WMC Women Under Siege

UN report on rape in war undercounts the real fallout

On Monday, a report from the UN was made public by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that highlights sexualized violence in war. The report, which will be presented to the UN Security Council today, covers attacks conducted in 2014 and describes violence against women in 19 countries—13 conflict zones, five countries that are recovering from conflict, and one “additional situation of concern” (Nigeria).

But at least one human rights group has questioned how all-encompassing the report can possibly be, with the numbers of attacks on women actually incredibly low in many of the included conflicts.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out on Tuesday, the UN report cited 117 cases of sexualized violence in Sudan in 2014, which affected 206 victims. But, the organization said, the numbers are far higher and the UN has not acknowledged many cases chronicled by HRW and other groups. One example, HRW said, was the attacks it documented on women and girls in the town of Tabit in October, in which Sudanese army officers allegedly raped at least 221 girls. The Sudanese government blocked a credible investigation into the attacks, and the UN Security Council took no action in response, HRW said. And this is far from the only undercount, by our measuring.

The challenge of reporting numbers of sexualized violence in conflict is not new. Human rights experts have known about this for years. Yet to not acknowledge the undercounting—and with that the underlying problems with gathering information on attacks in live war zones—gives a false picture of what women and men are truly suffering in conflict areas around the world. And there are consequences for the lives of those affected by doing so.

The countries covered in the UN report include Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Central African Republic, Colombia, Côte D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Each country is discussed briefly, with an accompanying recommendation to the authorities in each country to do what they can to curtail sexualized violence. The report points fingers at governments and militia groups alike—yet sexualized violence in countries at war or in a post-conflict period is perpetrated by more than just those in command. Rapes and assaults around the world are daily perpetrated by armed forces, armed rebel groups, militants, but also by ex-militants and army members and, of course, by husbands or boyfriends.

Norwegian UN troops head to Sniper Alley in Sarajevo in 1995. Reports range from 20,000 to 60,000 rapes of women during the war in the former Yugoslavia, but most sources say the numbers are too hard to determine. (Paalso)

For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, civilian-perpetrated rape has been a massive fallout of decades of war. A 2010 Oxfam study found that civilian rape there increased 17-fold between 2004 and 2008. On top of that, a 2011 study showed that four women are raped every five minutes, earning the country the dubious (and oft-disputed) distinction of being the “rape capital of the world.”

In Libya, Physicians for Human Rights reported that rape was seen as an assault on the honor of a family and community—not just a crime against an individual. Rape was used by Gaddafi’s forces to punish those disloyal to the regime. Sexualized violence and the threat of rape were used to terrorize individuals in order to secure their allegiance to the regime.

Or we can look to the Central African Republic, where violence against women has escalated at a terrifying pace. Amnesty International said in early 2014 that the gender-based violence against women amounted to an outright ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The UN report documents 2,527 attacks from January 2014 to December 2014. Just last month, a government official was arrested on charges that he raped a teenager a few months ago, according to news reports.

Women have also suffered greatly in Colombia during the 50-plus years of political violence, fighting, and ethnic violence in the country. Throughout the conflict, women were raped, kidnapped, forcibly displaced, and murdered. They were raped as punishment by either guerrilla forces or paramilitary groups, for ethnic, political, or social allegiances. And those cases have been difficult to quantify, given that the conflict has been going on for decades. In 2003, Oxfam wrote that “between 60% and 70% of all Colombian women are estimated to have suffered some form of violence (physical, psychological, sexual or political).” The UN report mentions only that 7,353 women who said they were victims of sexualized violence between 1985 and 2014 registered to try to receive compensation—not the many thousands of others that human rights groups say have been victims as well.

And then there’s Syria.

Exactly one year ago, we said Syria had a “rape crisis.” That has not changed (and now we can add to the violence perpetrated by Assad’s government forces the tremendous violence against women by the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq). Very few women have been able to speak out about being raped in the Syria war, which has led to much difficulty in ascertaining any statistics. In 2012, we launched a crowdmap that makes the trauma and suffering of Syrian women visible. By using the Ushahidi crowdsourcing technology to allow survivors, witnesses, and first responders to report cases of rape, sexual assault, and threats, we have taken a first step toward having any concrete data at all. In order to eventually find justice for survivors, such documentation is required to build cases and work toward reparations for those who suffered.

There is more, of course, on our website—more data (each of the conflict profiles linked here has a “Numbers” section), more research, and more firsthand accounts of rape survivors on our “Witness” page. We have also written about the plight of the Rohingya women in Burma, a new law to stop rape in Somalia, the silence around sexualized violence in Ukraine, rape and the women of Mali, the rape of young girls in India, post-election violence in Kenya, how women’s bodies have become the battlefield in Iraq, and many, many other stories around women in war.

For some basic stats, see our indices: here’s one on the cost of sexualized violence, another on some global stats on rape in war, and yet another on how justice is (and isn’t) being meted out to survivors.

What have we learned from all of this? That numbers matter—to a degree. In order to make the world pay attention, unfortunately, a big number may grab more headlines than a small one. A big number may attract more money that can be used toward the problem. And a big number may make an all-around greater impact for the lives of women. But above all, as we do our best to count the lives of women affected in so many ways by a terrible form of violence around the world, we must keep our eye on possible solutions—something we can only do if we know the real scope of the problem. 

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: United Nations, Rape, War



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