Sexual violence is a weapon of war. In Darfur, rape became the main military strategy of the government-backed militias. Sometimes, only the threat of this horrific act is enough to make people flew from their villages; abandon their homes, community life, and their place of economic independence.

Nevertheless, even when everything is left behind, people in Darfur cannot escape sexual violence. Once in camps for internally displaced near the border of Chad or in refugee camps in Chad, civilians are still under the constant threat of rape, sexual slavery, sexual torture, mutilation and rape-resulting pregnancies.

Traditionally, the collection of firewood is a women’s task. UNHCR supplies camps with food, blankets and tents, but not with fuel needed for the preparation of food. Therefore, women have to leave the protected land to collect branches and bush wood, exposing themselves to rape. Sexual violence does not only leave a trauma and medical consequences, but it also excludes women from their social network. In Sudan, no matter the context of a civil war, the women are still blamed for the rape.

Women who become pregnant as a result of rape are at risk of being abandoned by their husbands, rendering both the women and their children extremely vulnerable. Some infants may be abandoned or neglected by their mothers due to attitudes within the community or the response from the local authorities.” (Human Rights Watch, 2005)

As human rights activist Tomo Križnar explained, the stigma of rape pushed many women out of their communities. Now, they wonder through the region avoiding rebel factions and trying to survive. On his recent trip to the border area of Chad and Sudan Križnar meet a group of out casted women. “I was completely astonished on their capability to survive by subsisting upon roots,” he told.

A part of the legacy of an armed conflict is rape. As society awakes from its violent past it wants to forget the horrors of war, particularly rape. However, not dealing with the trauma of sexual violence creates a risk for a culture of impunity to emerge. Therefore, victims and perpetrators of rape and other forms of sexual violence must be address at the beginning of the peacebuilding process.

Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) is the first step of peacebuilding. In its ideal form, the process should disarm former combatants and enable them a return to a civil life. On the other hand, it should also prepare the communities to accept them. Since sexual violence has become a weapon of war, it has to be included in DDR:

Medical screenings have to be designed to detect STI among female and male former combatants and treatment available at the demobilization cantonment sites. Cases of severe gynecological injuries should be redirected to medical centers without excluding the victims from further DDR activities. Reintegration programs for female combatants have to include childcare, otherwise the majority of women cannot participate. Programs have to be tailored to deal with rape trauma, stigmatization, children born out of rape, reproductive health. Parallel to this, awareness has to be raised among former combatants on sexual violence as a war crime and a crime against humanity as a first step to transitional justice, with an emphasis that every single rape constitutes a war crime.

Only after all of this has been done we can start to hope that spillover of rape from conflict to peacetime will be minimized.

Tim Hetherington‘s Liberian War Graffiti

During the armed conflict in Liberia (1989-2003), rape and other forms of sexual violence were used as a weapon of war. An estimated 40 percent of the Liberian population was affected by sexual violence during the 14 years of civil conflict. Although weapons were laid aside in 2003, the wartime practice of sexual assault continues. In present-day Liberia, rape and other forms of sexual violence are still one of the most reported serious crimes.

According to one of the most thorough surveys on sexual violence in Liberia, Sexual Gender-Based Violence and Health Facility Needs Assessment (WHO, 2005), 72 percent of women and girls have experienced rape (oral, vaginal and/or anal) during the conflict. Moreover, 70 percent of all raped women and girls had been gang raped, and 24 percent had been raped with an object or had been penetrated with an object after the rape.

“After being raped by five men, they stretched me apart and inserted a motor pestle in my vagina. Until now, I still have pain inside me.” (testimony in WHO’s 2005 survey)

In some cases, rape took place in front of the family members. In that way, the whole family was humiliated and suffered the trauma.

I was forcibly taken into the bush with my three children and husband by the LPC fighters under the accusation of [trying to kill] “General War Boss” and “General Kill the Bitch”. We have always been accused and tortured by these rebels because many of us are Bassa by tribe. My husband was tied to a thorny tree; black driver ants were put all over his body while I was raped as a pregnant women in front of my three children by four LPC fighters.”(testimony in Kenneth Cain, Rape of Dinah, 1999)

Pregnant women were particularly targeted as the carried the offspring of the ‘enemy’. As the civil war spilled over to Sierra Leone, operation ‘No Baby Living’ was performed under Charles Taylor’s command. Pregnant women and their unborn babies became targets of Taylor’s rebels:

“[t]here are numerous reports of fighters moving among the displaced of various areas looking for pregnant women. When they find one they gamble on the sex of the unborn baby. They cut the mother’s womb open and pull out the baby to see who won the bet. The mother and the baby are then thrown to the side of the road, as the fighters go looking for their next victim.” (testimony of UNOMIL’s Chief of Security in Kenneth Cain, Rape of Dinah, 1999)

Seven years after the peace accords, rape proves to be a troubling legacy of Liberian war. One of the few journalists constantly reminding of the post-conflict impunities is Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times. According to his article (NY Times, Nicholas Kristof) 12 percent of girls under the age of 17 have experienced sexual assault in Liberia. The Government, NGOs and the international community are coming up with campaigns to stop rape and improving the legislative protection and police procedures. However, the crucial opportunity to mitigate the spillovers of the war culture into post-war life in Liberia has not been seized. On that tomorrow …

Every armed conflict has its death toll and its rape toll. Last year, according to the HIIK, 31 high-intensity violent conflicts were raging in the world. Therefore, women, men and children were victims of sexual violence in at least 31 countries/regions. Why does an earthquake get all the attention? Do we only have compassion (and media space) for disasters of nature? What about the wonton cruelty of humankind – can we digest figures of rape?

After the Cold War, the nature of war has changed considerably. No longer did solders stand against soldiers, but rather armed factions against civilians. What used to be part of an after-battle looting became the main strategy of war making. In former Yugoslavia women were held in so called rape camps; in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone around 50,000 were raped in 1992, but it was 1994 Rwanda that topped everything we knew about the cruelty and extent to which rape can be committed. In less than a year more than 250,000 women and girls were raped; forms “varied and included individual rape; gang-rape; rape with sticks, guns, or other objects; sexual enslavement; forced marriage; forced labor; and sexual mutilation” (Human Rights Watch).

This week I will focus on the abyss of human behavior. Why does the international community lack the political will to stop systematic sexual violence? With the crucial verdict in Kunarac Case at the ICTY*, a groundbreaking international jurisprudence was achieved: even a single rape in war counts as a war crime! A decade of civil wars later, the prosecution of sexual violence under international humanitarian law is still ineffective, the norm responsibility to protect deteriorated to an empty wording, and media editors find stories of raped nations too cruel to print. (Ah, as long as we know with whom Paris had dinner last night!)

* International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia