Sexual violence against women is no longer seen as just a by-product of conflict, yet there is still more to be done to ensure perpetrators of rape are brought to justice, writes Hilary Lennox

This year the United Nation’s theme is ‘Preventing Sexual Violence Crimes through Justice and Deterrence’ and 19 June marked the now annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is designed to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence. Sadly, women’s bodies are being used now as a tool of war and a deliberate strategy for terrorism. It is not just a by-product of war, or a result of sexual gratification – it is a deliberate strategy used by terrorist groups to punish, humiliate, and control communities. If you destroy the women’s dignity, you destroy the whole community.

There are several terrorist groups currently at play. Somali women have been liberated from Al-Shabaab, Nigerian women from Boko Haram, and Yezidi women from Isis. These extremist groups specifically target women and girls. Isis justifies the abuses in the name of religion, based on its radical interpretations of the Qur’an.

Rape enables hostile occupations by these extremists and is also a means of paying soldiers, with forced brides and sex slaves. It is used to change the ethnic make-up of the next generation. Such attacks cause women and children to flee their homes, lead to fragmentation of communities, and bring the risk of infection from HIV. Whether a woman is raped at gunpoint or trafficked into sexual slavery by an enemy, the sexual abuse will shape not just her own but her community’s future, for years to come.

Many victims of rape are left both traumatised and then stigmatised by their communities and blamed for the abuses they have suffered. Perpetrators understand this strategy, which corrodes from within the very core of enemy communities. Victims become outcasts due to the shame inflicted upon them. Men are unable to look at their wives, fathers at their daughters, and the children conceived through rape are a life-long reminder of the most awful of days.

Living death

Jeanna Mukuninwa, a 28-year-old woman from Shabunda in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), says: ‘Rape is a weapon even more powerful than a bomb or a bullet. At least with a bullet, you die. But if you have been raped, you appear to the community like someone who is cursed. After rape, no one will talk to you; no man will see you. It’s a living death.’

In Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of genocide in 1994. UN agencies estimate that more than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), more than 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003), up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), and at least 200,000 in the DRC since 1998. The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict called the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’.

Sexual violence has become prominent in Sudan in the last 18 months. In Darfur, the Rapid Support Forces, a military unit under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), used sexual violence in Jebel Mara and other areas throughout 2015. In January, government attacks in Jebel Mara included killing, beating, and raping scores of women in the hospital in Golo.

However, the numbers of reported rapes in these conflict zones are unlikely to truly reflect the scale of the attacks as rape is one of the most underreported war crimes. Women, if they survive the attack, rarely tell anyone else. Despite the prevalence of rape in war, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women: ‘[Rape] remains the least condemned war crime; 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. Now, however, the UN recognises rape and other forms of sexual violence as deliberate strategies used in campaigns of terror.’

In many nations, the collapse of the rule of law leaves them unable to deal with allegations of rape, while in others, women feel too exposed to stigma to accuse their attackers. Addressing sexual violence is a necessity to protect human rights and 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 social cohesion, economic recovery, and sustainable peace. However, meeting the needs of survivors – including medical care, HIV treatment, psychological support, economic assistance, and legal redress – requires resources that most post-conflict countries do not have.

To put an end to rape in war, rather than merely healing it, requires that these extremist terrorist group actions are treated as a war crime and not just a ‘second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens,’ according to Zainab Bangura, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict. Rape in war, she notes, is not inevitable. Rather it is a reflection of the subordinate status of women in society. Wartime rape will stop when the status of women changes and the shame lands on the perpetrators, not the victims.

Changing landscape

The landscape of justice is changing, however. 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.

Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was found guilty at the ICC on 21 March 2016 of two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape, and pillaging). The crimes were committed in Central African Republic (CAR) from on or about 26 October 2002 to 15 March 2003 (the 2002-2003 CAR Operation) by a contingent of Mouvement de Libération du Congo troops.

Bemba was a rebel leader and former vice-president of the DRC. He was a person effectively acting as a military commander with authority and control over the troops who committed those crimes in neighbouring CAR. He was sentenced in The Hague to 18 years. This was the first time that an ICC prosecution had focused on rape as a tool of war and employed the doctrine of command responsibility: that leaders are accountable for the crimes of their subordinates

‘Today’s sentencing marks a critical turning point for the thousands of women, children, and men who were victims of Bemba’s orchestrated campaign of rape and murder,’ said Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor since June 2012. This ICC decision will send a message that high-ranking soldiers and militia leaders are responsible for preventing sexual violence committed by fighters under their command.

Hope and empowerment

The perpetrators of rape in war are usually men. The blame falls on a masculine culture rooted in violence that has historically devalued women. Though groups like Isis and Boko Haram justify wartime rape through colourful interpretations of religious doctrine, at the heart of this is an entrenched belief in the superiority of men. To stop rape as a tool of war, it is necessary to go to the root of the problem which lies in the thinking of these men. It is important boys are taught to respect women and human rights. If this is done right, these boys will grow into men who won’t use violence to get their way and won’t feel superior to women.

Before the UN Security Council in May 2017, over 70 countries called on traditional, religious, and community leaders to address harmful social norms and help to redirect the stigma of rape from the victims to the perpetrators. If not, the victims may face lethal retaliation, ‘honour’ crimes, suicide, untreated diseases, unsafe abortion, economic exclusion, and indigence. Of particular concern in the report are children born of rape, who ‘may themselves face a lifetime of marginalisation, owing to stigma and uncertain legal status’.

The focus needs to be on empowerment too, says activist Eve Ensler, who is involved with City of Joy, a leadership community for women survivors of violence, located in Bukavu, DRC. ‘City of Joy is not a refuge. It is a centre for transformation. We are literally saying that the violence which was done to you, through a process of love, healing therapy, and education, can be turned into a motor that makes you a leader.’

So, steps are being made in the right direction. As deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed told the UN Security Council on the 17 May 2017: ‘A robust legislative framework is now in place, including a series of precise security council resolutions with new tools to drive change and progress.’ But more needs to be done to ensure that rape is no longer used as a tool for war and that those perpetrators are brought to justice.

Hilary Lennox is a barrister specialising in international family and criminal law, extradition and human rights at 5 St Andrew’s Hill.