Throughout history, rape and sexual violence have been an inextricable consequence of political conflict, shaping crises in Myanmar, Former Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan.
When such violence is inflicted, it diminishes the control that women have over their own body and fertility—and the sometimes subsequent decision of whether to have an abortion on a woman causes even more drastic psychological and physical trauma. That’s why the recent fight by U.S. officials to water down the UN resolution on conflict-related sexual violence, despite the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development explicitly mentioning sexual reproductive health as important for global progress, was both an insult and an injury to survivors of rape in war.
“We use [UN resolutions] to campaign for justice, we need them for funding, to make sure that government’s fund appropriately, they’re really important,” Skye Wheeler, researcher in the Women’s Division at Human Rights Watch, noted in an interview with Ms. “UN resolutions are the backbone of the way in which we work in the world to protect each other.”
Wheeler, who monitors and documents women’s rights abuses in conflict and recently worked with Rohingya victims of rape and sexual violence, also explained that the move by Trump officials this year was a marked step backward.
“We’re getting to the point where women and girls are going to be able to access the same dignity, safety and health that every woman in the world should be able to,” she said, “but then something like this happens, and it’s just medieval. It’s extraordinary.”
Many scholars believe that it was the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence where rape was ordered as a genocidal tool. For centuries before that, sexual violence and rape characterized conflict as somewhat of a side-effect or “reward” of the conqueror.
Cemented in patriarchal systems, the cultural subordination of women is still reflected today in the reasons behind wartime sexual violence, although over history, sexual violence has transformed from a “conquerors’ right” to an effective weapon to break down the spirit and body of the opposition. International attention to sexual violence has also slowly grown, and various laudable advances have been made—but these recent regressions prove that more concerted efforts are needed.
“That attitude [of sexual violence as an “almost expected” outcome of conflict] has definitely shifted,” Wheeler observed, “and that’s really important. It’s no longer seen as an inevitable side-effect of conflict—it’s seen as a crime, it’s seen as something that should be prevented, it’s seen as something that can be prevented and its seen as something that should be prosecuted after, whenever possible.”
Although victims stood and testified, Nazi crimes of rape and sexual slavery failed to be accounted for in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials of World War II—but the Japanese were prosecuted for their crimes during the Nanking Massacre in 1937, also known as the Rape of Nanking, in which they acquired an estimated 200,000 “comfort women” and forced them into sexual slavery during the mass murder of civilians in the city.
In 1971, some 200,000 Bengali women were raped by the Pakistani army, partly in order to engender “true’ Muslims” and to humiliate family honor. The war’s atrocities set a precedent where such a crime could be committed with impunity—enforced by silence and shame.
Fighters throughout Former Yugoslavia—on all sides and nationalities—were perpetrators during the Kosovar and Bosnian Wars, and while men were also sometimes victims, women were disproportionately targeted. Rape and sexual violence were used systematically and routinely to erode the heart of their chosen community: They used rape camps in Kosovo to stamp out Albanian blood, covering it with their own; they frightened and humiliated women and girls, exploiting their conservative culture, knowing that their ruthless invading of their bodies would leave them damaged and helpless—and that the impact would fracture deep into the core of their home.
In Iraq, ISIS militants justified their sexual slavery of Yazidi women and girls through their extremist interpretation of Islam. In Myanmar, the lack of available services is contributing to maternal morbidity and mortality of Rohingya victims since 2017.
Despite various stated motivations for these acts of violence—from being an ordered tool of conflict and ethnic cleansing to a reflection of repressive gender roles and diminished moral and social order during war—its impact in any case is certain. “It permeates, it has a very toxicity,” Wheeler declared. “Women and girls really struggle with it.”
Anita Bonanga, a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in Australia, has seen these impacts first-hand. Her home country is beautiful with mountains and green, but almost all stories of it contain blood and war. In the East of Congo, a tense area due to unstable relations with nearby Rwanda and its richness in minerals, 1,049 cases of sexual violence were recorded in 2018, according to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It’s happening in east of Congo, in South Kivu,” she somberly told Ms. “You will hear that people are calling it the capital of rape. It is not a good thing to be a woman in that part of the country, because it is happening at any level. They don’t care—woman, girl, big, small, it’s happening. It is a serious matter.”
Bonanga’s sister is still struggling from having been embedded in that landscape. “I have my younger sister, who is [an asylum-seeker] in South Africa now,” she explained. “She was there [in South Kivu]. Someone who was a soldier, who had power, took her as a wife. she was sexually abused. She had to run, but she can’t talk, she can’t say it. She tried to tell me, but she can’t express herself how it’s happened. Because it is not easy. It affects you.”
The DRC is a Christian nation where abortion is stigmatized and access is rare and unsafe, and rape is seen as severely devaluing women, leaving them ostracized. “Women are against abortion, because they are scared of dying, and they also believe it is not good to do that,” Bonanga said. “We need to do something. Woman need to stand and stop this violence. We need to say: ‘It has happened, you did not like it, but we still love you. We love you as a part of us, we have to walk this together. It’s okay. You didn’t want it; wipe your tears, it’s okay. We know it’s painful but we are sharing the pain together with you.’”
That’s precisely why Wheeler declared that sexual and reproductive health cannot be ignored when tackling sexual violence. “Until women across the world are equal to men, and are able to control their own bodily autonomy—not just women and girls—until everyone is able to control their own body, their own reproductive, and have reproductive health, it’s going to continue.”
It’s also why recent attacks on women and girls’ access to necessary care in times of war is a misguided step in the wrong direction. “What [the U.S. government is] saying about people who have suffered the most unbelievable pain and suffering and can’t even access something that they need, as a life-saving intervention so that they have basic control over their own bodies,” Wheeler stated, “it’s just unbelievable.”