Rape in conflict

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Up to 50,000 women have been raped as an act of war in Bosnia. Only 30 men have ever been convicted. Stylist investigates the impact of sexual violence in global conflicts

If you had been brutally raped by armed militia, years later you would not expect to see your attacker browsing the local shops with his family. Yet for many women, this is a reality. “In Bosnia I spoke to women who know the men who raped them – they see them at the supermarket and in the street,” says Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. “This is something you never forget and to add to their pain, they are not able to take action against these people.”

William Hague and Angelina Jolie in the Democratic Republic of Congo campaigning against rape in conflict

There are hundreds of thousands of women living today who have not only endured war and the deprivations that go with it – lack of food and medical care, disease, death of loved ones – but also have had to shoulder a burden that will never leave them; rape, inflicted on them as a weapon of war. They have to contend with the legacy of the attack, often along with stigma and social isolation, but what’s worse is that they are also forced to live cheek-by-jowl with people who subjected them to humiliating, painful sexual abuse, yet continue to live without recrimination. ‘Mass rape’ was a term that was created out of the Bosnian war, and rape continues to be employed to ethnically cleanse and annihilate communities. In the 2011 Libyan civil war, Colonel Gaddafi’s forces used rape to punish, while it’s believed that the sexual violence that occurred in Bosnia is happening now in Syria.

For the victim, the ramifications of rape tend to last long after the end of the conflict. “Women who have been raped face a double stigma,” explains Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and sponsored_longforms, for Physicians for Human Rights. “They are shunned and become much more vulnerable to being re-raped because they don’t have the support of their communities, and a man in their own household to protect them.

“Women and girls are not just violated by genitals, but by guns, sticks, knives, daggers, batons and other objects inserted in the vagina. That’s how you get a traumatic fistula, a tear in the urinary tract. In Kosovo the raping of women was done publicly, in the Congo children have been forced to rape their mothers at gunpoint. It shows an enormous disdain not just for the woman but for the entire population.”

Bosnian Serb Zoran Vukovic was one of the first people to be convicted of rape as a war crime in 2001

Finally, admittedly too late for many, action is being taken. On 24 September 2013, 113 UN member states endorsed the new ‘Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ (since then a further six countries have endorsed the declaration). The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative has been spearheaded by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie (who is to receive Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award this Saturday for her work with the Foreign And Commonwealth Office [FCO]), as they aim to stop rape and sexual violence being viewed as an inevitable spoil of war; giving victims a chance for justice, while showing perpetrators they will be punished.

The 119 countries have also pledged to not allow an amnesty around sexual violence in peace agreements, so the crimes are not swept under the carpet. Next year there will be a conference in London to build on the declaration. Because, while war rape is recognised under the Geneva Convention as a crime against humanity, it is incredibly difficult to punish. “In conflict situations, where institutions designed to protect people and prosecute violations are ineffective or non-existent, there is simply no recourse for rape survivors – they have nowhere to turn and no access to justice,” explains Brita Fernandez Schmidt, UK executive director for Women for Women International, a non-profit organisation that provides support for women who are survivors of war. “In addition, women who have been abused often face fear of reprisals against them and their families for speaking out.”

Action without impunity

Monica Tamary, 30, was raped in front of her three-month-old son by two rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Prosecution of war rape is a relatively recent development; in fact – and this is hard to stomach – mass rape was only recognised as a war crime in 2001 following the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped in the Bosnian war). In Rwanda, rape is also seen as an act of genocide since the conflict in 1994 where it is estimated that 500,000 women, many of them Tutsi, were raped in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the population.

“Most perpetrators do not face prosecution,” continues Fernandez Schmidt. “In conflict resolution processes, rape is often under prioritised with the focus traditionally being on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of usually male combatants with peace negotiation tables being dominated by male representatives.” Plus, there is a longstanding belief that rape, during war, is part of the process. “I was recently in Mali training the military there,” reveals Alison Hayes, an aid-worker who established the Protection of Civilians Unit at the UN Department of Peacekeeping. “I met soldiers who believed it was their right to rape women after victory. That’s how they would celebrate. Obviously, it’s very shocking when the status of women in a society is so low they feel able to say that. It wasn’t a confession; it’s business as usual.”

The impact of being violently raped is almost impossible to imagine, yet the thought of not being able to take action against those who purposefully set out to psychologically and physically damage you is more galling still; the anger, impotence and injustice must be overwhelming. But, now, thanks to the efforts of William Hague, Angelina Jolie and the FCO, women in conflict zones – now and in the future – will start to know that the world is watching and that the rule of law will be finally on their side.

Living with rape

Stylist meets two survivors

“My husband rejected me”

Bushu Nsamamaba, 40, Democratic Republic of Congo

“Five years ago I was living a good life with my family. My husband and I were happy and I was independent, selling goods in my shop. It was enough to financially support my son Trésor, who was 17 at the time, and my daughter, Carmel, 15.

