Rape as a weapon of war is the most notorious and brutal way in which conflict impacts on women
As the world marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women today, it is important to realise that violence against women is no longer just a violation of women’s rights but also as a crime of genocide.
On October 2nd, 1998, history was written in Arusha at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) when rape was officially recognised as a crime of Genocide.
In a landmark case, Jean Paul Akayesu, a former bourgmestre of Taba commune was charged with rape among other crimes of genocide, which he allegedly committed in the Taba commune. He was the bourgmestre at the time of the alleged acts and was found guilty. The ICTR sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The ICTR judges not only applied the 1948 Convention for the first time but also enriched its definition by arguing that rape, when perpetrated in a certain manner, could constitute as a criminal act within the wider genocide scheme.
It underscored the fact that rape and sexual violence may constitute genocide just as any other act of serious bodily or mental harm, as-long-as such acts were committed with the intent to destroy a particular group targeted.
This may not appear as very important at first glance, however it imperative to note that prior to the Akayesu conviction, there was no internationally accepted definition of the crime of rape.
Other cases subsequent to Akayesu are which have culminated in convictions for rape as a crime against humanity include the cases of Mikaeli Muhimana sentenced to imprisonment for life and Laurent Semanza who was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Such prosecutions are significant as they pave the way for the trial of sexual crimes during genocide and non-international armed conflicts.
The prosecution also shifts the plight of women as spoils of war to that of a violation of the conduct of war and international crime.
In addition, the ICTR is the first international tribunal to hold a woman accountable for rape. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, interim Government Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs in 1994 has been indicted with, among other things, rape as a crime against humanity and as a war crime. A report by Medecins Sans Frontieres says it first came across rape as a weapon in the 1990s.
“In Bosnia systematic rape was used as part of the strategy of ethnic cleansing,” it said. “Women were raped, so that they could give birth to a Serbian baby.”
Apparently, conflict reinforces and exacerbates existing patterns of discrimination and violence against women, sexual violence in particular.
According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International titled “Lives Blown Apart” women’s lives and bodies are unrecognised casualties of war who bear the brunt of armed conflicts as direct targets and as unrecognised “collateral damage”.
The report underscores the use of rape as a weapon of war as the most notorious and brutal way in which conflict impacts on women.
Rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries because women are seen as the reproducers and care takers of the community.
Therefore if one group wants to control another, they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the opposing community.
Rape and sexual abuse are not just a by-product of war but are used as a deliberate military strategy. From the systematic rape of women in Bosnia, to an estimated 200,000 women were raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, to Japanese rapes during the 1937 occupation of Nanking—the past century offers too many examples of the use of rape as a weapon of war. The most recent examples include the 1994 Tutsi Genocide, the war tone zone of Eastern Congo and the Darfur crisis region.
In June this year, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favour of a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war (UN1820).The document describes the deliberate use of rape as a tactic in war and a threat to international security.
The resolution indicates that sexual violence “can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security”.
Speaking at the launch of the resolution, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said violence against women had reached “unspeakable proportions” in some societies recovering from conflict. He added that the UN was setting up an inquiry to report on how widespread this practice is and how to tackle it.
This resolution has been seen by many as a landmark in the fight against sexual violence against women, in addition to previous international legal instruments such as the Convention on Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW, 1979), UN Security Council Resolution (UN1325, 2000) linked to the protection of women and children during armed conflict, Goma Declaration (2008) among others.
There is however need to do more by member states regarding domestication of these instruments to protect women and girls from gender based violence.
As the world is increasingly witnessing more and more emerging rights of women, Justice is key to stopping the violence against women.
Justice is not just a technical tool but has a concrete impact. It confirms that rape and sexual violence are crimes, restores dignity and feelings of self worth and it delivers redress.
Justice is also a vital step to prevent the crimes from happening again; it sends a signal to those who would commit violence that it will not be tolerated.
There can no longer be any excuse to ignore the scale of crimes against women in conflict. With constant reports from war zones across the globe, no one can claim ignorance about what is happening.
Nor can one hide behind the excuse that nothing can be done. There is an urgent need to find more effective forms of action proportionate to the scale and gravity of the crimes that are unfolding against women.