By Heleen Mees and Femke van Zeijl
AMSTERDAM – Truth is often said to be the first casualty in wartime. But if the real truth is told, it is women who are the first casualties. In conflict zones, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF recently observed, sexual violence usually spreads like an epidemic. Whether it is civil war, pogroms, or other armed conflicts, all too often women’s bodies become part of the battlefield. The victims of large-scale sexual atrocities range from baby girls to old women.
In Darfur, janjaweed militia kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and gang-raped her for a week, pulling her legs so far apart that she was crippled for life. The biggest fear of rape victims in Darfur, however, is that they will never find a husband. Under sharia law, raped women are prosecuted for adultery or fornication. Last year, at least two young women in Sudan were sentenced to death by stoning. As Refugees International observes, “The government is more likely to take action against those who report and document rape than those who commit it.”
A Darfur woman carrying her baby which she said was fathered by Janjaweed militia who raped her. Pic courtesy The New York Times.
In the wars now savaging the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape victims also take most of the blame. After being raped, Congolese women are banished by their husbands and ostracized by their communities. Often they are genitally mutilated by a gunshot or tossed on a fire naked.
In cultures where girls and women are married off and chastity is central to womanhood, all is lost for a woman who loses her honour. The subsequent stigma often is a heavier burden than the assault itself. So it should be no surprise that most of these wounded girls and women keep silent.
During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, women were raped for the purpose of bearing the enemy’s children. According to European Union estimates, 20,000 women in Bosnia alone were victims of rape. The women have been largely left to themselves, traumatized by their experiences and condemned to a life of poverty.
In 1945, an estimated two million women were victims of the Red Army’s sexual cruelties – not only German women, but also Jewish women in hiding, concentration camp survivors, and resistance fighters. According to the German journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, the shame felt about “lost honour” created an “atmosphere of suicide.” In April 1945, there were more than 5,000 suicides in Berlin. Husbands, fathers, and teachers pressured women and girls to end their own lives after Russian soldiers raped them because their “honour” was their major concern.
For many girls and women, non-marital sex remains worse than death. So it is all the more striking — and painful — that for so long this specific war crime has received little attention. During World War II, the prohibition on rape by soldiers was well established in international law, but the post-war Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals prosecuted only a handful of cases.
During the genocide in Rwanda, mass rape was the rule. But sexual assault was included only accidentally – and secondarily – in the Rwanda Tribunal’s indictments. After a Rwandan woman spontaneously declared before the tribunal that she and other women had been raped before the massacre, a female judge followed up and revealed the enormous scale of sexual violence against women. The Rwanda Tribunal was the first in history to describe rape as a possible act of genocide.
In 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague condemned the systematic rape of women as a crime against humanity. In the 1992 landmark Foca case, the ICTY convicted three Bosnian Serbs of rape, torture, and enslavement of Muslim women. Girls, some of them just 12 years old, were gang-raped for weeks.
Yet the perpetrators of wartime mass rape and other forms of sexual violence usually are not prosecuted. Recently, the Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga became the first prisoner to be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the recruitment of child soldiers. Yet the indictment’s failure to mention violence against women is a “huge shock” to the victims, according to Congolese human rights organizations. In a petition, they asked the ICC to investigate mass rapes committed by all parties in the conflict.
The impunity that is characteristic of these heinous crimes must stop. Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women should be openly discussed by governments, members of parliament, militia leaders, and opinion leaders. Prosecution must become the rule. The ICC and other tribunals must give a clear signal to the perpetrators.
For women who have been victims of rape, there are no monetary benefits, memorials or mourning rituals. That must change as well. There should be a monument to the Unknown Raped Woman at the ICC. Maybe then its judges would pay closer attention to sexual violence against women.
(Heleen Mees is a Dutch economist and lawyer. Her most recent book Weg met het deeltijdfeminisme! examines third generation feminism. She is also the author of a book on European Union law and founder of the women’s action committee Women on Top; Femke van Zeijl’s most recent book Een nacht in een vijzel looks at women’s lives in Mozambique, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times