NEW YORK — Although rape as a weapon of war has existed for as long as war itself, it is taking a particularly heavy toll on women’s lives in today’s conflicts around the world. A high proportion of the women who are victims of rape end up infected with sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV.
As most of the countries experiencing an almost perpetual state of internal strife lack medicines and basic health-care services, becoming HIV-infected is virtually a death sentence. Given the wide use of rape as a weapon of war in some countries, especially those experiencing ethnic or tribal conflicts, and the high rates of HIV infection among warring factions, rape is rapidly becoming genocidal.
Rape happens on a wide scale in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and Sudan. In the DRC, where more than 3 million people have been displaced by war, rape victims are counted in the thousands. According to some estimates, up to 60 percent of combatants in the DRC are HIV-infected. In Uganda, soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army have stepped up rape and mutilation of women in their struggle to replace a secular government in the country.
Rape was widespread in Rwanda and in Sierra Leone. According to the group Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment, 67 percent of rape survivors in Rwanda are HIV-infected. As Anne-Christine d’Adesky, executive director of Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment recently stated, “Rape is an engine of HIV infection.”
While rape in Rwanda on a massive scale has stopped and is now much less frequent in Sierra Leone, it continues in Sudan, Uganda and the DRC, where human-rights activists say girls as young as 3 years old have been raped with knives, sticks and guns. In the DRC, gang rape has become so common that thousands of women suffer from vaginal fistulas, which leave them unable to control bodily functions and lead to lifelong debilitating health problems.
Rape as a way of humiliating women, their families and their communities is frequently conducted in public, in front of husbands and children. It is, in essence, a brutal way to show or maintain dominance over the women and their families.
A recent report by Amnesty International, “Sudan: Darfur: Rape as a Weapon of War: Sexual Violence and Its Consequences,” calls attention to the phenomenon in Sudan.
According to the Amnesty report, there is a pattern of systematic and brutal attacks against civilians in the Darfur states of Sudan by a government-sponsored militia called the Janjaweed and by the government army. The attacks are the Sudanese government’s response to attacks by two main insurgent groups founded in 2003.
The confrontation in Sudan has led to the displacement of at least 1.2 million people, most of whom have become internally displaced. The rest have taken refuge in neighboring countries. That these acts have the acquiescence of the government is evidenced by the fact that no member of either the Janjaweed or the armed forces has been charged with rape or other human-rights violations.
There are many other consequences of rape aside from the obvious physical and psychological violence of the act and the high risk of HIV. Many women get pregnant after being raped. In many cases women raped are killed afterward by their attackers. Among those that survive, a high proportion are forced to become sex slaves.
Many men view the rape of their wives as a form of humiliation not only against them but also against the ethnic, tribal or religious group they belong to. This may cause husbands and communities to reject women victims and even their children. The women, having endured the brutality of the rape itself and its physical and psychological consequences, then find themselves denied their most basic human rights.
Even when pregnancy does not occur, men in patriarchal societies still may reject their wives, mothers or daughters after they have been raped. Lepa Mladjenovic, a Serbian psychotherapist and antiwar activist, says rape renders a woman “homeless in her own body.”
Given the scale of abuses against civilians in Sudan, including the rape of children as young as 8 and women as old as 80, Amnesty International is calling for an international commission of inquiry. Such a commission should be supported by the United Nations and leading Western democracies.
Rape victims should also be provided with anti-AIDS antiretroviral drugs and rape counseling. Difficult as this problem is, only rapid action and widespread political support will offer the possibility of diminishing its barbaric impact.