In a year in which swaths of territory were liberated in Iraq and Syria from the grip of ISIS, enabling the release of women and girls and others from the extremists, the United Nations’ annual report on conflict-related sexual violence highlights the stigma that the victims encounter — from physical pain to profound depression — and the imperative of ensuring that they rejoin society “in the wake of war.”
The new report, covering all of 2017, also lists for the first time the Myanmar armed forces for allegedly committing sexual violence against the Rohingya minority, noting that it was used by “belligerent parties to attack and alter the ethnic or religious identity of persecuted groups,” which can amount to genocide.
The factors that incite the rise or resurgence of sexual violence in war do not change from year to year: the flow of arms, the upheaval of people from their homes, the vanishing of the rule of law and the politicization or manipulation of ethnic or religious minorities all played out in 2017 across a range of settings. They include areas in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen.
Most of the victims were women and girls concentrated in rural areas, where there is little access to relevant recovery services and law enforcement institutions. Men and boys were not immune to the violence, either.
The stigma attached to women and girls who had been subjected to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, pregnancy and/or abortion as well as forced marriage under ISIS and other renegade militias and national forces can have “life-long, and sometimes lethal, repercussions for both survivors and for children conceived through rape,” the 35-page report sets out immediately.
Stigma, in short, can kill.
“Stigma can have lethal repercussions, including honor killings, suicide, untreated diseases (such as HIV), traumatic fistula, unsafe abortion, maternal mortality, extreme poverty and high-risk survival behavior,” Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, told the UN Security Council on April 16, during its annual meeting on the topic.
In a breakthrough by advocates for women and girls, the Council put the crime of conflicted-related sexual violence on its agenda in 2008, deeming such acts as a threat to international peace and security. Although the world has become more aware of the problem of rape in war and rejects its supposed inevitability in the battlefield, most incidents still go unpunished or ignored. Last year, the annual UN report acknowledged rape as a weapon of terrorism.
This year, the report’s first recommendation puts the onus on the Security Council to act by including sexual violence as a “designation criteria” for UN sanctions. (A new detailed study done by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and published by PassBlue recommended using UN sanctions more strategically to go after perpetrators.)
The UN report notes that the mass flow of newly released victims from territories held by ISIS and other extremists has driven “forced displacement” and kept those who have been freed from returning to their communities. That can leave a large chunk of the population left, more often than not, to a life of destitution, humiliation and isolation from mainstream society.
Some progress is highlighted in the UN report, such as the creation of strong judicial frameworks for victims of sexual violence in Colombia after its forever war, resulting in thousands of survivors receiving reparations for sexual violence under the peace pact of 2016. Nevertheless, grass-roots groups in Colombia find plenty of weaknesses in the new processes and laws.
Moreover, no new cases of sexual violence by Ivory Coast’s army were recorded in 2017, after it was delisted from previous UN reports; the government in Guinea, also in West Africa, indicted 17 high-ranking military officials for their role in sexual violence perpetrated in 2009 (but trials have not begun); and successful prosecutions for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity made small headway in the Congo.
The report looks at 19 countries, where verifiable information was available. An annex of 47 parties lists groups like Al Qaeda and national military and police forces. The report was just published, under the name of the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, but the work is done primarily by Patten and her team. Women’s protection advisers from the UN, who handle the “monitoring, analysis and reporting arrangements” on conflict-related violence in the field, have improved the funneling of information to the UN, the report said.
Other significant matters of concern in the report include a “justice deficit,” reflecting the fact that no member of two of the world’s harshest extremist groups, ISIS and Boko Haram (in Nigeria), has been prosecuted for sexual violence as an international crime.
The report also documents a spike in negative coping mechanisms by victims and their families, like early marriage, in response to the threat of rape, and the plight of children born from wartime rape who may be abandoned by their mothers, such as in Iraq and Nigeria.
The coverage of Myanmar in the report couldn’t be timelier, as the UN Security Council travels later this month to the country and to Rohingya refugee outposts in neighboring Bangladesh. Almost 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar’s Rakhine state have escaped to Bangladesh as a result of assaults allegedly committed by the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, working in concert with local, mostly Buddhist, militia.
The report refers to the military “clearance” operations in October 2016 and August 2017 of Rohingya in Rakhine as “ethnic cleansing,” echoing the UN High Commissioner for Human Right’s language.
In the “cleansing” operations, rape was used as a “calculated tool” to force the Rohingya from the country, and most remain encamped in squalid conditions in Bangladesh, deathly afraid of returning home. Patten visited Cox’s Bazaar, a fishing port, in November, where the refugees have temporarily settled. She heard accounts “from almost every woman and girl of patterns of rape, gang rape, forced nudity and abduction” for sexual slavery during Myanmar military rampages.
In response to what Patten documented, her office is urging the Myanmar government to prosecute perpetrators, train its armed forces on international humanitarian and human-rights law and provide the care that victims need resulting from the crimes.
Wars are still being fought on and over the bodies of women to control their production and reproduction by force, the UN report says, but for Patten, some of her work requires fighting a mind-set called denial: that rapes have even taken place.
“On my visits to countries of concern, I still encounter attempts to deny or downplay this issue,” Patten told the Security Council. “Yet such an approach serves no one: not the Government, not the credibility and efficacy of national institutions, and not the people trying to come to terms with the past and build a better future.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.