"I was protesting against rape. I didn't expect to become a victim of it," Faith said. It was 5 A.M. when the police arrived at her house in Kongo Central, a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to arrest her. "You’re talking about rape,” scowled officer said, as others led her husband outside of the house then began beating her small children with their guns. “Now we'll show you what rape means," he continued as Faith’s 15-year-old niece was thrown to the ground and raped in front of her aunt’s eyes.
Faith, a women’s rights activist, had been the organizer of several community protests condemning the Congolese government for its failure to put an end to the alarming amounts of sexual violence in the country. Faith was dragged off to jail and has never seen neither her husband nor her children again. “I was raped so many times that I lost count,” she said.
According to a study by the American Journal of Public Health, roughly 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC – almost 1,500 women per day. Sexual violence against women in Congo is the consequence of fighting in the country, mostly carried out by soldiers and rebels, security forces and intelligence officers to punish both politically active and other women. That is just one case out of millions, and Congo is not alone in this sexual grotesque behavior in conflict-ridden zones.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report in May showing that almost 120 million girls under the age of 20 (1 out of 10) have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. The report also highlighted the percentage of girls who experienced forced sexual intercourse or any other forced sexual acts in each conflict-torn country within the past 12 months. Although the percentages increase/decrease in the number of rape cases per month, the ratio is still considerably high.
In a massive effort to boost the global fight against the horrors faced by women and girls in zones of conflict worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly approved, by consensus, a breakthrough adoption of Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008) to commemorate June 19 as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. "Rape as a weapon of war must be stopped,” declared Sam Kutesa, president of the UN General Assembly, as he greeted the resolution’s adoption. “These depraved acts constitute grave violations of human rights yet they still occur and are used to terrorize and control civilian populations in conflict zones.”
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, also present at the commemoration, highlighted the fact that females and children are targets of sexual violence during conflict not only because of their physical and mental vulnerability, but also because perpetrators know that making victims of them strikes at the very heart of any given community.
“Not only does sexual violence in conflict lead to devastating physical and psychological ramifications for survivors, their families and communities, it is a severe human rights violation constituting an act of torture, a war crime and/or crime against humanity,” Zerrougui said. “The widespread occurrence of sexual violence in conflict is a threat to peace and security, as it diminishes the prospects for reconciliation and peacebuilding.”
Sexual violence in conflict is not a new phenomenon as it is often said that “rape is as old as war.” The hostile battlefield has been played out on women’s bodies for centuries. Females of all ages have been the target of sexual violence, with even infants and elderly women being raped. Rape and other types of sexual violence have been routinely and extensively used on a massive global scale as a strategy of war and a form of torture and remains the prime form of gender-based violence reported by survivors. Rape is used for many heinous reasons: a means of creating cohesion between combatants and as a means to destroy social and cultural cohesion between civilians. It is used as a reward as it helps to define gender roles – especially in patriarchal societies where masculinity is equated with dominance. Rape, is also used for economic ends and as a means of extracting information during detention. This sexual violation comes in many brutal forms, including sexual slavery, gang rape, public rape in front of the family and the community, mutilation, torture and forced rape between victims. When a victim becomes pregnant, sharp objects are inserted into the vagina or melted rubber is poured into the vagina to induce abortion, then the woman is eventually murdered by being shot in the vagina, according to a study carried out by Nobel Women’s Initiative, a Canada-based non-profit organization.
Zainab Bangura, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict to the UN, who recently returned from the Middle East after having met with survivors of sexual violence committed by ISIL extremists says June 19 will pay homage to the thousands of survivors of sexual violence who have shown extreme determination, and courage to speak out against this scourge. “This annual commemoration will serve as a global call to action for security, justice and service actors on behalf of survivors of sexual violence in conflicts all over the world,” she stated. Bangura who recalled growing up in Burundi as a child refugee, said she will bring hope to the women and girls she met by being a voice for the voiceless and advocating for them when she confronts parties to conflicts who have an obligation under international humanitarian law to prevent and punish such crimes. “People need to know that these women and girls are alive, that their stories are real and that they need help. And I’ll continue to do it and make sure people know how terrorist groups institutionalize sexual violence and the brutalization of women.”
The use of sexual violence has occurred in every region of the world: from Africa to the Americas; from Asia to Europe and the Middle East. However, countries in Africa report the world’s highest numbers of conflict-related sexual violence over the past 30 years. Such countries include Algeria, Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Africa is definitely not alone in these disgraceful acts. Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan rank high on the scale of conflict zones using sexual violence against women as a weapon of war. In Iraq, ISIL and other terrorist groups use sexual violence as the basis of their ideology to brutalize countless Christian women and also those from a Kurdish religious community, called Yazidis who have been sold into sexual slavery. An estimated 1,500 women have so far been forced into slavery this year. ISIL promises sexual access to these women and girls in order to recruit young boys into their group. And in Syria, where there is a significant population of Yazidi women, one in three women is at risk. Despite Iraq’s participation in this, last year the country was the first Arab nation to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) that outlines measures of addressing sexual violence. In Asia this type of violence has been widely used as a means of terror and punishment for women especially if they become involved in pro-democracy movements and human rights defense. Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, East Timor, Indonesia are only a few. Women in Nepal and Sri Lanka have joined guerilla groups with the main reason being to seek protection against sexual violence.
The resolution was co-sponsored by 114 Member States of the UN with the aim of raising the awareness of the need to end conflict-related sexual violence. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that the entire international community needs to stand in solidarity with the survivors of sexual violence around the world. He added that June 19 will always be a day to pay tribute to all those working on the front-lines, often at great personal risk, to help eradicate this curse. "Everyone has a responsibility to prevent and end violence against women and girls, starting by challenging the culture of discrimination that allows it to continue,” said Ban. “Violence against women is a human rights violation.”