Sexual violence, a savage feature of conflict over centuries
JOHANNESBURG — Through the ages, sexual violence has been a savage feature of armed conflict, often systematically inflicted by combatants on girls and women in what the world today defines as a war crime. It happened in the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in modern times, too: Mass rape occurred in World War II, as it did during the Balkan wars and the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.
The atrocities unfold as victorious fighters sweep into seized territory, using sexual violence out of a sense of impunity or entitlement or as a way to terrorize and punish communities. International humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, seeks to prevent warring sides from engaging in such abuses.
While the regulation of wartime conduct is inherently difficult, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday to a Congolese surgeon and an Iraqi woman who speaks out for those like herself who have been raped helps to shine global light on the crimes. Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad are honored for campaigning against sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Officials and military commanders must take the lead in discouraging a culture of sexual violence among combatants under their authority, activists agree. Even the United Nations has struggled with allegations of sexual violence and exploitation against the peacekeepers sent to calm conflicts around the globe.
There have been steps forward. Last month, a military judge in South Sudan sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for a 2016 rampage in which five international aid workers were gang-raped. In December, a military court in eastern Congo sentenced 12 militiamen to life in prison for the gang-rapes of dozens of children as young as 11 months old.
Here are some recent cases in which sexual violence occurred on a large scale during conflict:
ISLAMIC STATE GROUP/YAZIDIS
The Yazidi community, one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, has been subjected to brutal attacks over the centuries. One of the worst occurred when the Islamic State group committed what a United Nations commission of inquiry called genocide and other crimes against the Yazidi in 2014.
The militants swept into Sinjar, the Yazidis’ ancestral homeland near the Syrian border, in August 2014 after capturing the northern city of Mosul and declaring an Islamic caliphate in large areas of Iraq and Syria. Tens of thousands of Yazidis escaped to Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded and besieged. The U.S., Iraq, Britain, France and Australia flew in water and supplies until Kurdish fighters opened a corridor to allow them to flee.
About 5,000 Yazidi men were killed, several thousand are missing and many Yazidi women were captured, taken as sex slaves and subjected to horrific abuse.
This year, The Associated Press interviewed Farida Khalaf, who was 18 when she was captured and sold into slavery and endured four months of rape, torture and beatings until she managed to escape from her Islamic State captors. The AP does not generally identify the victims of sexual assault but Khalaf went public, writing about her experience in “The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story.”
New Nobel winner Murad was among those who fled from IS and told the world about those horrors, addressing the U.N. Security Council in December 2015.
The sprawling central African nation where Nobel laureate Mukwege works was once called “the rape capital of the world” by Margot Wallstrom, then the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.
“Women have no rights if those who violate their rights go unpunished,” Wallstrom said in 2010. “Our aim must be to uphold international law, so that women — even in the war-torn corners of the world — can sleep under the cover of justice.”
Yet rape remains a weapon of war and power in Congo, especially in the east, which has seen more than two decades of bloody conflict among armed groups. Some are fighting for control of the country’s mineral wealth, intensifying the cycle of violence.
Women have suffered as rebels and soldiers carry out sexual violence and rape. Mukwege and his team have treated thousands of women, many who have been gang-raped. His work made him a target: Armed men tried to kill him in 2012, forcing him to temporarily leave the country.
“There is impunity in rape and violence,” Solange Furaha Lwashiga, a women’s rights activist in Congo, told the AP.
“Unfortunately, people look for power by dehumanizing people,” she said. “Rape is a manner of seeking power and dehumanizing the Congolese societies.”
Human rights investigators from the United Nations and independent rights groups have highlighted sexual violence as one of the many egregious abuses they accuse Myanmar’s military of carrying out against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
A report presented last month to the U.N. Human Rights Council recommended that some top Myanmar military leaders be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya during a counterinsurgency campaign that followed militant attacks in August 2017 on government security posts in the western state of Rakhine.
It cited allegations of crimes including murder, torture, pillaging, execution without due process, rape, sexual slavery and hostage-taking. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.
The AP talked to some Rohingya women who said they were raped by soldiers. Some ended pregnancies from the rapes early by taking cheap abortion pills available in refugee camps. Others gave birth to unloved babies; some agonized over whether to give them away. The infants are reminders of the horrors that the women survived. Their community often views rape as shameful, and bearing a baby conceived by Buddhists as sacrilege.
Before she took power in 2016 as Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi said the military used rape as a weapon to intimidate ethnic nationalities. Her government, however, denies acting in that manner against the Rohingya.
But the scale of the actions against the Rohingya in a nation that is about 90 percent Buddhist brought the issue into focus.