One day Mai Mai rebels (a community-based militia) attacked the village: stealing, raping and killing. I was at home with my husband. Out of nowhere, four armed men appeared. I froze in fear as they pushed themselves onto me. They raped me in front of my husband, taking turns, forcing him to watch. I thought it would never end. After that, my husband was ashamed. While I tried to make him accept me, he couldn’t look at me the same. I’d become dirty. After six months he said I was no longer worthy of being his wife and he left. I was devastated. We’d been married for over 20 years.

Rape carries a stigma with it everywhere you go, and I found that I was harassed in the community. People would hurl abuse at me as I walked past. It was unbearable for Trésor to watch. He saw me desolate after being rejected by his own father and then harassed by my old friends… so he too left. Apart from my daughter, I was completely alone. To this day, I still don’t know where Trésor is. As a mother, it’s agonising. Having been rejected by my family, I was forced to flee to Goma, 250 miles away. A friend had told me that I was entitled to free medical care for my lingering injuries, so I left, utterly alone. Several months later, Carmel came and met me. Today, we live together with her two small children.

I was in complete despair. I felt that I was disappearing within myself. I was even thinking about killing myself. That was when I heard about Women Stand Up Together, a centre that empowers women like me through learning crafts, so that we can make money in the future. They also teach us about women’s rights – I can see that I still have worth. I do fear what will happen if I ever return to my village, and I pray to God this never happens to my daughter or my granddaughter. But today, I’m glad to say that I’m happy.”

“We were left destitute”

Justine Zawadi, 20, Democratic Republic of Congo

“I used to live a comfortable life in Goma, with my daughter, Jemima, who’s six. I’m a single mother, as her father abandoned us when I fell pregnant at 14. My mum would help with babysitting and I made money by selling small items in the market to send Jemima to school.

But everything changed the moment the M23 rebels [The March 23 Movement militia currently in armed conflict with the Democratic Republic of Congo government] poured into the city last November. They took control and created devastation. As they moved around, they would violate people – raping women and children and killing the men. They took our food, our animals, our money – everything. I was deeply afraid, but there was nothing I could do – I had no money and there was nowhere else I could go.

One day three rebels entered my home and found me. There wasn’t any security – they simply opened the wooden door. They looted the entire house, stealing money and everything in it, before brutally forcing themselves onto me. They took turns raping me, one after another after another. Thank God Jemima was at my mother’s house nearby that day and didn’t have to see it.

I felt numb. I still do. Physically, I hurt so much, but mentally, I couldn’t feel a thing. My brain had shut down. My daughter and I left the next morning to go to Sake. We walked for three days without any food or water. I was limping, I was in so much pain.

From there, we continued by foot to Minova. I was hospitalised because of all of the damage internally from the rape and I received psychological support. But we were completely destitute. It takes a long time to heal from something like that.

I heard from somebody in the village about a place called CAMPS that works with World Vision to help sexually abused women and girls. It’s become a safe haven, I’m now no longer alone. I’m receiving training to weave baskets, which I’m selling at the local market to make some money, and they’re schooling my daughter. We are trying to create a normal life for ourselves here. But it will never be the same.”

“Changing this will change how women are regarded”

William Hague talks to Stylist about the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative

“I wouldn’t really describe myself as a feminist but I believe in women’s rights. I believe one of the crucial parts of human rights that the world has to address, is that women play a full role in the world.

I’ve been to camps in Darfur, I’ve heard the terrible stories of women who go out to get firewood and get raped. I’ve paid several visits to Bosnia and more recently Eastern Congo. Angelina Jolie and I sat with a woman in the Congo who told us, ‘We are raped like animals.’

It’s a women’s issue but also an issue of the conduct of war: all war is terrible but we manage to have conventions and agreements about how war is conducted, about how prisoners are treated, about cluster munitions and landmines, so why can’t we have international conventions and agreements that rape is unacceptable, just as abuse of prisoners is unacceptable?

It makes a big difference to people knowing there is a scrutiny of these things. We need actual prosecutions to take place. We have 70 experts in the UK to help people gather evidence so these crimes can be documented so people will know in future there is a higher chance perpetrators will be brought to justice. We hope we will agree next year an international protocol around standards of documentation and evidence gathering of these crimes. Also, training of armies to avoid these crimes is so important.

Sometimes people say, ‘Why is it about rape and not every aspect of women’s rights?’ I feel on this issue, rape in war, we can make a difference which might help to unlock progress on other issues. If we change this, it will change how women are regarded.”

To keep up to date with the initiative’s progress, visit the FCO’s tumblr page at To help survivors of war rape, visit womenforwomen. to donate, sponsor a woman or find ideas on how to raise money.

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Stylist Team