The use of sexual violence as a military tactic is rarely discussed. Stylist speaks to the survivors who refuse to remain invisible any longer.
The female survivors all have a story to tell that makes your blood run cold. One was bought and sold as a sex slave nine times. Another was raped 10 days after her son died in a forced-labour camp. Another had been kidnapped from her family aged seven and became a sexual toy for the soldiers. Another was left unable to have children due to the atrocities of her attack. Another was brutally scarred across her chest after being dragged across the ground by her attackers. Yet another was raped while four months pregnant and refused to let them cut her baby out of her. That child is now 23.
They meet in a small office in The Hague, in the Netherlands, having come from all around the world: Syria, Iraq, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Bosnia and Colombia.
The languages are as diverse as their ages – from young women to grandmothers. The one thing they have in common is shared horror and an intense, quiet courage. As they listen to each other, it brings back the pain they suffered but their tears are also a sharp reminder of why they are together. They are angry, but united they are starting to feel empowered and are demanding change and justice.
These women have been brought together by the Global Survivors’ Movement to highlight the way that rape continues to be used as a weapon in the 21st century. Their mission? To break the silence around the use of sexual violence in warfare. They will no longer accept being seen as collateral damage; no longer able to see the men who inflicted such pain on them, and the governments who did nothing to stop it, escape justice.
Rape has always accompanied war. Even during 20th-century conflicts, such as the Second World War and the Vietnam War, all sides were accused of mass rape. However, it wasn’t recognised by the United Nations Security Council until after the war in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995). As a result of the systematic attacks on mostly Muslim women in Bosnia and Herzegovina, organised mass rape in times of conflict became officially a crime against humanity.
It is impossible to put a figure on the number of attacks as, with all sexual offences, the reported numbers are a small percentage of actual assaults. The disparity is also due to many women disappearing altogether – feared murdered or held in detention centres, despite having committed no crimes.
A United Nations website does however quote the following estimates: Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of genocide in 1994. More than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), more than 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003), up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998.
Reports indicate that in 1990 sexual violence was common in about 20% of conflicts worldwide. In 2009 it was common in 40% of conflicts. And even after a conflict has ended, victims and survivors are often left in very vulnerable situations, with little funding to support them, both physically and psychologically.
In many countries women who speak out risk being isolated by their communities and disowned by their families, even killed for ‘shaming’ the honour of their family name.
Fareeda Khalaf still lives in hiding due to the dangers of talking publicly about her ordeal. She is one of nearly 7,000 Yazidi women and children captured by Isis in Iraq in 2014, many of whom were turned into sex slaves.
“Our lives were normal,” she says. “I was 17, going to school. I had a dream I wanted to become a maths teacher. We never imagined it would happen to us. I was captured for three or four months. They beat me every day and raped me. I couldn’t walk for two months, I couldn’t see out of one eye because of the beatings and they broke my skull in three places.
“Breaking the silence is important because there are many girls who can’t talk. If no one talks these things will keep happening. I am speaking on behalf of the women who have died and disappeared. Thousands of girls are still captured.”
In modern warfare there is a growing use of women’s bodies as a battlefield and the violation of them as a military tactic. It works on many levels – destroying and demoralising communities and families. It creates a climate of fear and shame, made even worse when victims are left pregnant with their attacker’s children. The assaults often involve mutilation of genitals as well as inserting objects in the women such as guns and sticks.
“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict,” Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo, told the UN.
Abia (not her real name) is a young mother from Syria who now lives in Europe. She asks the group at The Hague to watch a film she took part in, Silent War. It had to be taken down from YouTube after the women who were identified in it faced threats on their lives. Abia cannot bear to watch it herself and leaves the room. Halfway through everyone is in tears and there is an animated debate about whether they should continue viewing until they decide turning it off would be part of the problem.
“She has asked us to watch it,” pleads Esperande from Burundi. “We have to break the silence.”
Abia’s interview on film details her capture by the security forces on her way to classes at a university. Her name had been on a list for taking part in demonstrations against the Assad government. When the bus she was travelling on was stopped and searched, she was taken to a detention centre.
On arriving she heard girls screaming and witnessed her best friend held down by three men and raped by a fourth. “The rapes happened like this. The door opens, someone enters. I cry out. The man doesn’t stop, he shows no mercy. Once he’s done, he leaves. I know all their voices. I hear them call each other. Once they were done, they would come back to interrogate me but there was nothing left to take from me, even my soul had disappeared,” she recalls.
“The last time they came there were five of them. They took their turn, they said they had heard so much about me that they had come to see for themselves. I began to experience a pain similar to childbirth. An unheard-of pain that I did not understand. I screamed. The fifth and last said to them, ‘That’s enough, it is getting too much.’ I looked underneath me and I saw a pool of blood.”
She lost consciousness, waking up in a hospital where a doctor told her she had suffered a stroke. “A nurse said, ‘You have had a haemorrhage and the doctor is very much on your side. The doctor is going to get you out of here, he is going pretend that you have died.’”
One of the few women to see her rapist charged and punished in court is Agic Semka, who was raped in the Nineties during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
“I broke the silence 10 years ago and I don’t feel a victim any more,” she says. “Some of my friends have turned their back on me but I don’t feel any fear in my life any more.”
She believes we all have a role in raising our sons to respect women: “To respect their mothers, sisters and women in general. If boys are taught that from a very young age, they wouldn’t have the feeling of having to assault women in later life.”
According to the organisers of the conference, The Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation, it is vital that these women have help to become a unit fighting for change. “Rape as a weapon of war is used against women, men, girls and boys,” explains Esther Dingemans the director of the foundation.
“The position of women as second class citizens in a patriarchal society, however, makes them even more vulnerable. Women are often seen as the property of men. Rape is considered an attack not only on the woman’s body, but on the men in her life whose masculinity is questioned, on her children who are often forced to witness the violence, and on the entire community that was unable to protect her.
“It’s a strategy to demoralise and destabilise an entire community. It is also used to gain information, in detention for example, and during ethnic cleansing to systematically attack the lineage of a group. Some armed or terrorist groups use rape and sexual slavery as a means of attracting and retaining fighters, and to finance their war, by selling the women on.”
Back in the room, the spirit of these women is incredible. Sharing their lowest moments together, the last thing you’d expect to hear is spontaneous laughter, singing and dancing, not to mention seeing them constantly hug each other. But that is what they do – they are so grateful to be with others who, despite having no shared language, are truly sisters under the skin. They understand their every emotion and nightmare because they have been there too.
“When I am alone, I feel vulnerable,” one woman tells the room. “When I see myself in the mirror, I remember the pain. But when we are together, I feel strong. We are united and stronger than a whole army.”
How you can make a difference
The women of the Global Survivors’ Movement have come together, with the help of the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation and Their world, to support each other and make the world listen. Here are their demands…
- A global fund to pay for medical, mental health and material needs.
- An online forum to provide a safe space where survivors can talk.
- Recognition Crimes accepted as part of each country’s history.
- A memorial day to remember and celebrate victims.
- A justice framework with international consequences for nations who fail to uphold the laws.
For more information on how you can help, visit mukwegefoundation.org
Images: Annie Spratt / Unsplash / Getty Images