Rape as weapon of war

PRAMILA Patten, the United Nations (UN) Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, calls it ‘a brutal tactic of war.’ We are talking of the deliberate act of engaging in rape and other unspeakable forms of sexual violence and degradation against women as part of the prosecution of war in the world. The world has always frown at this as an unacceptable form of war prosecution but has not done anything significant about it beyond the avalanche of UN resolutions on the issue. And this has perhaps emboldened more actors to engage in the deployment of this tactic in furtherance of their grotesque aims and objectives. This especially because the use of rape and sexual violence in war could not just be about winning the war, as nobody has successfully prosecuted any war through rape and sexual violence. Rather the aim has always been about inflicting grievous and long lasting harm on opponents. Women are not generally mass participants as soldiers in war and therefore could not come in direct line of attack in the prosecution of any war.

The resort to rape and sexual violence against women therefore has to reflect a deliberate shift in the concern and prosecution of war to elements outside of direct war calculations. It is about extending wars beyond the theaters of war; it is really not just about the war but about destroying a people, destroying a gender, and inflicting deep-seated punishment on those outside of direct engagement in the war efforts. The latest example of the use and deployment of rape and sexual violence in a conflict situation is in Tigray in Ethiopia. And we have many gruesome and chilling accounts and tales of the rape and unspeakable sexual assaults on the women in Tigray by Eritrean soldiers and even by elements of Amhara militia. The reports indicate that these soldiers and militiamen were deliberately targeting Tigrayan women for rape and sexual violence as reprisals for what they say was the overlordship of the Tigray ethnic group over Eritreans and Amhara in the past.

The women reported the soldiers and the militiamen as saying that they wanted Tigray to bear their mark for ever through Tigray women bearing Eritrean and Amhara children – and that this would show and symbolise their permanent victory over Tigray. So the acts of rape and sexual violence were to make another point beyond the war as these unspeakable sexual horrors have not in any case led to the defeat of Tigray on the battle front. What we are witnessing with rape and sexual violence in conflicts is a deliberate act of gory criminality under the pretext of war and conflict. It is really about deliberate inhumanity which should make the whole world to sit up and confront the evil. Take the case of a Tigray woman, as reported by Sky News, who was raped continuously for ten days. The woman says of her rape by a gang of Eritrean troops: ‘I was thinking I want to die quickly, without pain … On the field, 23 soldiers raped me, 23 soldiers. When they raped me there was a lot of bleeding. They inserted plastic bags and a plastic syringe inside. After they put this stuff in, they asked themselves, why is the blood not stopping and poured water on me. …(After this) .they threw me away so I would suffer as I died. I spent the night on the ground. … They put all the things in me and pushed it (in) with a stick and threw me away so I would suffer … in the morning when people started to move about, they picked me up when they saw I was alive. They took me to the road.’

Dr. Hagos, a gynecologist who operated on the woman, confirmed the extent of this atrocity: ‘When I examined the injured girl, what I saw was very terrible, it was difficult  to… it was terrible. … There were nails, two nails, there were plastics and after removing these, there were perforations, there was bleeding. This was the finding … she stayed here for five weeks. … I am a gynaecologist. I have never seen or read about this kind of rape. Rape can happen, yes, but I have not seen this. I have never heard about this rape … are these soldiers human beings? How can a human being do such a thing?’ The implication of this kind of story is to let us all be aware of the untold cost in human toll and anguish of this hideous crime. And the reality that the world is doing almost nothing about it. As the Nobel Peace Laureate, Denis Mukwege, puts it: ‘humanity should feel a collective sense of shame for doing so little to draw a ‘red line’ against those who commit ‘odious’ crimes of sexual violence,’ submitting that ‘while some progress has been made in international law surrounding sexual violence in war, abuses remain far too frequent and responses dramatically underfunded.

It is as if because these acts are taking place outside of the glare of television cameras, the world is not sensitised enough to feel the deep cut the acts are imposing on countless humans and communities around and across the globe. We are missing the importance of rising as one to defend vulnerable women among us against the devilish acts of some who want to impose their inhumane marks on the present and future of humanity. The use of rape and sexual violence is not just about women who are the main victims, but is ultimately about our humanity – the collective sense of what it means to be human beings in communities living outside of the fear of being traumatised and sexually violated just for being a woman and for being a member of a community or an ethnic group.  This is the sense in which PramilaPratten says ‘wartime sexual violence is a biological weapon, a psychological weapon, an expression of male dominance over women … a crime that sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace.’  The acts of rape in war dehumanize us all; sexual violence in conflicts calls into question the progress we say we have made in terms of civilization. We cannot afford to be talking about going to and conquering Mars when we cannot even prevent inhuman atrocities in our communities on this planet.

We should be concerned that we are tolerating what would not be tolerated in animal kingdom among human beings with our ineffective stand against the use of sexual violence and rape in conflicts. We have the rules of engagement in and for wars and we continue to treat these as if they could be violated contemptuously without any forceful consequences.

To be sure, the Ethiopians and Eritreans would not have descended into rape and sexual violence in Tigray if they knew that the world would impose far reaching consequences for their action. It is therefore time for the world to recognise the evil of rape and sexual violence in conflicts for what it truly is and resolve to not allow it to continue. We have a duty in particular  to help in ‘restoring the dignity and confidence of victims to regain control of their own lives’ as canvassed by Beatrix AttingerColijn, the Senior Women Protection Adviser of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). And in doing all this, perhaps the world would use the recent affirmation of the conviction of the Congo warlord, Bosco Ntaganda, by the Appeal Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for rape and sexual violence in the Congo conflicts as the starting point of recognising the use of rape and sexual violence in conflicts as crime against humanity. The world must rise in unison against this resurgent deployment of rape and sexual violence in war. It is time to show that the world would not look away when this kind of atrocity is perpetrated and that there would be serious consequences and accountability for such acts. We owe women and our common humanity the responsibility of acting with global unity and  deep sense of action and revulsion to not allow what was reported to have happened in Tigray to be repeated anywhere in the world.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan.

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