Rape and sexual violence have long been used as a weapon in conflict — a way to enact brutal violence on women and children who are by and large bystanders. There are myriad examples: The Rwandan genocide, the violence in Sierra Leone and the conflict in Bosnia, to name a few. But despite the hundreds of thousands of victims, rape as a weapon was only codified as an offense on an international level in 1998, when the Rome Statute named rape as a “crime against humanity.” (A little note on the Rome Statute: President Bill Clinton signed on to it in ’98, and then George W. Bush revoked our signature on it during his presidency.)Rape as a weapon continues to be a huge problem — hundreds of cases have been reported in relation to the ongoing conflict in Syria — and it serves a variety of purposes. Rape victimizes “the enemy,” emasculates the husbands, fathers and brothers of the victims, and can aid in the genocide of a culture by impregnating women with “the enemy’s” children — effectively tearing apart the binds of family and community. And, in the case of the Rwandan genocide, systematic sexual violence can result in widespread HIV infection. It was reported that after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, more than 500,000 women were infected with HIV/AIDS.
Even so, sexual violence as a weapon of war gets little attention outside of NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Which is why it’s a good thing that U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy Angelina Jolie is currently touring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, meeting with victims of sexual violence and documenting the lives of women impacted by conflicts in their respective countries.
In addition to the trauma of sexual assault and rape, many of the women in these countries are cast out from their communities because of the culture of shame associated with being a victim of sexual violence. As a result, many victims are forced to leave their homes and move to encampments. Jolie visited the Nzulo camp in Goma, DRC, which houses more than 2,500 such victims. Sexual violence is commonly used by Congolese rebels and Congolese military. Jolie’s trip was sponsored by British foreign secretary William Hague, who has made the eradication of sexual violence as a weapon of war a major part of his platform.
“Sexual violence in conflict has to be resolved if conflicts are going to be resolved,” he said. “When rape is used as a weapon of war it makes communities harder to bring together, and much harder for people to get on with their lives afterwards.”