addressing rape in conflict: recognition and response

by Campaign ~ April 26th, 2013. Filed under: News.

by Charlie Roe, Research Assistant

G8 Foreign Ministers pose during their meeting in London, 11th April 2013.

In a recent and highly publicised visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Foreign Secretary William Hague, accompanied by the actress and long standing women’s rights campaigner Angelia Jolie, brought the attention of the western media and public to bear on the plight of women affected by one of the gravest and under acknowledged features of modern warfare. This visit served to build momentum towards the G8 meeting in London held on 11th April, resulting in the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The incidence of rape and sexual violence committed against women, and indeed men, in the context of armed conflict remains an unpleasant footnote throughout the annuls of military history. However, the scale and prevalence of mass rape seen in the wars of the late 20th and early 21st Century can be seen to represent a shift from the occurrence of rape as a symptom of war, conducted without any specific military intentionality, towards its employment as a weapon and central component to campaigns of terror unleashed against the civilian populace.

In conflict based on ethnic division, which has been characteristic of many conflicts in the fragmented post-Cold War world, rape serves as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control over target populations as well as to redraw ethnic boundaries. In addition to this, rape can be seen as a direct attack on communities themselves, given the central role that women traditionally occupy as primary carers and homemakers. As such, rape not only inflicts great damage to the immediate victim by way of lasting psychological and emotional torment, physical injury, subsequent social ostracism and disease, among many other consequences, but the event and its aftermath can have highly destructive long term consequences on community cohesion and stability.1

Ethnic conflict in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda and, increasingly, the conflict in Syria, driven by sectarian divisions, have all been accompanied by campaigns of terror and rape against women. The DRC has often been cited as the rape capital of the world, with the findings of a recent report published in the American Journal of Public Health placing the number of women raped in a 12 month period between 2006 and 2007 at 400,000. This translates to approximately 48 rapes every hour. The horrific findings of this report led Michael VanRooyen, the director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, to comment that ‘rape in the DRC…has emerged as one of the great human crises of our time,’ and have served to reinforce the observation by Major General Patrick Cammeart, the former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the Eastern DRC, that ‘it is probably more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.’

In response to this crisis, the G8 have collectively pledged £23 million in new funding to combat the problem of sexual violence in conflict, with £10 million coming from the UK government. This money will help support grassroots organisations working with victims of sexual violence and help fund localised judiciary, investigative and legal capacity in seeking to hold perpetrators to account.2 Given the scale of this problem, which Hague himself equates to the historic evil of the slave trade, this financial commitment coming from the eight wealthiest countries in the world may seem pitifully small. Indeed, the UK government spends ten times that amount every time they fork-out for one of the 48 new F-35 Fighter Jets that Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond has committed to purchasing, which cost approximately £100 million each. Nevertheless, the measures proposed under the declaration come as a welcome response from the international community towards an issue which has, so far, garnered little concrete action.

Congolese women, previously victims of sexual violence, who have been successfully reintegrated into their communities, South Kivu in the DRC.

However, it is important to urge for not only an increase in judicial and legal capacities to prosecute those responsible for committing heinous acts of sexual violence, but also to work hard to reinstate, and even elevate, the status of women as central to those communities which have been targeted by violence in conflict ridden societies such as the DRC. Rather than to treat these women merely as victims in need of redress, we must seek to recognise them as part of the process of redress itself with an important role to play in the peacebuilding process. In other words, the gendered dimension of conflict requires a specifically gendered response.

One need only to look at examples from around the world to see the vital role women can play when successfully incorporated into the peacebuilding process. In Burundi, which neighbours the DRC and has also been the site of prolonged civil conflict in recent decades, the successful incorporation of female voices towards the peace process was realised following the 2000 Arusha Women’s Peace Conference, where over fifty female cross party representatives established a list of recommendations for inclusion within the subsequent peace treaty. This list included calls for greater attention to be afforded towards sexual violence against women and for the increased representation of women amongst governing bodies, among other things.3 In addition to this, the Making Women’s Voices Heard in Peacebuilding and Development project,4 run by International Alert in conjunction with local NGOs such as Dushirehamwe, has consistently sought to promote dialogue both between Burundian women at a local level, and towards their elected representatives at the national level to ensure that their voices are heard in nationally implemented schemes which will invariable be of consequence to their lives, such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

In the words of William Hague himself:

‘We will not succeed in building sustainable peace in conflict areas unless we give the issue of sexual violence the centrality it deserves; alongside the economic and political empowerment of women and their vital role in peace-building.’

The first step in giving the issue of sexual violence the centrality it deserves on the international agenda has been successfully taken. Steps must now be taken to ensure that women in conflict zones have their voices fully recognised and heard so that they might fulfil their vital role in future peacebuilding, not only for themselves, but for the good of the wider communities that they embody.

1. For more information on the impact of rape in conflict, see Amnesty International report, ‘Lives Blown Apart: Crimes Against Women in times of Conflict.’
2. For the full text of the G8 Declaration, click here.
3. For more information on women’s involvement in the Burundian peace process, see the International Alert report, ‘Women’s Political Participation and Economic Empowerment in Post-Conflict Countries.’
4. It is worth noting that this project is largely funded by the Norwegian foreign commission, and, as such, serves as testament to the positive impact that selective and targeted governmental funding can have on the ground.

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