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No freedom for victims of sexual violence in conflict

June 16, 2022

Sexual violence is present wherever conflict erupts, according to the UN. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk. Survivors trudge on, though, amid a shocking increase in sexual crimes committed as weapons of war.

A Tigrayan refugee rape victim who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray sits for a portrait in Eastern Sudan near the Sudan-Ethiopia border,
The United Nations estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are notImage: Nariman El-Mofty/AP/picture allianc

Warning: This story includes graphic accounts of sexual violence, which some people may find disturbing. Please exercise caution before reading on.

At just 14, a young Ethiopian girl whom we will call "Sunshine" recalls a horror that she can barely describe without breaking out in tears. 

It occurred in November, when she was living with her aunt and sister in northern Ethiopia. The war with the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was raging, and fighters were in her village.

They raided her home. But it was what Sunshine experienced next that causes her to shake visibly even months later.

"One of them said 'I will take one of you, and I will kill one' then my sister fainted," she said while recounting the November 2021 ordeal to DW.

Sunshine believes that the man who had raided their home was a fighter loyal to the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia.

Rape as a weapon

The TPLF are rebels alleged to be involved in crimes, including murder and rape, against other ethnic groups. 

Sunshine's aunt begged for their lives to be spared. "He said 'no, I will kill you and I will take one of you'." She recalled the exact chilling words to DW. 

The 14-year-old chose to pay the utmost price in order that her sister and aunt live.

"So, I told him to leave them, and do whatever he wants to me." 

Her tone was softer as she struggled to hold back her sobs.

"I was scared I'll be killed or raped. I didn't expect to come back. I feared I'd die."

He didn't kill her.

He raped her all through the night.

A survivor of conflict-related sexual violence granting DW an interview at a protection and rehabilitation centre. Her face is covered to protect her identity so that she would not be stigmatised.
426 million children living in conflict zones globally are prone to sexual-related violence Image: Shewangizaw Wegayehu/DW

Upward trend

Sunshine is one of the 426 million children living in conflict zones globally who are vulnerable to sexual violence.

In its Weapon of War report, Save the Children estimated that no fewer than 72 million kids like Sunshine  — that's 1 in 6 — live 50 km (31 miles) or closer to conflicts where armed groups or forces have perpetrated sexual violence against children.

"The number of children at risk of sexual violence committed by conflict actors is almost ten times higher today than in 1990," the NGO stated. 

Save the Children said the number of kids at risk fluctuates from year to year, but the upward trend is very clear. 

"In the most recent years we also see that a bigger share of armed actors who commit sexual violence in conflict also perpetrate it against children," the report stated.

It indicated that Somalia and South Sudan are among the six countries with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reports of sexual violence perpetrated by conflict actors against children.

Others in the global rating are Colombia, with 24% of all children in the country facing this risk, Iraq with 49% of all children at risk, Syria with 48% and Yemen at 83%. 

Some 56% of Somali children in the country face this risk, as do 19% of South Sudanese kids. For children, their age and gender play a significant role in their vulnerability. Adolescent girls are particularly at high risk of sexual violence in conflict settings. And the gruesome acts come with devastating consequences.

Since being raped, Sunshine often misses school for medical appointments — but also to avoid gossip and bullying.

"I prefer not to go to school; the people I used to play with then, now, when I greet them, they don't want to play with me," she revealed.

Sexual violence happens whenever conflict erupts, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

But no statistics will ever depict the true scale of the problem, because conflict affects the work of police and legal authorities.

As a result, rape and sexual violence often go unreported. 

A group of adolescent girls who are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence receiving group therapy from a therapist. Their faces are covered to hide their identities
Adolescent girls are particularly at high risk of sexual violence in conflict settingsImage: Shewangizaw Wegayehu/DW

Fearing for the future

The UN estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not. Perpetrators can be military officers, militants, civilians, or workers in displacement camps.

Esther Omam, executive director of Reach Out Cameroon told DW that conflict aggravates the phenomenon of sexual violence and births a huge uncertainty.

"As serious as the word serious means, sexual violence is growing in so large proportions, we fear for the future," she said.

