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Wartime Rape: A Primer

The news of Libya’s Gadhafi giving his soldiers Viagra to perpetrate rape as a weapon of war may seem shocking to some. It’s hard to conceptualize such brutality and even harder when news of it seems to come out of nowhere.

For one reason or another (this alone warrants a separate post), sexual violence in armed conflict often slips under Western mainstream media’s radar, despite its sickening prevalence. When one hears of wartime rape, the Congo most likely comes to mind. And it should, don’t get me wrong — the number of women raped in this part of the world is astounding. But it’s important to recognize this phenomenon beyond the borders of the DRC. It is, in fact, a worldwide epidemic, encouraged by warring factions across historical epochs as a coordinated, strategic, and brutally effective means of achieving military objectives.

For many women and girls in conflict-affected areas, sexual violence has become a normal, almost expected, part of life. There is no safe place for them: they are raped when harvesting crops, when going to market, when fetching water and firewood, and in their homes at night.

Wartime rape is used to spread terror, diminish the resistance of civilians and humiliate “enemy” soldiers who have failed in their basic duty to protect “their” women. This assault becomes even more pronounced during ethnic conflicts, such as those that occurred in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Because of their roles as biological reproducers of an ethno-national collectivity, and therefore the reproducers and transmitters of its culture, women are more likely to be targeted in attempts to destroy or dominate a designated group. Not only is the rape victim humiliated, but her ethno-national identity is symbolically humiliated as well.

The bottom line is that more often than not, war is played out on women’s bodies; they are a literal extension of the battlefield. From Libya to Liberia, to the DRC, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Burma, Iraq and elsewhere, women are raped in the name of politics. And not just raped in a “normal” way, if that can even be said. The level of sexual brutality exceeds all limits of the imagination during conflict: women are gang raped, raped with foreign objects like sticks and bayonets, raped in front of their families, their breasts may be cut off and their genitalia mutilated, and they are left for dead. If they do survive their attacks, they often suffer life-long conditions (fistula, HIV/AIDS, for example) with inadequate, if any, medical attention, and are shunned by their communities.

This (admittedly cursory) overview of wartime rape may seem very bleak, but there is a glimmer of hope. The International Criminal Court seems to be stepping up its response to reports of rape as a weapon of war. In addition to actively pursuing suspects in the DRC, the chief prosecutor is building his case against Gadhafi and may bring separate charges against him for rape policies.  Of course, adjudicating cases of mass rape is neither easy nor always successful. Numerous obstacles stand in the way, not least of which include apprehending suspects, the collection of evidence (victims are often reluctant to come forward), and insufficient victim and witness protection measures which may lead to unwillingness to testify. It’s a tough road, but one that must be traveled.

You may feel helpless and like there’s nothing you can do if you aren’t a UN peacekeeper on the ground or an ICC prosecutor. But there is! I encourage you to visit UN Action’s website, which includes several ideas for how you can take action, from encouraging local media outlets to raise the profile of mass rape, to writing your elected officials. Please, take a moment and check it out.

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Categories: Violence

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