Wednesday, February 20, 2008

World-wide war on women update - Mass rape & its consequences

A few examples from some recent roundups I've seen. The articles cited below come from 2006-2007,  but unfortunately none of this is old news. Also, the examples below all happen to come from current African conflicts, but no one should imagine that systematic mass rape in connection with wars and other armed conflicts is a peculiarly (or even especially) African horror. (For instance, see this piece about Burma.)

--Jeff Weintraub

A Washington Post story titled "Janjaweed Using Rape as 'Integral' Weapon in Darfur, Aid Group Says" (July 3, 2007)
A new report on the crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan has identified rape as a systematic weapon of ethnic cleansing being used by government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, and said Sudanese laws discriminate against female victims, who face harassment and intimidation at local police stations if they try to report the crime.

The report, "Laws Without Justice: An Assessment of Sudanese Laws Affecting Survivors of Rape," by the humanitarian group Refugees International, said rape was "an integral part of the pattern of violence that the government of Sudan is inflicting upon the targeted ethnic groups in Darfur."

"The raping of Darfuri women is not sporadic or random, but is inexorably linked to the systematic destruction of their communities," the report said. Victims are taunted with racial slurs such as "I will give you a light-skinned baby to take this land from you," according to one woman interviewed in the Touloum refugee camp in Chad, recalling the words of a Janjaweed militiaman who raped her.

For a woman to prove rape under Sudanese law, she needs four male witnesses. This requirement puts undue burdens on women in a traditional society where single women having sex can be sentenced to 100 lashes at the discretion of a judge. A married woman proven to have had sex outside of her marriage can be stoned to death, said Adrienne Fricke, an Arabic-speaking lawyer who worked on the report. [....]
Washington Post story "For Darfur Women, Survival Means Leaving Camp, Risking Rape" (September 16, 2006):
The tall, light-skinned man reeking of sweat and cigarettes often gallops his horse right into the nightmares of Darelsalam Ahmed Eisa, 18. Each time, she said, he throws her to the ground, pushes up her skirt and forces himself inside her while muttering: " Abdah. Abdah. Abdah."

Slave woman. Slave woman. Slave woman.

He was in her dreams just last night, she recalled, as real and horrifying in his green camouflage uniform as he was the day he raped her two months ago. But when Eisa awoke this morning, there was no time for terror, no time for tears. She covered herself in an orange and blue cloth, grabbed the family's ax and departed for the perilous Darfur countryside, out of the relative safety of a sprawling camp for people displaced by the violence in this region of western Sudan.

In the wilderness, Eisa can find grass for the donkeys and firewood for cooking. But it is also where government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed roam, terrorizing villagers. Violence and disease in Darfur have killed as many as 450,000 people since 2003, and an estimated 2 million have been forced to flee their homes.

The government and a rebel group reached a cease-fire agreement in May, but since then, rapes in and around camps for people displaced by the fighting have surged, aid groups and residents say. The International Rescue Committee has recorded more then 200 sexual assaults among residents of a single camp near Nyala, a town in South Darfur state, during a five-week period in July and August.

More and more often, women in Darfur face the starkest of choices: risk being raped by leaving the camps in search of firewood and grass, or starve. If they invite their brothers or husbands along to protect them, the Janjaweed will still rape the women, they say, and kill the men.

"It is better for me to be raped than for my brother to be killed," said Eisa, soft-spoken and round-faced, with hair braided into tight rows beneath her head scarf. She has two children, ages 2 and 5, but no husband. He divorced Eisa last year, she said, after she quarreled with one of his elder wives.

But Eisa is not alone. On this morning, as she walked with the ax on her shoulder, her sister, Aziza, 15, was just a few paces behind. Other women and girls, on foot and on donkeys, soon joined them in a haphazard convoy of mothers, daughters and sisters flowing west, away from the low morning sun. [....]
LA Times op-ed by John Holmes, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, titled "Congo's Rape War" (October 11, 2007):
Despite many warnings, nothing quite prepared me for what I heard last month from survivors of a sexual violence so brutal it staggers the imagination and mocked my notions of human decency. I cannot find the words to describe what I heard from the girls and women in Panzi Hospital, located in South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the epicenter of one of the world's major humanitarian crises. What I do know is that I am not the same person now as when I walked into that hospital.

As a United Nations official with a special brief for humanitarian affairs, I have seen many people around the globe suffering under truly tragic circumstances. But Congo is different. Its long-running conflict has always been a brutal one, having claimed nearly 4 million lives between 1998 and 2004 -- the equivalent of five Rwandan genocides. And although the war formally ended years ago, fighting has continued in the eastern part of the country, where the national army is battling local and foreign militias in a struggle involving unresolved ethnic conflicts, regional power dynamics and the powerful tug of greed, with all sides vying for a slice of Congo's rich mineral resources.

One of these militias is the FDLR, the Hutu ex-genocidaire group that fled from Rwanda to Congo in 1994 and that continues to harbor wider political ambitions. Civilians are deliberately targeted and harassed by these groups in a climate of almost total impunity.

From the start, sexual violence has been a particularly awful -- and shockingly common -- feature of the conflict in Congo. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in this predatory environment, with rape and other forms of sexual abuse committed by all sides on an astonishing scale. Since 2005, more than 32,000 cases of rape and sexual violence have been registered in South Kivu alone. But that's only a fraction of the total; many -- perhaps most -- attacks go unreported. Victims of rape are held in shame by Congolese society and frequently are ostracized by their families and communities. The ripple effect of these attacks goes far beyond the individual victim, destroying family and community bonds and leaving children orphaned and/or HIV positive. [....]

Many of those I met in Congo asked, not unreasonably, what difference my visit would make in their lives. I told them I could not promise miracles but that I would do all in my power to draw attention to their needs while pushing hard to address the political root causes of their suffering. I am committed to that. But sustained pressure is needed from around the world to make clear that this kind of shocking and appalling sexual violence must not be tolerated any longer.
Disturbing New York Times story titled "Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War" (October 7, 2007). (A correspondent adds, "If you have the stomach for it, click on the photo essay that accompanies the article."):
Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore

Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

"We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country.

“The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world,” said John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. “The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity — it’s appalling.” [....]