Omam added that perpetrators include the military, drug addicts and men who want to satisfy their sexual urges. 

Horrific trauma

Worldwide, sexual violence is fundamentally rooted in unequal power dynamics while people of all genders and ages are victims.

Just a few streets away from Sunshine is an adult victim of the TPLF violence.

When four men came to her garden, Janet had no chance to run. Her name has been changed for her privacy.

A Tigray rape survivor in a safe house reading.
Several women have been raped by soldiers, with many survivors hospitalized with rape injuries Image: Maria Gerth-Niculescu/DW

"One put a gun to my ear, the other one put a gun to my ribs," Janet cried uncontrollably as she recounted her ordeal to DW.

"And they took me into my house."

Her experience seemed like a scene from a horror movie. 

They picked me up and threw me down. One of them put his feet on my shoulder and burnt me. While one of them burnt me with a cigarette, another was forcing me to have sex with him."

The four men raped her for several hours. They left her with HIV and other infections. And a deep fear.

Ugly consequences

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said there can be no winners among countless casualties in armed conflict, not least the women and girls victimized by militants who have weaponized sexual violence as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism.

"Every new wave of warfare brings with it a rising tide of human tragedy, including new waves of war's oldest, most silenced, and least-condemned crime," Pramila Patten, sexual violence in conflict special representative, said on the UNFPA's site.

Conflict-related sexual violence exacts an unspeakable toll on survivors, who are most likely to be civilians and not combatants.

Ever since Janet was gang-raped by the Tigrayan fighters, she has walked on eggshells.

"If they come back and take control of the town again, I have to die — I am very scared," she told DW.

Findings reveal the culture of impunity surrounds the scourge because the perpetrators remain free.

When Janet asked the Tigrayan fighters why they were raping her, they told her that government forces had done the same in their towns to their mothers and sisters.

Back view of a  survivor of conflict-related sexual violence.
Many conflict-related sexual violence go unpunished because perpetrators disappear immediately after they attack while the victims don't know who they areImage: DW

War crime

The act of impunity extends beyond the borders of Ethiopia to other parts of Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded the highest number of UN-verified incidents of conflict-related sexual violence last year, according to Pramila Patten's report.

Rape has been defined as a war crime since 1919. But it took almost 80 years for rape to be prosecuted for the first time.

Rwanda was the first country to prosecute rape as a mass crime after its genocide of 1994 — in which up to half a million women and children were raped, sexually mutilated or murdered.

Omam told DW many conflict-related acts of sexual violence go unpunished because perpetrators do escape, while the victims, at times, don't know who they are.

"And some who know will not say because of fear of stigma or discrimination within the communities. Or, for fear of further threats to life," she added.

Survivors are left with lasting physical and emotional scars, robbed not only of health, dignity and peace — but of justice. 

Sunshine wants justice. To achieve this, she wants to become a police officer or soldier herself and get her own form of justice.

Side view photo of a 40-year-old woman who says she was held captive and repeatedly raped by 15 Eritrean soldiers over a period of a week in a remote village near the Eritrean border with Ethiopia.
Perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence are no respecters of age — they rape both children and adults Image: Ben Curtis/AP/picture alliance

Trudging on

The UNFPA said sexual violence thwarts women's participation in social, political and economic life.

But Janet is doing her best now to build a future and has started a distance-learning course. She wants to set up a small business.

"I want to go to school because I didn't attend a school as a child. Now, education is good for my work; to get more knowledge and live a better life."

Other survivors of sexual violence too are trudging on and owning their voices, albeit at unquantifiable costs.

"The costs of conflict are great; the costs of conflict paid largely by women and girls are incalculable," the UNFPA said on its website.

Tigrays rape survivors

Tobore Ovuorie — a multiple award-winning investigative journalist — is the 2021 Deutsche Welle Freedom Of Speech Award recipient.

Edited by: Keith Walker

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/

Tobore Ovuorie
Tobore Ovuorie Tobore Ovuorie is a multiple award-winning Nigerian investigative journalist and creative writer.