Britain’s former foreign minister William Hague called last week for renewed efforts to prosecute rape in conflict zones, citing reports of violence stretching from Nigeria, through Iraq, and as far east as Myanmar.
It has been six years since Hague first launched an initiative with Hollywood celebrity and humanitarian activist Angelina Jolie to target these crimes, with the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) established in 2012 to work to eradicate the impunity of offenders and provide support to survivors. While detractors point to intermittent momentum of the PSVI, the initiative’s efforts in breaking down the stigma surrounding sexual violence is in fact a critical first step in getting a grip on this deeply entrenched issue.
Indeed, to this day, sexual violence remains a critical problem in war zones – and in recovered war zones – around the world, with the traces of sexual violence leaving their mark decades after the initial violence has finally subsided. As long as rape is deemed by offenders as a viable weapon of war, publicly bringing known perpetrators to justice should be a matter of international priority.
In an op-d on the occasion of the PSVI Film Festival’s opening, Tariq Ahmad, the prime minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, held few punches: “Around the world, sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war on a scale that is truly appalling.” Citing a United Nations Commission of Inquiry report earlier this year, he noted that this was especially true in the context of the Syrian conflict, where “no one had been unaffected by sexual and gender-based violence.”
Indeed, survivor reports from this grinding conflict are devastating, with even those tasked with recording testimonies and providing support under threat of attack. Detention centres are emerging as a particular hotspot for sexual violence since the revolution, with female detainees making up the majority of cases; rape has also been used to intimidate and forcefully expel particular groups, and is rife in the civil vacuum of refugee camps.
Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman and survivor of institutionalised sexual slavery in Iraq’s bloody civil conflict, has emerged as a powerful voice for other survivors – and she has her sights firmly set on bringing offenders to justice. “[We need] to prosecute Isis – from the leaders down to the citizens who had supported their atrocities – for genocide and crimes against humanity,” she declared before a UN audience, adamant that her story is the best weapon against terrorism in her arsenal. So far, her story has found fertile ground: she was awarded this year’s Nobel peace prize jointly with Congolese gynaecologist and fellow advocate Denis Mukwege.
Mukwege himself has a mammoth task at hand. The Second Congo War, bearer of the grim title of the Great African War and deadliest conflict since the Second World War, saw nine countries at war with each other on Congolese soil; 5.4 million lives were lost in two bloody decades to 2008. It was also the conflict that led the UN to officially label rape as a weapon of war, with the Democratic Republic of Congo branded the rape capital of the world.
During the war, Congolese women were routinely abducted and subject to horrific sexual violence, such as instrumentation. Aside from the obvious physical toll waged on their bodies, survivors faced an uphill battle when they returned home: many were cast out of their homes, or forced to sleep outside the house. Social ostracization was, and still is, the norm.
Enter Mukwege: with specialised gynaecological expertise, Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital has been working to restore survivors with even the most complex pelvic trauma, and facilitate their rehabilitation in the wider community. Operating on up to ten women a day, the hospital receives patients aged as young as two years old, up to women in their eighties; many of the children are themselves the product of wartime rape. He, too, has become an advocate for zero tolerance of wartime sexual violence.
Nor is wartime sexual violence a phenomenon specific to geography; in Southeast Asia, stories of survival are as numerous as they are gruesome. In countries like Myanmar, where social emphasis is placed on strong masculinity, the recent military crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims has targeted both females and males as victims of rape, gang rape, genital mutilation and other forms of sexual torture. In the same way as their counterparts in the Middle East and Africa, survivors of sexual violence face a lifetime of social stigma; civic organisations on the ground have begun to report a rising trend of at-home abortions and the abandoning of children born from rape.
Perhaps no group of Asian women has endured a lifetime of entrenched social stigma as the women survivors of the Vietnam War have been forced to do. The mothers of the Lai Dan Han have lived on the margins of Vietnamese society for most of their lives; the survivors of rape at the hands of South Korean soldiers deployed to Vietnam during the war, they have a renewed determination to tell their story and bring the fathers of their equally ostracised children to account.
There can be no doubt that global condemnation, articulated and enshrined in international legal proceedings, of wartime sexual violence is long overdue. Hague, Jolie and the PSVI are not alone in their calls for a more deliberate approach to offenders, and nor should they be: wartime sexual violence is a life sentence for survivors, and is a crime that has no place in the 21st century.