April 24, 2013
Of all the methods used in the Syrian war, from barrel bombs to chemical weapons to starvation and even homemade rockets, rape may be among the most damaging.
Its effects are not directly seen, but as a report by the UN Security Council last month makes clear, “sexual violence has been a persistent feature of the [Syrian] conflict and the fear of rape has served as a driving motivation for families fleeing the violence.”
The UN report covers January to December 2013, and accuses both government and opposition forces of using rape as a weapon of war. The report stops short of quantifying which side has produced more sexual violence, but directly condemns “government forces and pro-government militias of using sexual violence, including rape, in detention centers and prisons.” The UN says it has also received allegations of sexual violence at checkpoints and during house searches.
Of rebel forces, the UN report states, “credible information has been provided in Homs, Damascus and Outer Damascus of sexual violence perpetrated against young women and girls in some opposition areas.”
A March 2014 UN report details the use of rape as a weapon of war in Syria.
Photo courtesy of @NewAmerica.
The Global Justice Center (GJC) in New York is an international human rights organization that works on embedding human rights rule of law and gender equality within international legal framework, from nations and international law, in an attempt to gain recognition for rape as a weapon of war.
The GJC, an independent non-profit organization, is currently working to ensure access to safe abortion services for women raped in war and also looking at rape as a weapon of war and how that can be treated like other weapons and illegal tactics.
In Syria, as in other war zones, the GJC’s Legal Director Akila Radhakrishnan explains to Kristen Demilio, “rape has been proven as an effective tool to destroy communities.”
Q: Why is rape so persistent in wars throughout the ages? Can we really say it successfully forces people to take one side over another in a war? Is it effective?
Sexual violence has been, I hate to use the word, successful, because the notions around sexual violence and the notions around the honor of a woman and how they’re tied to the community help drive why it’s so successful.
You rape a woman, you rape the community. You kick a woman out of the community, you start breaking it apart because it ostracizes and stigmatizes her and I think that’s something we see across the board, not just in the Middle East.
Rape has been proven as an effective tool in conflicts to destroy communities. A lot of the wars we’re seeing now are internal armed conflicts within countries. They’re ethnic conflicts, they’re civil wars, and so the battlefields are villages and communities.
It’s not really men fighting men on traditional battlefields to gain particular military advantage. Civilians are being targeted as a way to win wars and this is one of the more effective ways they’re doing that.
Sexual violence in isolation – I don’t know that it is something that will bring a community down, but I think it’s been proven to help tear it apart.
Sexual violence has been a pervasive part of this [Syrian] conflict. In Rwanda, it was later discovered that sexual violence was one of the ways the genocide was being perpetrated – in part to destroy the community and the Tutsi population.
Q: What is the goal of rapists in a war setting? Is there a tactical purpose to it or is it simply punitive?
It could be both, but the punitive is often linked to the tactical. It is hard to say that all rapes in wars are motivated by one thing. In Syria there have also been a lot of reports of sexual violence within the detention facilities which may be linked and motivated in different ways from what’s happening in cities and as a part of displacement processes.
We’re not trying to give broad generalizations; the Global Justice Center is trying to open up the frameworks and see what are other creative avenues we can look at to combat this issue. We are still seeing it in a majority of conflicts.
Q: Could you talk about the long-term consequences of sexual violence?
There’s definitely inter-generational harm associated with sexual violence. There’s a lot of psychological damage. In certain cases, they have found that rape is used to transmit HIV. Children born from rape are often ostracized from their communities, and the denial of safe abortion services means that women often resort to illegal methods.
There are massive long-term consequences. Twenty years after Yugoslavia, we’re still seeing women being traumatized [from their experiences] and who yet to have justice or accountability for these crimes that happened more than two decades ago.
Q: What are the prospects for some form of justice for rape in conflict zones?
I think we’re starting to have more possibilities for prosecutions of sexual violence but there have only have been fewer than 70 prosecutions for crimes during the Bosnian war, for example, and the numbers there range from 20,000 to 50,000 women raped.
Q: What is your focus as the Global Justice Center?
There are huge stigmas associated with women being raped, as there is with men being raped. The UN is bringing that issue to the forefront. We focus on the impact on women and girls because it is an issue that disproportionately affects them.
We look at provisions under international law that discrimination based on sex and how this failure to treat sexual violence in the same way as other crimes can implicate some of those discrimination frameworks. But there is a definitely a renewed focus on the impact of sexual violence against men and boys.
Q: How do social stigmas prevent healing and treatment for rape victims?
People often don’t go in for treatment because they don’t want to be stigmatized for being raped – men or women.
For us it’s important that attention that be focused on sexual violence against women and how it is being used strategically in conflicts. There’s an important role for everyone to play in this, whether it’s doctors being adequately equipped to provide care and treatments for sexual violence or whether it’s the media reporting on this and bringing it out.
I think it’s been hidden for far too long and is too pervasive an issue to continue to be hidden.
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