More Than 16 Days: Sexual Violence in and after Conflict

Day 5 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence: This article is written by Mark Mngomezulu, a free-lance writer from Swaziland. He completed his B.A degree in Social Sciences in 2011, where he majored in Political Science and Public Administration. He has published articles with the Times Sunday of Swaziland and blogs at mngomezulu.blogspot.com.

It has been mentioned many times that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This adage also has truth to it when it is applied to conflict situations, especially in Africa. Many women, children and also men suffer in the hands of fighting groups in spite of the fact that they may not be involved in any way in the conflict. According to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), every year, sexual violence is used against tens of thousands of women and girls during and after armed conflict. And all too often, those who commit the violence will never be accused, they will never be arrested, and they will never stand trial or even face a fine.

Such sexual violence perpetrated by these different factions in times of conflict has far-reaching effects in the lives of the victims that go beyond the duration of the conflict itself. Victims more often than not are stigmatised in their communities and are also shunned and isolated by their families and the societies they live in. Yet having said this, one must also ask oneself why sexual violence is often the most prevalent but least documented atrocity in times of war.

According to a report by Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), sexual violence has long been referred to by many as the “collateral damage” of fighting, or as the product of an increase in internal conflicts carried out in whole or in part by irregular forces. According to Human Rights Watch, acts of sexual violence are often prevalent during conflict because of the general breakdown of social systems, the rule of law and discipline within combatant troops. Such violence is indiscriminate as the combatants experience a sense of impunity under the prevailing circumstances.

Rape is used to brutalize and humiliate civilians, as a weapon of war and political power and as a tactic in campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Violence against women by an intimate partner or husband is reportedly common in refugee and internally displaced camps. It has also been reported that the general vulnerability of children and women who, during times of conflict may live near combat zones, has made them targets of sexual abuse, as “marauding militias prey on women and children collecting firewood, food or animal fodder outside refugee camps”. To highlight the magnitude of rape in conflict-ridden countries one has to turn one’s eye to the following brief statistics: Over 14 years, perhaps 40% of Liberia’s population suffered some form of sexual abuse; and just under half those interviewed in a randomised study in Sierra Leone in 2000 had been raped, and more than a quarter had been gang-raped.

Such abominable acts have far-reaching consequences that—as have been briefly mentioned above—stretch themselves beyond times of conflict. For instance, the violence that women face in conflict is a product of societal relations and the institution of patriarchy, where women generally face discrimination and marginalisation from the mainstream of society even in times of peace. So, because of unequal relations that are, essentially, embedded in the existing structure of society, sexual abuse lingers on even in the post-conflict period. To buttress the foregoing point, I take liberty to quote the following extract in a report compiled by the Physicians for Human Rights:

“Sudan’s laws concerning rape effectively prevent access to justice for rape victims. The law as written defines rape as the Shari’a crime of adultery (zina)… If a woman who claims she was raped is unable to prove that she did not consent to intercourse, she may be charged with the crime of zina, which entails corporal punishment, because she had confessed to sexual penetration outside of marriage…”

I note that the above example may not be typical to all countries in conflict in so far as Shari’a law is used as a point of departure for sexual abuse and general discrimination. But nonetheless it serves to show how discrimination of women and other vulnerable groups can be embedded in the legal and social system of societies.

Also, capitalising on the general social disorder and upheaval that characterises post-conflict situations, abuse continues because there aren’t any effective legal instruments and functional judicial systems to deal with perpetrators.

Suffice it to note at this point that things need not be dark and gloomy with regards to the fight against abuse in conflict. At ground level, initiatives such as “firewood patrols” have been launched in places like the troubled Sudan region of Darfur where peacekeeping forces accompany women and children as they move around looking for firewood and food. Also, there has been an effort to introduce women in the peacekeeping forces in conflict areas, and it is believed that the women peacekeepers get along with locals and also improve the behaviour of their male counterparts.

The PHR notes that impunity for sexual violence can be ended, if the local health and legal communities work together to build successful prosecutions of crimes. Organisations like PHR have longstanding and deep experience in investigating and advocating to stop rape in armed conflict. They have recently launched The Programme on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. This programme will straddle the five countries facing ICC investigations, and this multi-year programme will train health and legal experts on the best practices for collecting court-admissible evidence and will forge effective coalitions among regional medical, law enforcement, and legal experts.

This year, the annual United Nations report documenting conflict-related sexual violence around the world today for the first time named some of the military forces, militia and other armed groups that are suspected of being among the worst offenders. The groups listed in the report include the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in South Sudan, armed militia groups and former armed forces in Côte d’Ivoire, and the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The report also highlighted the need to put measures and frameworks in place not just to address sexual violence in conflict but to prevent it, and outlines various UN initiatives that seek to identify early warning signs of sexual violence, and to ensure that peace agreements address this issue so it is not repeated in the future.
In summation, it is important to mention that effective preventative measures dealing with this issue have to be implemented first at the local level by enacting requisite legislation that deals with perpetrators, capacitating judicial systems and paraphernalia in dealing with cases regarding abuse. This is important because of the relative ineffectiveness and cumbersomeness of international law. But above all, to encourage vibrant civil society, especially at the post-conflict stage, that will educate the people of the evil of such actions will prove to be the most valuable investment in dealing with this societal scourge.

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The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is a global campaign dedicated to ending gender-based violence. In participation with The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, The Women Worldwide Initiative is hosting a Blog Series entitled, More Than 16 Days, from the start of the Campaign on the International Day for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence on November 25th, to Human Rights Day on December 10th with contributions from one of our Board Members, founder of Everyday Ambassador, Young Professionals Amnesty International (NYC), writers for the International Political Forum and young women from Women LEAD, based in post-conflict Nepal.

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