Impact of Sexual Violence against Women During Conflicts
There have been several thousands of cases of sexual violence which have occurred during conflicts. The extent to which sexual violence against women produces negative impact both on the victim and on the society cannot be overemphasized. Sexual violence against women during armed conflict inflicts negative effects on the victim as well as the victim’s family and the community as a whole. Some victims do not survive the ordeal of sexual violence. After the act, victims are either left helplessly to die or are sometimes deliberately killed. Those who survive this crime may no longer live the normal lives they used to have. They are affected in a number of ways which can be classified under physical, psychological, social and economic effects.
a. Physical Effects
Victims of sexual violence are sometimes subjected to other physical abuses as well. They could be not only raped but also tortured. In a publication by Amnesty International, one teacher is said to have told of how her leg was broken after she had been raped.[i] Physical abuse or body mutilation comes as a coup de grâce to rape.
Other women are forcefully impregnated through rape. Women with such unwanted pregnancies may go through burdens of seeking medical and reproductive health care. Unfortunately, during armed conflicts, medical facilities are rarely available and accessible to civilians including women. Some of these women may not even be able to afford the medical expenses. Besides, children born out of rape are normally not accepted by the society. In Rwanda for instance, babies born out of rape during the 1994 genocide are called names such as “Child of Hate”, “Infants Non-Desired”, “Unwanted Children” and “Children of Bad Memories”.[ii] Since the children are not accepted by other family members and the society, the mother must bear sole responsibility of caring for that child.
The reproductive health of sexually abused women is put in more danger during armed conflicts. A woman who is sexually abused may suffer from fistula which is normally referred to as obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is “a hole that forms between a woman’s vagina and bladder and/or rectum, leaving her with chronic incontinence”.[iii] This same type of damage can also be caused by “direct traumatic tearing resulting from violent sexual assault and rape, including the forcible insertion of objects such as guns, bottles or sticks into a woman’s vagina”.[iv] In this case it is known as traumatic gynecologic fistula, or traumatic fistula (TF), of which the consequences are similar to that of obstetric fistula.[v] It is observed that a number of victims of sexual violence in the Eastern part of DR Congo who present themselves in hospitals undergo fistula repairs.[vi]
Aside the problem of fistulas, other complications could arise. As stated in a publication by Amnesty International, many survivors of rape suffer from uterine prolapses, “a descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond” as well as suffer from “other injuries to the reproductive system or rectum, often accompanied by internal and external bleeding or discharge; urinary or faecal incontinence; broken pelvis; infertility”[vii] and so on. Pregnant women are not spared from sexual violence and abusing pregnant women causes miscarriages.[viii]
Further, survivors of sexual violence during armed conflict could contract Sexually Transmitted Infections or Diseases such as HIV/AIDS due to the act. It is reported that thousands of women who were raped during the genocide in Rwanda are now living with HIV/AIDS.[ix] Also according to the 1996 State of the World’s Children by UNICEF, a study suggests that the exchange of sex for protection during the Ugandan civil war in the 1980s has contributed to the high rate of AIDS in the country.[x]
b. Psychological Effects
Sexual violence presents a traumatic experience for its victims. For example, after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, it is reported that eighty percent of the rape survivors were discovered to be “severely traumatized”.[xi] As part of the trauma, women who are sexually abused are usually confronted with psychological problems such as distrust and paranoia. According to a social worker in Liberia, survivors of sexual violence sometimes have fear and no longer associate themselves with the opposite sex.[xii] Other rape survivors may live in a state of denial, thereby attributing their psychological problems resulting from the sexual violence to “vague sadness” rather than admitting the brutality that they have experienced.[xiii] Some survivors are not able to cope and therefore live unhappy lives. This unhappiness may be exacerbated by the rejection of victims by the community. After all, in order to “detraumatize” a survivor of sexual violence, there is the need for family or community support.
c. Social and Economic Effects
In society, a survivor of sexual violence is usually shunned by her own family and members of the community as a result of the stigma attached to it. This happens during peace times as well as during conflicts. Once identified publicly as having been a rape victim, the reputation of a survivor within her community is ruined. These survivors may be mocked, humiliated, rejected and ostracized by their families, friends and other members of the community.[xiv] This can in turn contribute to an increase in their state of vulnerability and more violence committed against them. Indeed, instead of providing support to victims of sexual violence, they are rather rejected and faced with stigmatization. Due to stigmatization, victims often feel ashamed of their circumstances and consequently, they may not report to the police for fear of public awareness of their victimization.
