Victims of rape in conflict zones should not be stigmatised

The international community is making progress in the way it handles rape cases in war zones, but there is still work to do.

Survivors of sexual violence in war zones need to be recognised as legitimate victims of conflict and terrorism – they must not be blamed, stigmatised or shamed, Hilary Lennox writes.

This point was raised last month by 70 countries before the United Nations Security Council in an open debate and Monday was the UN’s international day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict. 

Sexual violence is increasingly used as a tactic of terrorism, employed by extremist groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali and Sudan to advance their military, economic and ideological ends. 

It terrorises civilian communities. It is used to change the ethnic make up of the next generation. It enables hostile occupations and is a means of paying soldiers by way of forced brides and sex slaves. It has been used to deliberately infect women with HIV and render some incapable of bearing children.

Many victims are left not just traumatised but also stigmatised by their communities and blamed for the abuse. Perpetrators understand this. Victims become outcasts because of the shame.

The UN’s former special rapporteur on violence against women said that “throughout history, the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and children in all regions of the world has been a bitter reality. Previously rape was seen as a by-product of conflict.”

But the justice landscape is changing. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognises sexual violence as a war crime, a crime against humanity and a constituent act of genocide. The UN recognises rape and other forms of sexual violence as deliberate strategies used in campaigns of terror.

Addressing sexual violence is necessary to protect human rights and to ensure peace and security. Perpetrators need to be held accountable. Peace agreements that address the impacts of sexual violence stand a better chance of promoting community cohesion, economic recovery and sustainable peace. Ensuring women’s participation in all peace-building efforts including peace negotiations is also crucial.

The UN’s deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, told the Security Council: “A robust legislative framework is now in place, including a series of precise Security Council resolutions with new tools to drive change and progress.”

At the international and national level, she said, “there is a gradual shift from a reality in which it is cost-free to rape a woman, child or man in conflict, to one where there are consequences for anyone who commits, commands or condones such crimes”.

Hilary Lennox is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill chambers in London. She specialises in international human rights cases involving rape and other sexual violence