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News Feature

Sexual violence as a weapon of war

Violence against women, especially rape, has added its own brand of shame to recent wars. From conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Peru to Rwanda, girls and women have been singled out for rape, imprisonment, torture and execution. Rape, identified by psychologists as the most intrusive of traumatic events, has been documented in many armed conflicts including those in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and Uganda.

Systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war in 'ethnic cleansing'. More than 20,000 Muslim girls and women have been raped in Bosnia since fighting began in April 1992, according to a European Community fact-finding team. Teenage girls have been a particular target in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, according to The State of the World's Children 1996 report. The report also says that impregnated girls have been forced to bear 'the enemy's' child.

In some raids in Rwanda, virtually every adolescent girl who survived an attack by the militia was subsequently raped. Many of those who became pregnant were ostracized by their families and communities. Some abandoned their babies; others committed suicide.

Sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape's damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and pain stamped on entire families. The harm inflicted in such cases on a woman by a rapist is an attack on her family and culture, as in many societies women are viewed as repositories of a community's cultural and spiritual values.

In addition to rape, girls and women are also subject to forced prostitution and trafficking during times of war, sometimes with the complicity of governments and military authorities. During World War II, women were abducted, imprisoned and forced to satisfy the sexual needs of occupying forces, and many Asian women were also involved in prostitution during the Viet Nam war. The trend continues in today's conflicts.

The State of the World's Children 1996 report notes that the disintegration of families in times of war leaves women and girls especially vulnerable to violence. Nearly 80 per cent of the 53 million people uprooted by wars today are women and children. When fathers, husbands, brothers and sons are drawn away to fight, they leave women, the very young and the elderly to fend for themselves. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Myanmar and Somalia, refugee families frequently cite rape or the fear of rape as a key factor in their decisions to seek refuge.

During Mozambique's conflict, young boys, who themselves had been traumatized by violence, were reported to threaten to kill or starve girls if they resisted the boys' sexual advances. Sexual assault presents a major problem in camps for refugees and the displaced, according to the report. The incidence of rape was reported to be alarmingly high at camps for Somali refugees in Kenya in 1993. The camps were located in isolated areas, and hundreds of women were raped in night raids or while foraging for firewood.

UNHCR (the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has had to organize security patrols, fence camps with thorn bushes and relocate the most vulnerable women to safer areas. Some rape victims who were ostracized were moved to other camps or given priority for resettlement abroad. UNHCR has formal guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual violence in the camps, and it trains field workers to be more sensitive to victims' needs. Refugee women are encouraged to form committees and become involved in camp administration to make them less vulnerable to men who would steal their supplies or force them to provide sex in return for provisions.

The high risk of infection with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, accompanies all sexual violence against women and girls. The movement of refugees and marauding military units and the breakdown of health services and public education worsens the impact of diseases and chances for treatment. For example, one study has suggested that the exchange of sex for protection during the civil war in Uganda in the 1980s was a contributing factor to the country's high rate of AIDS.

War and civil unrest also contribute to violence in the home, according to recent studies. Death, upheaval and poverty increase tensions within the family and the likelihood of violence against girls and women. Men who feel that they have lost the ability to protect their women may compensate by exercising violent control over them at home.

UNHCR, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF are promoting reproductive health services for refugees to counter high birth rates, maternal mortality, STDs and HIV/AIDS. UNICEF provides support for women affected by armed conflict in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Croatia, Georgia, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and the Sudan.

The post-World War II Nuremberg trials condemned rape as a crime against humanity. Governments must be willing to enforce international law and codes of conduct, while also supporting counselling and other services for victims.


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