What are the solutions to wartime rape?
Part of Women Under Siege’s mission is to try to understand and share findings on the complexities of wartime rape in its varied forms in order to develop targeted solutions that would work effectively in different situations. We need to get a better grasp on what’s happening so we can stop it, and to stop it we need to think creatively and strategically. Here are some ideas on how to end or prevent sexualized violence in the context of various conflict situations.
Prove that rape is not inevitable in war. Elisabeth Wood, a professor of political science at Yale University, is carrying out vital research into conflicts that have not featured sexualized violence. According to her 2012 report “Understanding and Proving International Sex Crimes,” some armed groups such as the Salvadoran insurgency “successfully prohibited their combatants from engaging in sexual violence against civilians.” Working to prove that sexualized violence is not an “automatic” or “inevitable” aspect of all conflict is essential in that it ends the culture of impunity, allowing legislation to be drafted and pressure to be levied on commanders to control their troops.
Understand the dynamics of armed groups. As with any form of sexualized violence, it is essential not only to focus on victims and survivors, but also to turn the viewfinder toward the perpetrators. This is particularly important when it comes to rape, where the passive voice is often used (a woman “was raped,” rather than “he raped her”) and victim-focus is common.
In a recent interview with the Yale University MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Wood explains how important it is to study “the internal dynamics of the armed groups” when tackling wartime rape. Her research, she says, has involved interviewing former combatants about how they were recruited and trained and “how discipline was carried out.” She asked them whether sexual violence was “promoted, punished, or ignored.” By understanding how the chain of command of armed groups is involved in wartime rape, we can take action against such groups and better understand how to tackle the problem when sexualized violence in conflict occurs.
Change the justice system. Understanding and taking on military chains of command may be key to confronting sexualized violence post-conflict too. Women Under Siege recently reported that in many situations where wartime rape has occurred, prosecution afterward “lies solely in the hands of military courts (as is frequently the case in Egypt and Burma)” so that those who have committed sexualized violence may exist within the framework authorized to legislate against it.
Changing such frameworks to allow a fairer, more transparent justice system to tackle sexual crimes after conflict has ended would be a practical way to increase conviction rates for perpetrators and end the culture of impunity that has so long been characteristic of wartime sexualized violence. Some critics argue that taking measures to effectively prosecute perpetrators is a reactionary, rather than a preventative approach, which accepts the inevitability of wartime rape.
Not so. By increasing conviction rates and ending impunity for perpetrators, we can prevent future crimes from being committed as combatants come to realize they will be called to account and punished for their actions. The problem on this one is making change to justice systems that are inherently corrupt or misogynistic.
Put women in the field to gather information. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, former UN Peacekeeping Commander Patrick Cammaert explained that gathering detailed intelligence about sexual violence and rape from communities and survivors in conflict zones is vital to “better predict when and where these atrocities will occur.” One way to increase information gained from local contacts, he says, is to increase the number of women deployed on the ground: “female soldiers, female translators, female doctors, female aid workers,” because survivors often communicate more readily with women in the wake of their ordeal.
Implement specific training to deal with sexualized violence. Cammaert also stresses that better training of both male and female soldiers specifically on how to “deal with” sexualized violence is essential in order to increase effective prevention of wartime rape. Outreach and sensitivity are both crucial in an area where sexualized violence carries a heavy stigma—which is most of the world, if not all of it.
“If you have trained women reaching out to locals, and military commanders willing to take action, you have a better chance of preventing the ongoing use of rape in war,” Cammaert says.
Take practical safety steps. In that same Daily Beast interview, Cammaert addresses solutions to sexualized violence in situations involving large numbers of internationally displaced persons, such as the pattern reported by Women Under Siege of women being raped while gathering firewood and water around refugee camps in Sudan. He points out that by implementing simple practical improvements such as ensuring that camps are “properly lit” and latrines are “made safe and accessible,” we can protect women from entering potentially vulnerable situations in the first place.
Other similar practical solutions, such as providing a cheap and efficient source of firewood to refugee camps, could have the same effect of combatting this particular form of conflict-related sexualized violence. But, as Women Under Siege's Michele Lent Hirsch pointed out in this article, women are only using firewood because they are given food that requires heat, such as rice and wheat flour. Donations of kinds of food that require less fuel would mitigate the need to search for firewood in the first place. Not only that, but one UN evaluation found that when households in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp were supplied with firewood and none had to be scavenged, rape increased while women were doing other activities.
