wars against women

Posted on June 4, 2008


The Deccan Herald ~~ Wednesday June 4 2008

Wars against women
(Article available at Project Syndicate in English, Spanish, Russian,
French, German, Czech and Chinese)
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.”

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 honor. 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 1990’s, 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 honor” 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 “honor” 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 landmark Foca case, the ICTY convicted three Bosnian
Serbs of rape, torture, and enslavement of Muslim women in 1992.
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.

Posted in: Women