Healing the wounds of war rape survivors

The right-to-life arguments of the US are resulting in policies that make life impossible for thousands of women around the world

Published: 03rd May 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd May 2019 01:08 AM   |  A+A-


It’s been a long journey for humanity from thinking of rape as being a natural part of the spoils of war—after all, men fight for months and years, far away from the gentle company of their wives and with all that raging testosterone, and women are but the chattel of the vanquished community’s men. This week, the US placed a formidable roadblock to progress on that journey during the Open Debate in the UN Security Council on sexual violence in conflict.

The establishment of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary- General on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2009 followed two decades of a historical shift in the way the global community regarded sexual violence in conflict. After WWII, victorious powers were authorised to try suspected war criminals and under the rubric of ‘crimes against humanity,’ they admitted rape. However, it was the International Criminal Tribunals established to enquire into the Bosnian war and the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s that first tried rape as a form of wartime torture and sexual enslavement as a crime against humanity. The tribunals devised ways to facilitate survivor testimonythat made prosecution of sexual violence feasible.

The Fourth UN World Conference on Women in 1995 adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, now an advocacy baseline for women’s rights—it devoted an entire chapter to women and armed conflict. In 2000, persistent feminist peace advocacy and the cumulative impact of these external developments led to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 that mandated the inclusion of women at all stages of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, and the prevention of and protection of women from sexual violence in conflict.

This watershed resolution has been followed by a series of other ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS) resolutions, four of which focus on sexual violence in conflict: 1820 (2008); 1888 (2009); 1960 (2010), 2122 (2013) and last week, 2467 (2019). Resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1960 steadily raised the pitch demanding an end to impunity and inaction around sexual violence in conflict; 1960 instituted the practice of ‘naming and shaming’ state and nonstate actors that violated this emerging norm.

At last week’s SecurityCouncil Open Debate on Sexual Violence, now an annual feature, the US had threatened to use its veto power should the proposed resolution include language on access to sexual and reproductive health rights (including abortion) for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. This right (“the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination”) had already been recognised in Resolution 2122 (2013) but now is being contested by the US.

This is consistent with the revival of what in the US is called the ‘global gag rule’—that officially, the US will not fund any organisation or programme that supports abortion rights. With the rise of right-wing male leaders and misogynistic ideologies around the world, feminists have been anticipating a rollback on the rights of women and sexual minorities. Last week’s debate proved this was not just propaganda. Activists and diplomats (mostly European) protested but Resolution 2467 (2019) now makes just two generic references to health. Sexual violence continues to be commonplace in situationsof conflict, whether inter- state war, civil war or even communal riots.

Testimonies are hard to read and impossible to forget: a mother describing being raped in front of her children; women raped and forcibly impregnated as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing; young women being groomed on the Internet and lured into war-zones for ‘marriage’; marauding soldiers stopping to rape women in villages along the way. One account never leaves my memory: a survivor of gangrape talks about always smelling semen everywhere.

And yet, around the world, perpetrators walk free. After the conflict, they work the same jobs, contest polls and visit the same markets as their victims. To have experienced sexual violence as part of a larger reality you had no role in creating, to carry it with you always and then to have little access to sexual healthcare, to HIV/AIDS medication, to legal and safe medical termination of pregnancy from wartime rape or to trauma counselling, compounds the suffering of survivors. Women die from lack of access to doctors and medicines, after surviving sexual assault. Childrenborn of war rape are stigmatised for life. There is no rhetorical glorification of sacrifice that makes up for this.

Previous Resolutions recognise this, and the dilution of the most recent Resolution in response to a veto threat reflects poorly on the US. At a time when countries like Sweden and Canada are formulating “feminist foreign policies,” the US is driving foreign policy in the opposite direction. After decades of speaking the language of human rights and assuming the mantle of promoting democracy, its actions are denying survivors of conflict sexual violence safe and legal medical help.

Ironically, ‘right to life’ arguments are resulting in policies that make life impossible for thousands of women around the world. As the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten said during last week’s debate, “Wars are still being fought on and over the bodies of women and girls.” After 10 years of this special mandate, it is still possible for powerful states to derail the gender justice agenda through power-play on the global stage. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


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