Support and enhance local law enforcement. In their 2004 report “Sexual Terrorism: Rape as a Weapon of War in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” Marion Pratt, social science advisor at USAID, and Leah Werchik, a senior analyst with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, reported that in the wake of conflict-related sexualized violence, “Fear of going to fields and markets, sites where rapes often take place, has resulted in spiraling malnutrition and economic loss.” This seems to support another practical suggestion made by Cammaert, also relating to specific areas such as refugee camps, where women present easy targets for rapists and attackers. Simply, he says, “local security arrangements must be in place” and “a trained, quick-reaction force needs to be ready.”
Pratt and Werchik reported deficiencies in local authorities responding to such hot spots of violence: “Widespread criminal impunity and inadequate local and regional governance leave communities without means to reduce the violence.” So another practical method to counter wartime rape would be to implement extra security forces to patrol areas such as fields, where women are vulnerable to targeting and where local law enforcement may be unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection.
End impunity by reducing stigma. Putting an end to the impunity that surrounds wartime rape does not solely require the implementation of frameworks of justice that are sufficiently willing and able to prosecute perpetrators. It also means tackling the culture of silence and shame in which many rape survivors suffer in countries affected by sexualized violence. As Women Under Siege has reported, in countries from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Libya, the cultural stigma against victims of sexualized violence is such that many are ostracized from their communities, disowned by their husbands, prosecuted for illegal sexual activity or pregnancy, or even murdered by their own families to restore “honor” in the wake of their sexual assault.
This stigma often results in rape survivors suffering in debilitating silence rather than risking coming forward to seek medical attention or take legal action. Their silence, of course, adds to the culture of impunity that allows conflict-related sexual assault to continue unchecked. Ending this vicious circle would be an important practical step toward reducing wartime rape.
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Cammaert describes one proven method of tackling this silence born of stigma. He describes how mobile cinemas were taken from village to village, showing films about sexualized violence, publically decrying it as an unacceptable crime that will be punished. “If local women know that rape need not be suffered silently, with impunity for the perpetrators, they can begin to work against the problem, too,” he says.
Raising awareness on the ground is also particularly important to prevent the high levels of rape during conflict from creating a normalization of the phenomenon within the community afterwards. Statistics have shown that local rates of civilian rape can increase dramatically in the aftermath of conflict-related sexual violence, and Pratt and Werchik’s report explains there is a risk that without intervention, rape could gradually become acknowledged as a normalized punishment for women.
Indeed, they reported that in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rape as a “tool of domination and punishment has spread to the community level as well.” They describe an example in North Kivu in which “a young girl was raped by the owner of a mango tree for taking a green fruit without asking.” The report concludes that in the wake of wartime rape, the use of sexualized violence “proliferated to the point that even the most seemingly minor of transgressions or old personal scores are now dealt with through the use of rape and violence.”
Outside the countries affected, we must continue to raise awareness of the severity and scale of sexualized violence in conflict in order to boost the international profile of the problem—which helps increase resources and initiatives designed to tackle it.
Strategize internationally. In her interview with the MacMillan Center, Wood stresses that “sexual violence is a form of violence against some of the most vulnerable populations in warzones.” The victims are “often defenseless, often extremely poor, often with very few resources to try to overcome this horrible event.” The scale and complexity of sexualized violence in conflict has been slow to rise to the consciousness of the international community, but it is now being increasingly acknowledged that we have a responsibility to act to tackle the problem and support its vulnerable victims through targeted action.
Potentially powerful new initiatives are emerging, such as the Nobel Women’s Initiative campaign to stop rape and gender violence in conflict and the UK government’s recent commitment to put together a team of experts to tackle sexualized violence in warzones. Such initiatives show positive steps toward constructive international intervention to solve the problem, but more pressure and action from the international community will be necessary if we are to end the fighting of wars on women’s bodies once and for all.
For more on what we mean by “rape in war,” click here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paragraph 12 has been amended to reflect that offering cheap firewood to women in refugee camps would not necessarily reduce rape.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, War, Sexualized violence, Activism and advocacy