War’s overlooked victims: Violence against women

Rape is horrifyingly widespread in conflicts all around the world – Published on The Economist, Jan. 13, 2011.

SHORTLY after the birth of her sixth child, Mathilde went with her baby into the fields to collect the harvest. She saw two men approaching, wearing what she says was the uniform of the FDLR, a Rwandan militia. Fleeing them she ran into another man, who beat her head with a metal bar. She fell to the ground with her baby and lay still. Perhaps thinking he had murdered her, the man went away. The other two came and raped her, then they left her for dead. Mathilde’s story is all too common. Rape in war is as old as war itself … //

… Enduring effects: 

Given the parlous state of Congo’s judiciary, raising the number of prosecutions may not help. Some want more international involvement. Justine Masika, who runs an organisation in Goma seeking justice for the victims of sex crimes, says Congolese courts must work with international ones in prosecuting rape. But “hybrid” courts require some commitment from the local government; Congo’s rulers do not show much commitment to tackling rape. The International Criminal Court is investigating crimes, including rape, in Congo but gathering necessary evidence is hard.

Raising global awareness is another avenue; it helps lessen the stigma. Various UN resolutions over the past ten years have highlighted and condemned sexual violence against women and girls and called on countries to do more to combat it. But worthy language will not be enough.

Worse, the UN has faced criticism for failing to protect Congolese civilians from rape. In the Walikale attack, one UN official worries that the body is not meeting its obligations to protect civilians. He accepts that in remote places it is hard for peacekeepers to reach civilians, but insists that this does not justify the UN’s failure in Walikale. He is dubious, too, about the investigations into the incident. “All these interviews, these investigations, what have they achieved? The survivors are interviewed again and again and again? Where does that get them?”

Without the presence of the UN, atrocities would be even more widespread, says Mr Malengule. But in the long term, he says, more pressure must be put on Congo’s government to tackle rape. At present, one aid worker laments, it just gets a lot of lip-service. The government would rather Congo were not known as the world’s rape capital, but it shows little interest in real change.

Even when wars end, rape continues. Humanitarian agencies in Congo report high levels of rape in areas that are quite peaceful now. Again, it is hard to assess numbers. Figures for rape before the war do not exist. A greater willingness to report rape may account for the apparent increase. But years of fighting have resulted in a culture of rape and violence, says Mr Malengule. Efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants into society have been short and unsuccessful, with little follow-up to assess results. Add to that the dismal judicial system, and the outlook is grim.

It is bleaker still when you see how long rape’s effects endure. Rebels seized Angelique’s village in 1994. They slit her husband’s throat. Then they bound her between two trees, arms and legs tied apart. Seven men raped her before she fainted. She does not know how many raped her after that. Then they shoved sticks in her vagina. Tissue between her vagina and rectum was ripped, and she developed a fistula. For 16 years she leaked urine and faeces. Now she is getting medical treatment, but justice is a distant dream. (full text).

(Slideshow: Marcus Bleasdale talks about a selection of his photographs chronicling the impact of rape in war-torn areas of Africa
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