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War Crimes

No freedom for victims of sexual violence in conflict

Print edition : Aug 05, 2022 T+T-

No freedom for victims of sexual violence in conflict

The United Nations estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not.

The United Nations estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not.

Sexual violence is present whenever conflict erupts. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk of sex as a weapon.

Warning: This story includes some graphic accounts of sexual violence which some people may find disturbing. Please exercise caution before reading on.

The 14-year-old Ethiopian girl we interviewed for this story did not want us to use her real name, so we have called her “Sunshine.” If Sunshine had run away from her aunt’s house in northern Ethiopia — if she had been able to do so — she would have returned to find that her aunt and sister had been murdered. “One of them said ‘I will take one of you, and I will kill one’ then my sister fainted,” she said — visibly shaken while recounting the November 2021 ordeal to DW. The “one of them” is alleged to be a fighter loyal to the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia who had raided their home.

Rape as a weapon

The TPLF are rebels alleged to be involved in crimes, including murder and rape, against other ethnic groups.

Sunshine’s aunt begged for their lives to be spared. “He said ‘no, I will kill you and I will take one of you’.” She recalled the exact chilling words to DW. The 14-year-old chose to pay the utmost price in order that her sister and aunt live. “So, I told him to leave them, and do whatever he wants to me.” Her tone was softer as she struggled to hold back her sobs. “I was scared I’ll be killed or raped. I didn’t expect to come back. I feared I’d die.” He didn’t kill her. He raped her all through the night.

Upward trend

Sunshine is one of the 426 million children living in conflict zones globally who are vulnerable to sexual violence. In its ‘Weapon of War’ report, Save the Children estimated that no fewer than 72 million kids like Sunshine — that’s one in six — live 50 km (31 miles) or closer to conflicts where armed groups or forces have perpetrated sexual violence against children. “The number of children at risk of sexual violence committed by conflict actors is almost ten times higher today than in 1990,” the NGO stated.

Save the Children said the number of kids at risk fluctuates from year to year, but the upward trend is very clear. “In the most recent years we also see that a bigger share of armed actors who commit sexual violence in conflict also perpetrate it against children,” the report stated. It indicated that Somalia and South Sudan are among the six countries with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reports of sexual violence perpetrated by conflict actors against children.

Others in the global rating are Colombia, with 24 per cent of all children in the country facing this risk, Iraq with 49 per cent of all children at risk, Syria with 48 per cent and Yemen at 83 per cent. Some 56 per cent of Somali children in the country face this risk, as are 19 per cent of South Sudanese kids.

For children, their age and gender play a significant role in their vulnerability. Adolescent girls are particularly at high risk of sexual violence in conflict settings. And the gruesome acts come with devastating consequences. Since being raped, Sunshine often misses school for medical appointments — but also to avoid gossip and bullying. “I prefer not to go to school; the people I used to play with then, now, when I greet them, they don’t want to play with me,” she revealed.

Tactical weapon

Whenever conflict erupts, sexual violence is present, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But no statistics will ever depict the true scale of the problem, that is because conflict affects the work of police and legal authorities. As a result, rape and sexual violence often go unreported.

Fearing for the future

The UN estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not. Perpetrators can be military officers, militants, civilians or workers in displacement camps. Esther Omam, executive director of Reach Out Cameroon told DW that conflict aggravates the phenomenon of sexual violence and births a huge uncertainty. “As serious as the word serious means, sexual violence is growing in so large proportions, we fear for the future,” she said. Omam added that perpetrators include the military, drug addicts and men who want to satisfy their sexual urges.

Horrific ordeal

Worldwide, sexual violence is fundamentally rooted in unequal power dynamics while people of all genders and ages are victims. Just a few streets away from Sunshine is an adult victim of the TPLF violence. When four men came to her garden, Janet had no chance to run. Her name is changed for her privacy. “One put a gun to my ear, the other one put a gun to my ribs,” Janet cried uncontrollably as she recounted her ordeal to DW. “And they took me into my house.”

Her experience seemed like a scene from a horror movie. “They picked me up and threw me down. One of them put his feet on my shoulder and burnt me. While one of them burnt me with a cigarette, another was forcing me to have sex with him.” The four men raped her for several hours. They left her with HIV and other infections. And a deep fear.

Ugly consequences

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said there can be no winners among countless casualties in armed conflict, not least the women and girls victimized by militants who have weaponized sexual violence as a tactic of war, torture and terrorism. “Every new wave of warfare brings with it a rising tide of human tragedy, including new waves of war’s oldest, most silenced, and least-condemned crime,” Pramila Patten, sexual violence in conflict special representative, said on UNFPA’s site.

Conflict-related sexual violence exacts an unspeakable toll on survivors, who are most likely to be civilians and not combatants. Ever since Janet was gang-raped by the Tigrayan fighters, she has walked on eggshells. “If they come back and take control of the town again, I have to die — I am very scared,” she told DW.

Findings reveal the culture of impunity surrounds the scourge because the perpetrators remain free. When Janet asked the Tigrayan fighters why they were raping her, they told her that government forces had done the same in their towns to their mothers and sisters. Men on both sides use sexual violence as a weapon of war.

War crime

The act of impunity extends beyond the borders of Ethiopia to other parts of Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded the highest number of UN-verified incidents of conflict-related sexual violence last year, according to Pramila Patten’s report. Rape has been a crime of war since 1919. But it took almost 80 years for rape to be prosecuted for the first time. Rwanda was the first country to prosecute rape as a mass crime after its genocide of 1994 — in which up to half a million women and children were raped, sexually mutilated or murdered.

Omam told DW many conflict related sexual violence go unpunished because perpetrators do escape, while the victims, at times, don’t know who they are. “And some who know will not say because of fear of stigma or discrimination within the communities. Or, for fear of further threats to life,” she added. Survivors are left with lasting physical and emotional scars, robbed not only of health, dignity and peace — but of justice. Sunshine wants justice. To achieve this, she wants to become a police officer or soldier herself and get her own form of justice. “I wish I could find him and kill him. I want him to die by my hand,” the young teen said.

Trudging on

The UNFPA said sexual violence thwarts women’s participation in social, political and economic life. But Janet is doing her best now to build a future and has started a distance learning course. She wants to set up a small business. “I want to go to school because I didn’t attend a school as a child. Now, education is good for my work; to get more knowledge and live a better life.” Other survivors of sexual violence too are trudging on and owning their voices, albeit at unquantifiable costs. “The costs of conflict are great; the costs of conflict paid largely by women and girls are incalculable,” the UNFPA stated on its website.