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Bodies aren't battlefields

Helena Humphrey
Helena Humphrey
April 22, 2019

Where there is war, there is too often rape. However, women's bodies are not battlefields, DW's Helena Humphrey writes. It's time to end impunity for sexual assaults in conflict zones.

A sign: "Rape used as weapon of war — from babies (4 months) to 90-year-old women"
Image: Imago/ZUMA Press/S. Simpson

When wars are waged, they are fought with guns and grenades, mortars and shells. The scenes are familiar, with the flak-jacketed TV reporter on the ground name-checking a missile as it cruises overhead. The numbers of casualties and displaced people make the headlines. But there is another battlefield where wars are waged, too — one so intimate that it's all too often absent from the history books, courtroom records and media reports. In conflict, women's bodies are battlefields, too. For as long as armies have marched into battle, sexual violence has accompanied war, and, yet, allowing its existence to legitimize its use as a weapon is a crime in itself. As members of the international community, our time of standing by and sanctioning it with our silence is up.  

Read more: Child sex abuse inquiry in Germany says victims need more support

The rules of war are set out under international humanitarian law. "The law is clear: Rape and other forms of sexual violence are a violation," Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a speech in February. "The Geneva Conventions made this prohibition clear and universal, and yet 70 years on we continue to face failures of behavior and accountability." Indeed, it is hard to overstate how much work needs to be done. The reality of modern warfare is such that frontlines are fading, bringing conflict directly into civilian homes, where families are not spared the violence. 

Helena Humphrey
DW's Helena HumphreyImage: H. Humphrey

Sexual violence has a particular kind of intent, unlike any other weapon brandished in conflict. When bombs flatten roofs, neighbors take each other in. Even soldiers are obliged to carry out first aid on their gravely wounded enemies. But survivors of rape and abuse often find themselves stigmatized and cast out from their own communities. It cuts through the fabric of society, and that is precisely what it sets out to achieve: systematic tactics to scare, stigmatize, sicken or scatter. In Bosnia, Muslim women have borne the babies of their rapists. In Rwanda, Tutsi women were infected with HIV/AIDS. Just last year, in Myanmar, rumors of what troops would do to Rohingya women and girls led hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. And so it goes on, and on.  

Read more: Syria's sexual violence survivors seek justice

The UN's role  

It is high time that the United Nations took meaningful action. The organization did not officially recognize rape during conflicts as a war crime until 2008 — now it must seize the opportunity to atone for its negligence. There's an argument I hear traded across Western dinner party tables time and time again, so far from where any of these problems are actually happening, and it makes me wince: "The UN is so big and bureaucratic, what can it actually do anyway?" It is a lazy, ill-informed and especially frustrating argument when the answer is, in this case, quite a lot.  

Read more: Widespread torture and rape documented in Libya's refugee camps

Full disclosure: As a former UN humanitarian worker, I acknowledge how lumbering the organization can be. But now, as a US correspondent, I also recognize the convening power of the UN Security Council — and its next step must be to adopt a resolution to set up a formal mechanism to tighten accountability when it comes to sexual violence, and monitor compliance. We know that we must listen to survivors, but what does that fix if we only nod and offer sympathy? Instead, the UN must send fact-finding missions, set up commissions of inquiry, sanction perpetrators, and collect evidence to prosecute cases at the International Criminal Court. It is shameful that most incidents of mass rape are still met with mass impunity. 

Read more: Mukhtaran Mai: 'More Pakistani women are demanding their rights now'

But a UN resolution alone will not be enough — women need to be given a greater presence in peacekeeping efforts. In doing so, the UN may even find an effective way to clean up its own ranks. Many women have come forward with accounts of sexual violence by UN peacekeepers. Greater gender parity in peacekeeping forces naturally reduces that risk, but it does something more than that: It empowers women and girls to participate in their own communities, as custodians of law, order and human rights. Because underpinning all of this is the fundamental issue of gender equality and power. When I think of the severity of the issue at hand, I think of a quote by the Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic, who has written extensively about war crimes in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. "Rape," she has said, "is a slow kind of murder." And, were it not for the fact that the majority of its victims are women, I am pretty sure we would have tackled it by now.

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