Washington — It was a grim litany of evil that Zainab Hawa Bangura enumerated recently in a chilling exposition of sexual violence in national and regional conflicts in which rape becomes, simultaneously, weapon and crime of war.
Bangura, special representative to the U.N. Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, spoke Feb. 22 at Georgetown University during a program in which she received the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women, Peace and Security from the Georgetown Institute for Woman, Peace & Security. The talk was part of a semester-long focus on global security by the university’s Global Futures Initiative and the program was done in partnership with Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
The institute’s “Global Trailblazer Award” was presented to Alissa Rubin, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, who has covered numerous conflicts, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, with an emphasis on the stories of women.
Describing sexual violence in war as “history’s greatest silence” and “the world’s least-condemned crime,” Bangura said the abuse has been sidelined in the past as an inevitable “byproduct of war” or as “simply ‘boys being boys.’ ” But rape in war, she said, “is as old as war itself” and, in the modern era, increasingly a matter of war tactics and strategy.
“In fact, no other human rights violation has so routinely been dismissed as inevitable. Many people still believe that wartime rape happens only occasionally – as the random act of a few renegade soldiers” while the reality, she said, “transverses all of history and geography.”
One of her responsibilities, “bearing witness to truly unbearable crimes,” has taken her to corners of the globe where the stories quickly become unbearable. “In the contemporary theater of conflict, women and girls find themselves under assault every day and with every step they take. Whether at border crossing, checkpoints, during house searches, in detention centers, and in the very camps or settlements where they seek refuge. Women are first affected and worst affected by protracted conflict and terrorism,” she said.
Measurable, significant steps toward greater human rights in recent decades are threatened, she said, by a confluence of crises, including more than 30 armed conflicts, greater civilian displacement than at any time since World War II, “and arguably the worst wave of terrorism on record.”
Syria provides the most dramatic illustration. Before the war, she said, enrollment in school was “almost universal. Now we are witnessing a generation of children of receiving no education at all.”
Girls are confined to their homes or married off at a young age in hopes of shielding them from harm. “The war has unleashed a wave of sexual violence, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced impregnation, and trauma, both individual and collective, that will take generations to heal.”
In South Sudan, where conflicts are settled by “customary or chief’s courts, which often prescribe marriage to the perpetrator as a remedy for rape,” authorities consider rape not a crime but an alternative to planned marriage.
In Darfur, she said, sexual violence is “ethnically targeted” and used “as a vehicle of prosecution and forced displacement.” More than half of the sexual violence incidents in Darfur occur during the course of essential everyday activities such as gathering food and firewood.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “entire villages have been traumatized by mass rape,” the purpose of which is “mass humiliation,” and to send a message to men of the village that they are powerless to protect the women. “More than a third of all conflict-related sexual violence victims in the DRC are internally displaced persons or refugees,” said Bangura. “And more than half of all cases involve children.”
Rape in the Ivory Coast “is still legally classified as a lesser offense than indecent assault.” In the recent past, she said, families of those killed or physically harmed in post-electoral uprisings there were compensated. But no compensation was given to the more than 150 women who were victims of sexual violence during the incident.
“In all of these settings, rape continues to also be committed by the national army and the police – the very people meant to provide protection. No single continent culture, region or religion has a monopoly on this scourge,” she said.
The most recent manifestation of the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war comes with Islamic State. Bangura said the group “has incorporated sexual violence into the grim logic of punishment and reward, by which it controls behavior and consolidates its power.” In a more insidious strategy, she argues that extremists in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali and elsewhere are fighting wars “over the bodies of women and girls. Extremists view women’s bodies as vessels for producing a generation of children that can be raised in their own image, according to their radical ideology.”
If the Islamic State’s methods seem medieval, their communication strategy “is distinctly modern.” According to Bangura, the group has attracted more than 30,000 men and women for more than 100 countries “as fighters or brides” using “sophisticated social media messaging.” She described social communication as the Islamic State’s “oxygen – and we must find ways to suffocate them.”
Countering the use of sexual violence in war requires legal frameworks holding perpetrators accountable to be “swiftly and consistently enforced.” There often remains, however, a great distance between international norms and legal standards regarding sexual violence and national laws that minimize such crimes.
Bangura knows from personal experience the uphill battle she and others face. “For me, the political quest for gender justice is deeply personal.” She said she, “knows firsthand what it means to be deprived and culturally devalued because I was born a girl in a time and place in rural Sierra Leone when girls were denied education and opportunity.”
“I also know what it means to be targeted for violence as a woman who spoke against my nation’s 12-year civil war,” she said. “When I see the heart-wrenching images of mass migration in the media, I remember all too vividly how it feels to be the first to flee your home and country by boats. With nothing but the clothes on your back. This was also my story, and my reality.”
Bangura was appointed special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict at the level of undersecretary general in 2012 by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The Georgetown event included a discussion and questions taken from the audience by Bangura and Rubin during a discussion moderated by Melanne Verveer, head of the institute who previously served as inaugural U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues.
Clinton, honorary founding chair of the institute, made a brief appearance by video, and the event concluded with closing remarks by actor and human rights activist Ashley Judd.
[Tom Roberts is NCR editor-at-large. His email address is email@example.com.]