28 February 2005
UNICEF Deputy Directory Rima Salah remarks on Beijing+10
My six years as Regional Director in West and Central Africa were filled with life-changing encounters with children and their families. I witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by conflicts in the region and the brutal impact of the violence on civilians.
Each country in the region – from Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of Congo – is unique in many ways. Yet there is a common and consistent thread which unites them: War is particularly brutal if you happen to be female.
In the eastern Congo, for example, rape is being used as a weapon of war, used systematically and deliberately. The sexual violence aggravated the spread of HIV/AIDS among the civilian population. In some parts of the Congo up to fifteen percent of the population is infected with HIV. This means an almost certain death sentence for rape victims. In one hospital an estimated 27 per cent of women who were victims of rape tested positive for HIV.
In Liberia, sexual violence against girls and women was common place in a culture of violence which prevailed during the recent conflict.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 60 per cent of the abducted children were girls. These girls were often used as sex slaves and “wives” of soldiers.
Women and girls are raped while their husbands, children and parents are forced to watch. They are raped to send a message to someone they know or are related to. They are raped on their way to get firewood or water. Toddlers, grandmothers, and even young boys are sexually abused to undermine the morale of whole communities.
Most attacks are carried out with impunity. In fact, permission to rape is given as a kind of payment. Instead of money, leaders give their soldiers carte blanche to rape, knowing that there won’t be any consequences.
Yet rape as a tactic of war was not invented in West and Central Africa. Between a quarter- and a half a million women are estimated to have been raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. During the Balkan conflict, at least 20,000 Muslim girls and women were raped – with teenage girls particularly targeted. In Bangladesh, Myanmar, Uganda and East Timor, the bodies of women and girls were and are being violated as part of battle.
This kind of violence is not collateral damage; it’s a war crime. Perpetrators can be tried under international law. Few ever are.
In the interests of human rights human decency and human dignity, this must change. We must ensure that women and girls are provided with a safe supportive environment in which they can heal and become empowered as active agents for peace and reconstruction.