This attitude towards rape can render a victim “unmarriageable” as some may not be able to enter into an intimate relationship while others may even be abandoned by their spouses. A press release by Oxfam International comments on a report which reveals that nine percent of women victims who went for treatment at the Panzi hospital in South Kivu in the DR Congo have been abandoned by their spouses.[xv] A divorce or separation as a result of sexual violence leaves the woman devastated especially in “societies where women’s economic welfare and social standing is dependent on their relationship with men”.[xvi]
On the other hand, sexual violence can affect the family and also the community. “Women are in many cases the economic mainstay of their families”.[xvii] Due to the legacy of shame left on the victims of sexual violence, they may no longer muster the courage to continue with their daily work.[xviii] It can go a long way to destabilize nations. According to Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State of the United States, who chaired the debate leading to the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820, “sexual violence profoundly affects not only the health and safety of women, but the economic and social stability of their nations”.[xix] Owing to the fact that women especially in Africa are mainly into agriculture and agriculture is also the backbone of the economy, the absence of these women from the fields as a result of sexual violence can affect the economy of the nation.
[i] Lives Blown Apart, Crimes against women in times of conflict: Stop violence against women, Amnesty International Publications, AI Index: ACT 77/075/2004, 2004, p.5 available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT77/075/2004/en/944d7605-d57f-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/act770752004en.pdf, accessed May 25, 2010
[ii] Wilson S., Major Research Report Topic: “Sexual Violence against Women in War”, Research Report topic: “The Effects of Sexual Violence Against Women in War: A Case Study of Rwanda” (no date), p.2-3
[iii] Doughty P., “Respondingto consequences of sexual violence: Traumatic Gynecological fistula” (no date), p.1
[iv] Ibid. p.1
[v] Ibid. p.1
[vi] Ibid. p.5
[vii] Lives Blown Apart, Crimes against women in times of conflict: Stop violence against women, Amnesty International Publications, AI Index: ACT 77/075/2004, available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT77/075/2004/en/944d7605-d57f-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/act770752004en.pdf, p.31, accessed May 25, 2010
[viii] Ibid. p.24
[ix] Wilson S., Major Research Report Topic: “Sexual Violence against Women in War”, Research Report topic: “The Effects of Sexual Violence Against Women in War: A Case Study of Rwanda” (no date), p.3
[x] The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 1996 available at http://www.unicef.org/sowc96pk/sexviol.htm, retrieved May 28, 2010
[xi] Report of the Special Rapporteur (Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy) on violence against women, its causes and consequences, mission to Rwanda, UN Doc. E/CN. 4/1998/54/Add. 1, 1998, available at http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/TestFrame/aa272e9c0693a7b2c125661e0053fd4b?Opendocument , accessed June 30, 2010
[xii] Information provided in a questionnaire filled by five social and health workers in Liberia on July 7, 2010.
[xiii] Lives Blown Apart, Crimes against women in times of conflict: Stop violence against women, Amnesty International Publications, AI Index: ACT 77/075/2004, available on http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT77/075/2004/en/944d7605-d57f-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/act770752004en.pdf, p.24, accessed May 25, 2010
[xiv] Ibid. p.24
[xv] New report shows shocking pattern of rape in Eastern Congo, April 15,2010, retrieved June 29, 2010 from http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2010-04-15/new-report-shows-shocking-pattern-rape-eastern-congo
[xvi] Lives Blown Apart, Crimes against women in times of conflict: Stop violence against women, Amnesty International Publications, AI Index: ACT 77/075/2004, available on http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT77/075/2004/en/944d7605-d57f-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/act770752004en.pdf, p.24, accessed May 25, 2010
[xvii] Eastern DRC: widespread sexual violence against women threatens families, December 20,( 2007), retrieved on June 29, 2010 from http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/congo-kinshasa-feature-201207?OpenDocument&style=Custo_Final.3&View=defaultBody
[xix] Statement by Condoleeza Rice (Former Secretary of State to the United States) during the ministerial meeting leading to the adoption of UNSCR 1820, Department of Public Information (News and Media Division), (June 19, 2008)