth, providing proper support and reparations to survivors, as well as reconciliation, which can be a formal or personal process.
We will continually push for justice mechanisms to be provided with the proper attention and resources they need. In many conflict countries, the justice system needs to be reformed and supported to ensure it is fully functioning and has the capacity to serve the population. Legal aid and proper support needs to be given to survivors of rape, so that the continuing cycle of violence can be stopped.