With the issues of emergency contraception — the “morning after” pill — and abortion still topics of tremendous controversy among United Nations members, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended that both should be offered as part of an international response to the rape of women in conflict situations.
Writing in his first report on the subject to the Security Council since naming a new special representative on sexual violence in conflict last year, Ban said that sexual attacks are almost universally under-reported for various reasons, and that women and girls who lack access to help after rape “are often forced to either carry out unwanted pregnancies . . . or undergo dangerous abortions.
“Therefore, access to safe emergency contraception and services for the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape should be an integral component of any multisectoral response,” he wrote, based on consultations with 13 members of the United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict as well as UN field offices, concerned nations and peacekeeping missions. The report was written in March in preparation for a council session on April 17 focused on women, peace and security.
Ban and his new special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura of Sierra Leone — a country that experienced widespread brutality of all kinds during civil conflict in the 1990s — both spoke during the council session, but Ban did not mention the boldest parts of his report in his remarks. He warned, however, that the sexual abuse of women and girls may be endemic, and he called on national governments and security forces to act more effectively to prevent and stop it.
“As we learn more about sexual violence being used as a tactic of war, certain patterns are becoming clear,” he said in the council debate, which was arranged by Rwanda, another country with a sad history of sexual violence that occurred in the genocide of 1994. Rwanda is a nonpermanent member of the council and its president for April.
“One is that the negative effects of wartime rape persist long after the guns fall silent,” Ban said. “From the Balkans to Africa, UN entities and others continue to provide vital medical and psychosocial support to victims and survivors. Another pattern we see is that, although this vicious crime disproportionately affects women and girls, men and boys are also targeted.”
In his written report for the council debate, dated March 14, 2013, the secretary-general also addressed the practices of forced marriages and sexual slavery in numerous countries. “In addition,” he wrote, “there have been reports of survivors of rape in conflict being coerced into marriage with either the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family members. Compelling rape survivors to marry their attackers revictimizes them, results in impunity for the perpetrators and sends the message that sexual violence is socially acceptable.”
He also called attention to the trauma affecting the children of rape, saying that there is “little or no information” on these cases. In Bosnia-Herzogovina, where rapes of Bosnian and Croatian women by Serb militants in the early 1990s are reported and documented to number in the thousands, a powerful award-winning film, “Grbavica,” by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic, told the fictionalized story of one such woman and her daughter, struggling painfully with the truth about her “father,” a Serbian rapist in the siege of Sarajevo.
As the special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Bangura, who took office in September of last year, brings to her job as a member of Ban’s senior management group firsthand experience as the health and sanitation minister in Sierra Leone, manager of the country’s peace-building efforts and overseer of the largest civilian component of the UN peacekeeping mission in neighboring Liberia.
Bangura told the council on April 17 that she planned to visit several countries, from Syria to Mali, to observe the problems women face. She asked the council to “raise the cost and consequences” for those who commit rape.
“Sexual violence has been used through the ages precisely because it is such a cheap and devastating weapon, but more deadly than any bomb,” she said. “We can and must reverse this reality, making it a massive liability to commit, command or condone sexual violence in conflict.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.