In 2013, the day after Faith organized an anti-rape protest in the south west Democratic Republic of Congo, government policemen came to her home, murdered her husband, beat her children, and raped her niece while forcing her to watch. They then took Faith to prison where she lost count of how many times she was raped and beaten (Freedom From Torture). In the DRC, which has been dubbed ‘the rape capital of the world’ and ‘the most dangerous place to be a women,’ Faith’s experience is far from isolated. Recent research estimates that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC (American Journal of Public Health).
Sexual violence is the most underrepresented and unrecognized weapon of war and form of torture in conflict zones, despite the lifelong physical and psychological trauma it causes that extends immeasurably beyond war. A concept as old as war itself, rape is the cheapest, most effective, and a low-risk form of torture. Consequently, it is systematically used to instill terror and destroy communities in order to achieve military and political objectives.
Rape and sexual violence have devastating implications for not only the individual violated, but also for entire communities due to the roles women have as mothers, daughters, and wives. Physically, sexual violence is a tool for ethnic cleansing. Mass rapings of communities are carried out with the aim of spreading HIV, taking away women’s’ fertility, and changing the ethnic makeup of the next generation (United Nations). The psychological ramifications of widespread sexual violence are perhaps even more severe, for families and communities are indelibly traumatized and destroyed. Rape and sexual violence cannot be unseen or unfelt by victims — post traumatic stress, unwanted pregnancies, and stigma thwart any return to normality for women and men alike.
It was not until 1992, after the highly publicized and documented accounts from the media of widespread sexual slavery and rape in the former Yugoslavia, that mass sexual violence came to the attention of the United Nations. In the early 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, 1993) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR, 1994) declared rape as a war crime alongside torture. Yet only in 2001 was the first person accused of rape found guilty in an international court. Since then, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has included “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or ‘any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity’ as a crime against humanity when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way” (United Nations). International recognition and reprisal of sexual violence is critical, but it is not enough on its own.
Figures place the number of rapes during the 3 months of the Rwandan Genocide at minimum 100,000 and up to 500,000 (United Nations). However, as rape is notoriously difficult to document and more often than not goes unreported, it is likely that those numbers are far higher. Statistics do not translate the meaning and devastation of war fought through women’s bodies as a military strategy. This brings to light the fact that the social sphere of women is typically viewed as outside the concern of state or official involvement. Sexual and gendered violence needs to be recognized as an intrinsic aspect of women’s structural inequality. The undefined boundary between when rape should be treated as an individual criminal act or as a weapon of war and violence has been used as an excuse to avoid action (Hannah Pearce).
The lack of a universal, cohesive attitude and denunciation towards sexual violence will be one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome. Rape as a weapon of war arises out of uncontrolled malice, desire for power, and a sense of inadequacy from the perpetrator — yet it is the victim who suffers from shame and social exclusion after the fact (Hannah Pearce). The stigma that women face after suffering sexual violence often leads victims to deny rape for integrity reasons. Adding insult to injury, the male-dominated legal processes that women have to go through to report their attacks are unreliable and insensitive. This issue is underestimated, for how should we expect hesitant, abused women to put their trust in a legal system that will likely fail them? To put things in perspective, in the UK, a nation with developed legal systems and relative gender equality, only 6 percent of reported rapes end in conviction (Journal of Law and Society). Now imagine that statistic in a war-torn state with limited resources.
Going forward, it is essential that sexual violence and rape is internationally understood and treated as a weapon of torture, a war crime, and a crime against humanity. Procedural changes and enforced punishment are necessary to win the battle against sexual violence, for rape can no longer be an unchallenged, mass means of torture that is carried out without consequence. More importantly, society needs to get on the side of women and provide social sanctions within communities that allow their plight to be redressed. Rape has been a habitual and dismissed product of conflict for as long as there have been wars, but there is no excuse for this still to be the case in our modern world. Through reformed politics, legal procedures, and attitudes, victims of sexual violence can receive the support and justice they deserve.