— Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch
The civil war in Sierra Leone attracted some attention for some things, but little note was made of the use of rape as a weapon of war...against women.
"Violence against women was not just incidental to the conflict," Binaifer Nowrojee of the Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations told Africa Renewal a few years ago, "but was routinely used as a tool of war. Sexual violence was used in a widespread and systematic way as a weapon, and women were raped in extraordinarily brutal ways."
In fact one thing that united all the factions fighting in that war was their common assault on the women of their country. Every armed groups carried out human rights violations against women and girls. These included killing, rape and other sexual violence, sexual slavery, slave labour, abduction, assault, amputation, forced pregnancy, disembowelment of pregnant women, torture, trafficking, mutilation, theft and the destruction of property. The waring parties sought to dominate women and their communities by deliberately undermining cultural values and community relationships, destroying the ties that hold society together. Child combatants raped women who were old enough to be their grandmothers, rebels raped pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and fathers were forced to watch their daughters being raped.
Tens of thousands of women and girls who survived mass rapes, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other crimes of sexual violence continue to suffer as so-called "rebel wives," targeted for discrimination and exclusion and denied access to health care, jobs and schools, Amnesty International said today in a report just released.
But there is much more to the story.
The war ended. The violence against women continued unabated. Nearly six years after the end of civil conflict, violence against girls and women is still rampant.
And, of course, Sierra Leone is not some isolated case of the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Recently the United Nations following reports of rape in conflict particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) denounced the use of rape as a weapon for war, urging nations to combat gender-based violence especially in armed conflicts and their aftermath.
"The woman's body has become a battleground and it seems to be taken for granted that this should continue," Rachel Mayanja, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said at a press briefing at UN headquarters.
Briefing the Security Council last month after returning from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes reported that "brutal sexual violence is a particularly horrific feature of the DRC."
"For many victims, registering a case and speaking out means almost certain ostracism by their own family and community," he told the Council.
"In any case, the chances of redress in a situation of virtually total impunity are close to zero", he said.
It's nice that the UN is speaking out now, but, unfortunately, the use of sexual violence against women as a weapon of war is nothing new.
Human Rights Watch wrote:
"Widely committed and seldom denounced, rape and sexual assault of women in situations of conflict have been viewed more as the spoils of war than as illegitimate acts that violate humanitarian law. As a consequence, women, whether combatants or civilians, have been targeted for rape while their attackers go without punishment. Not until the international outcry rose in response to reports of mass rape in the former Yugoslavia did the international community confront rape as a war crime and begin to take steps to punish those responsible for such abuse. Rape, nonetheless, has long been mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders—those in a position to stop it—as a private crime, a sexual act, the ignoble act of the occasional soldier; worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace."
Rape is a form of torture. It attacks a woman's identity and personal integrity. Lepa Mladjenovic, a psychotherapist and Serbian feminist antiwar activist, stated that it renders a woman "homeless in her own body." Rape is a violation of a woman's power that degrades and seeks to destroy her.
Back in the year 2000, Christine Chinkin pointed out that the impact of the sexual violence does not end with the rape. She wrote in the European Journal of International Law:
"The pain, agony, and consequences of rape do not end with the attack of these victims. The effects often last for the rest of these women's lives. Those who survive risk contracting sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, or becoming pregnant. Those who are forced to bear the child of an attacker are constantly reminded of the invasion of their community and of their person. Some have been so badly injured in attacks that they will never be able to bear children. Some societies have religious or cultural restrictions on those who are no longer virgins. These women may never be able to be a part of their families or communities. These women may never receive any professional help for the physical, psychological, and economic damage inflicted upon them. Many are unable to bear the pain and shame and take their own lives."
It is 2007 and nothing really has changed. Humanity should be ashamed.
The following is a press release from Amnesty International.
Mass Rally in Support of Survivors of Conflict's Sexual Violence
At a mass rally held in Makeni in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone today, Amnesty International members and hundreds of other local activists called on the newly elected government of Sierra Leone to commit to ensuring justice and full reparations for the tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean women who have been the victims of sexual violence.
The organization also released a 35-page report entitled "Getting Reparations Right for Survivors of Sexual Violence," revealing the extent to which women are still stigmatized and suffering the after-effects of the sexual violence perpetrated during the conflict in Sierra Leone.
"The unimaginable brutality of violations committed against up to one third of Sierra Leone's women and girls, although well-documented, has still not been fully addressed by the government," said Tania Bernath, Amnesty International's researcher on Sierra Leone.
"For the women of Sierra Leone, the story is not over. They need appropriate healthcare and access to justice, work, economic opportunities and educational opportunities to help them to begin to re-build their lives."
Under international law, those responsible for rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture must be brought to justice and the survivors must receive full and effective reparations. Reparations must, as far as possible, wipe out all consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation that would have, in all probability, existed had the act not been committed.
The Lomé Peace Accord, signed in 1999, provided for the establishment of a "Special Fund for War Victims" and for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite the government's obligation to establish such a fund and repeated calls from civil society, the fund has not been established.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also called for the establishment of a reparations process. This is now being set up, with the National Commission for Social Action taking the lead, but it will need the full support of the government to be effective.
"The delay in setting up a special fund for war victims of Sierra Leone's devastating conflict has undoubtedly resulted in further suffering -- especially for the women of Sierra Leone," said Bernath. "Survivors of sexual violence have been denied rehabilitation -- extending their suffering and compounding their physical and psychological problems."
"Implementing the reparations program recommended by the TRC is also crucial and it will be important for the government to get it right so the survivors of sexual violence do not miss out on the much needed reparations"
Amnesty International stressed in its report that the justice process is an important complement to other forms of reparations.
"A properly functioning justice system should enable survivors to describe what has happened to them in an environment that protects their dignity and helps to end impunity for the horrific crimes they have suffered -- holding the perpetrators to account and bringing them to justice."
"It is almost six years since the end of the devastating conflict that wracked Sierra Leone for years, causing immeasurable suffering to civilians in the country -- particularly women," said Bernath. "And yet, the suffering for women has not ended. The lack of justice and effective remedies has to a certain extent set the stage for further violence against women. "
Despite the passage of several women's rights bills, violations of women's rights in Sierra Leone continue unabated. Not only is violence against women and girls rampant, but efforts to prosecute perpetrators have been largely ineffective.
"Family mediation aimed at restoring 'peace' in rape cases contributes to impunity -- rather than furthering justice," said Bernath. "Such mediation facilitates the government evading its responsibility to ensure that all violence against women is prosecuted."
There has been little justice for survivors of war-related sexual violence in Sierra Leone. On 20 June 2007 the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three senior members of the AFRC guilty of 11 out of 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These included rape and outrages on personal dignity including sexual slavery. Remarkably, this was the first instance of anyone in Sierra Leone being held to account for war-related crimes. While this is a significant step forward in the fight against impunity, it is only a small and partial response to addressing impunity for these crimes, since thousands of others have escaped justice.
However an amnesty clause in the Lomé Accord bars prosecution of anyone accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes between 1991 and 1999. The amnesty also precludes victims from seeking reparations from perpetrators in Sierra Leone's national courts.
Amnesty International continues to call on the government of Sierra Leone to revoke its amnesty law as a matter of urgency and to prioritize rebuilding the justice system in order to effectively investigate all crimes committed during the conflict and prosecute those suspected to committing the crimes.