After millennia of impunity, it seems the international community is finally ready to face up to wartime rape.
At least that’s the hopeful conclusion we can draw from this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The award will be shared by a Congolese gynaecologist known as ‘Doctor Miracle’, who has treated more than 20,000 rape victims, and an Iraqi Yazidi activist who survived sexual abuse at the hands of Islamic State and says she wants to be “the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”
The Nobel Committee’s recognition of Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad is the latest in a series of steps forward on this issue. Last month, a judge in South Sudan sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for a 2016 rampage in Juba which led to the gang-rape of five international aid workers. The verdict, which included lengthy jail sentences, has been hailed as a watershed by local army officials. Elsewhere, activists such as Journalists for Human Rights are finally giving victims a platform to tell their story, breaking taboos with their harrowing interviews.
But if we’re going to win the battle against war rape, this is just a drop in the ocean. Following centuries’ worth of impunity, it’s been a mere 20 years since the UN imposed its first-ever conviction for wartime rape, handed down to Rwandan politician Jean-Paul Akayesu, and only two years since the International Criminal Court (ICC) passed its own inaugural judgement by convicting former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. The verdict was overturned earlier this year, to the dismay of rights groups.
This shocking lack of progress speaks volumes for the world’s attitude towards war rape, and sexual violence more generally. Donald Trump may have sparked global opprobrium for ridiculing the sexual assault accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, but in the developing world, where marital rape is still legal in several countries, such misogyny remains tragically commonplace. The archaic legal codes found across Africa and Asia, combined with cultural values that encourage “slut-shaming”, give little recourse to victims. In countries trying to banish the memory of recent conflict, such women are likely to be viewed as traitors, their ‘war babies’ a reminder of the brutality everyone’s trying to forget. The NGOs and peacekeepers that purport to help these women have proved impotent. In fact, given the rape accusations repeatedly levelled at UN staff in Africa, one might suggest they are part of the problem.
In Iraq, survivors such as Murad and fellow activist Farida Khalaf have painted a particularly horrific picture of their ordeal, one which continued long after they escaped Isis. They recall watching the jihadis shoot their parents and brothers for refusing to convert to Islam, before they were herded like cattle to market in Raqqa and sold into a life of rapes and beatings. Instead of being welcomed back by their families when they somehow scrambled free, many survivors were shunned, their babies rejected by the Yazidis because their fathers were Muslim. Some women even faced death threats for bringing dishonour on their families.
It’s a similar story in the Congo, which was described as “the rape capital of the world” in 2010, its two-decade conflict creating a vacuum for militants to rape more than 1,000 women a day. Former vice-president Bemba may have been acquitted, but the damning evidence of rape by government troops paints a picture of a regime which at best ignored sexual violence, at worst incentivised it. Activists who raise the issue are brutally silenced; when Dr. Mukwege spoke out about President Kabila’s regime in 2012, gunmen attacked his home shortly afterwards. Little wonder that victims of rape by Congo’s warring sects face a wall of shame. Around 80% of the women assaulted in South Kivu, the epicentre of the country’s rape crisis, are forced to leave their jobs, many of them having also been expelled from their homes.
Step towards genocide
In neighbouring Rwanda, the ICC concluded that rape was used as “a step in the process of destruction” of the Tutsi ethnic group during the 1994 genocide, and an estimated 500,000 women – a tenth of the country’s entire population – were violated in a matter of months. Their 20,000 war babies are now well into adulthood, yet they’re still being punished for their original sin. People call them “the children of killers” and “sons of snakes” and they face higher rates of poverty, domestic abuse and HIV than their peers. These young people talk of being locked out, beaten and even poisoned by their parents, simply for the memories they provoked. This abhorrent victim-blaming has been happily promoted by the Rwandan government, which denied them aid. Twenty years on from the Akayesu trial, the government has yet to offer any redress.
Yet, as Vietnam’s ‘comfort women’ can testify, justice can be a painfully slow process. Tens of thousands of children were fathered by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War. Afterwards they were branded Lai Dai Han, or ‘mixed blood’, bullied at school and assaulted by the victorious Communist troops. Their mothers were regarded as enemies of the revolution, even thrown in prison. Nearly 50 years on, neither they nor their children have yet received justice – either from Vietnam or South Korea.
So while the latest Nobel Peace Prize is a beacon of hope, it must be accompanied by firm action. The international justice system must prosecute war rapists with greater alacrity; aid groups such as Foundation Rwanda and Congo’s Dynamic Organization of Female Lawyers, which support the victims of war rape and their children, must be supported. And international pressure must be brought to bear on those countries whose legal and moral codes still resemble a rapist’s charter.
The world has managed to eradicate the use of nuclear weapons, landmines and poison gas in wartime. Now it’s time to end the use of women’s bodies, too.