Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A world free of wartime rape is within our reach

By Zainab Hawa Bangura (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-20 07:56

Conflict-related sexual violence is a war crime mired in myths and shrouded in secrecy and stigma. Perhaps the greatest misperception is that it is an atrocity of a bygone era, and that in today's age of high tech warfare rape is no longer used as a weapon of mass destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shame and stigma prevent many survivors from reporting rape and other sexual violence crimes, but in the last two decades alone it is estimated that a staggering 60,000 civilians were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone; 65,000 during the conflict in Liberia; 50,000 during the fighting in Bosnia; and over 200,000 during the genocide in Rwanda. These figures are not just abstract numbers; behind every single attack is a face and the story of an individual, a family and a community devastated. These communities may never recover from the brutality they have experienced if their needs are ignored.

These rapes represent a stain on our collective conscience, a stain that grows with each new rape committed in ongoing conflicts such as those in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria.

This year's United Nations report on sexual violence in conflict documents horrendous crimes taking place in conflicts around the world. It chronicles rapes and gang rapes committed during house-to-house searches, in refugee camps, and as a part of interrogations. It records sexual violence used strategically to forcibly displace civilians from contested areas and valuable land that is rich in minerals and other natural resources. It describes victims, journalists and activists living in fear of reprisals and persecution because they dare to speak out. It recounts the tragedy of survivors who do not receive the services they need to rebuild their lives. It also lists 34 armed groups credibly suspected of committing these crimes.

The report reads as a list of almost unbelievable savagery, but in the midst of this horror there are also glimmers of hope.

In the international arena there is now an undeniable political momentum to tackle this issue. However, the most important changes are happening at the country level, where tangible action is being taken to prevent and respond to these atrocities.

A number of conflict and post-conflict countries are now willing to acknowledge the horrors being committed against their own people, even when these offences are committed by government security forces. Some of these governments are translating this realization into action. In the DRC, an increasing number of suspected perpetrators are being prosecuted, including members of the national security forces. Special police units have been formed to deal specifically with crimes of sexual violence and the president has announced his intention to appoint a special representative to deal specifically with this issue. In Somalia, where rape victims and journalists have been imprisoned for reporting these crimes, the president has said that he is committed to creating a specialized crime unit and dedicated clinic to deal with cases of sexual violence.

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