During peace times women can be subjected to all forms of violence. Stories are frequently told of women or girls who have been abused or discriminated against in one way or another for the mere reason that they are of the female sex. For instance, a story is told of a thirteen year old girl in Somalia who was gang-raped and when she reported the case to the police, she was rather accused of adultery and then stoned to death.[i] Another case is that of a Bangladeshi girl who was fed acid by her father when she was an infant because the father wanted a son.[ii] Numerous stories suggest how discrimination leads to commission of violence against women in the societies in which we live.
Several acts of violence directed against women can be physical, psychological, economic or sexual. Sexual violence against women is not a new phenomenon and it happens in diverse ways. Sexual violence is an overarching term used to describe “[a]ny violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality”.[iii] This includes rape, gang-rape, sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Men and women are both victims of sexual violence but more frequently women are subjected to it at various times and places and more especially during conflicts.
It is observed that throughout history, the rate of sexual violence against women escalates during armed conflicts. A legend is told of how the city of Rome was founded and created with the rape of Sabine women in the eighth century [iv]. Also at the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the city’s women and girls were raped.[v] Further, in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, testimonies describe women being mutilated.[vi] The situation has not changed and seems to have worsened in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. According to a press release drafted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “an estimated half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda” while “in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, approximately 60000 women were raped during the war”[vii]. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “more than 5000 rapes were reported in the first half of 2008 in the North Kivu province alone, with many more going unreported”.[viii] Sexual violence against women and girls trapped in war zones is of a widespread and systematic nature. In the aftermath of war, sexual violence continues to exist as is the case of Liberia.[ix]
A number of reasons account for high incidence of sexual violence against women during armed conflicts. For instance women are considered as “spoils of war” thus, as “property” and coming under the control of the conqueror in times of war. Sexual violence against women can also be used as tools of warfare. Victims of sexual violence suffer physical, psychological and social effects. Mostly, women and girls are abused with the intention of causing them harm physically. For example, “women are increasingly, and sometimes deliberately, being infected with HIV through wartime rape”.[x] A sexually abused woman can also go through psychological problems as she experiences traumatic effects. Further, women who have been victims of sexual violence may be ostracized from the community.
For a long time in the past, crimes of sexual violence against women were rarely addressed. It was not until the twentieth century that this issue attracted serious attention. One of the efforts that have been made on the international level includes the adoption of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The awareness of the widespread nature of sexual violence in armed conflicts was raised mainly through the proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994 where gender-based crimes (predominantly against women) received attention. In the words of Kelly D. Askin, “unlike the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals, which largely ignored gender-based crimes, the ICTY and the ICTR have surmounted reluctance and other obstacles to address these crimes despite their sexually graphic nature and traditional insensitivities to women’s rights and needs. The history of impunity for gender-based crimes makes it important to bring these cases to the full attention of the international community”.[xi]
The most recent response is the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 which was passed in June 2008. This resolution is to reinforce and expand Resolution 1325 which encourages women’s participation in peace processes. Questions were raised about whether the Security Council had the mandate to address the problem of sexual violence. Besides, there are other instruments such as CEDAW, Security Council Resolution 1325 and so on which already condemn acts of violence including sexual violence against women. This was one argument raised in the course of the debate on the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1820. Another argument was that the issue of sexual violence is not a matter of international peace and security and therefore not within the Security Council’s domain.[xii]
However, by discussing the impact of sexual violence not only on the victims but also on the community and nation at large, an intrinsic link was established between sexual violence and international peace and security. This led the Security Council to adopt Resolution 1820 which is mainly concerned with sexual violence in armed conflicts and post-conflict situations. It recognizes the use of sexual violence as a tactic in warfare and urges the protection of civilians especially women by preventing it and offering help to victims. It also demands, inter alia, an end to impunity for the perpetrators.
Next blogs will feature sections of this research studying factors that lead to high rate of sexual violence against women in armed conflicts and its effects on victims; examining the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820; and analyzing the prospects and challenges in implementing the resolution.
To be continued…
[i] Kennedy, M. S., “Women: An Endangered Species?” American Journal of Nursing , Volume 109, Number 6, (June, 2009), p.24
[ii] Ibid. p.24
[iii] Final Report submitted by Ms. Gay J. McDougall (Special Rapporteur ), “Contemporary Forms of Slavery: Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery and Slavery-like Practices during Armed Conflict”, (New York: United Nations, 1998), p.20
[iv] Donna Macnamara, with additions and editing by Bonnie Clairmont and Cartnen Germaine Warner, “History of Sexual Violence”,(no date), available at http://www.interactivetheatre.org/resc/history.html, accessed January 10, 2010
[vi] B. Rensink, ‘‘The Sand Creek Phenomenon: The Complexity and Difficulty of Undertaking a Comparative Study of Genocide vis-a`-vis the Northern American West.’’ Genocide Studies and Prevention Vol. 4, No. 1 (April 2009), p.12-13
[vii] United Nations Press Release Draft, UNDP concerned about reports of sexual violence in Kenya, New York/Nairobi, (January 22, 2008), p.1
[viii] Kennedy M. S., “Women: An Endangered Species?” American Journal of Nursing reports , Vol. 109, No. 6, (June 2009), p.24
[ix] Schia N. N. and de Carvalho B., “Seeing like a Resolution? UNSC Resolution 1325 and Gender Issues in Liberia”, Norwegian Instiute of International Affairs, published by the Department of Security and Conflict Management (2) (2009), p.1
[x] Jefferson L. R. In War as in Peace: Sexual Violence and Women’s Status, Human Rights Watch 2004 available at www.hrw.org/wr2k4/download/15.pdf, accessed January 4, 2010, p.1
[xi] Askin K. D., “Sexual Violence in Decisions and Indictments of the Yugoslav and Rwandan Tribunals: Current Status”, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, No. 1 (January, 1999) p. 99
[xii] Cook S. Security Council Resolution 1820: A move to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, published in 1325 PeaceWomen E-News, Issue 102, (June 2008), p.2 available at http://www.peacewomen.org/publications_enews_issue.php?id=24, accessed January 4, 2010