UN issues grim report on sexual violence as weapon of war

The problem is being called “the great moral issue of our time.” Why combatting it is proving to be such a difficult endeavor

Sudanese troop standing guard near villagers in Tabit
Sudanese troop standing guard near villagers in Tabit, in the North Darfur, on November 20, 2014. A local news website had reported Sudanese troops entered the village of Tabit on October 31 after a soldier went missing and raped 200 girls and women. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

“The great moral issue of our time,” in the words of a top United Nations official, is the use of sexual violence in war, a scourge laid out in the latest litany of horrors:

Sexual enslavement, and gang rapes of minors; sexual assaults by government forces and militant factions alike; forced sterilization and abortion; forced prostitution and pregnancy; intimidation and reprisals against assault victims. These shocking trends, said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, are cause for “grave concern.”

Chronicled this week in the Secretary General’s 2015 report on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, the atrocities drew no shortage of condemnation from assembled nations during Wednesday’s Security Council discussion. Zeinam Hawa Bangura, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, told diplomats that the issue “casts a long shadow over our collective humanity,” and amounts to “the great moral issue of our time.”

Zainab Hawa Bangura

Zainab Hawa Bangura (L), the United Nations (UN) Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images

Getting traction behind the revulsion to sexual violence, however, is another matter. Governmental denials and inaction, coupled with deep-seated gender inequities, create a flimsy underpinning for anything more than incremental progress, advocates say. And the U.N. report found that near-universal fear of reprisals for speaking up means that sexual violence is vastly underreported. Ban urged greater support for reporting structures and assistance for victims.

Even as greater awareness and political will spurred an international conference on the topic last year, along with commitments to document and fight sexual violence, “serious concerns persist about official denials and efforts to downplay these crimes, including pressure to induce victims and witnesses to withdraw their complaints,” Ban’s report said.

“Women’s rights continue to be invisible,” in many settings where institutional changes could occur, said Nisha Varni, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

What’s needed, Varni told Women in the World, is economic and diplomatic pressure and insistence on women’s participation in all ceasefire and peace talks, mediations, peacekeeping efforts and constitution-building efforts. In addition to U.N. advice on integrating women’s rights, it is important for women to be present as negotiators and mediators, she said.

Ban’s report urged the Security Council to incorporate efforts against sexual violence in its work in war-torn regions and called for more women in peacekeeping operations and security forces, as well as in peace processes and missions to conflict regions.

Global awareness and U.N. efforts have produced new policies and actions in some countries, but not necessarily the political will and muscle to enforce such efforts in all cases, U.N. officials and advocates agree. Ban’s report says sexual violence in South Sudan, for instance, is trivialized by law enforcement officials and the community in an unstable environment where victims are often forced to marry their rapists.

Further, non-governmental militants like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria – undeterred by threats of prosecution or international censure — require “stronger, more innovative and more aggressive approaches,” against the use of sexual violence in spreading terror, Michele Sison, the U.S. deputy permanent representative, told the Security Council. She encouraged nations to come ready to discuss the issue of these non-state groups at an October meeting on sexual violence.

The challenge often meets systemic hurdles, in places without a supportive climate for victims and where women are marginalized and critics fear speaking up. Sexual violence is occurring, “against a backdrop of structural gender based discrimination including formal and informal systems of law and the exclusion of women from political life,” the U.N. report pointed out.

At the same time, war-related sexual violence has emerged amid global strides for women’s empowerment and education in a broad sense. A strong backlash is emerging in the most patriarchal societies, said David Jacobson, a University of South Florida professor who authored “Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict.” The challenge for international and national organizations is, “How do we advance women’s rights in a way that doesn’t generate these regressive backlashes,” he said. “There are horrible pockets of tremendous regression regarding women. This has flared over to this issue of sexual violence.”

Recent findings by Amnesty International chronicled the grim targeting of women’s human rights defenders themselves in places like Afghanistan. The group cited car bombings, shootings and attacks on family members of advocates, including a politician, police officers, a teacher and others. It said Taliban extremists, as well as warlords and government officials all were perpetrators.

“We’ve seen reversion to a society where violence is a normal way of life for women and girls,” after modest gains in women’s education and rights following the Taliban regime, Tarah Demant, senior director at Amnesty International USA, told Women in the World.

The U.N. report highlighted extremist groups using sexual violence as a strategic tool for intimidation, control and displacement. Victims include women and girls, men and boys, ethnic and religious groups and sexual orientation minorities. The report named 45 armed groups “credibly suspected” of using sexual violence as a terror tactic, and focused on 19 countries that it said had credible reporting and are involved in or transitioning from armed conflicts.

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