Rape: Does it rate in the hierarchy of horror?

Time and Again in recent decades, I have been confronted by the illogicality of a frequently expressed hierarchy of horrors. This is never more so than when  gender and issues for girls and women are raised. In quiet times many multilateral and development agencies develop guidelines for protecting women in complex emergencies, but these are not always implemented when a complex emergency occurs. A  UN colleague working with women refugees was told, ‘Don’t bother me with gender guidelines now. I have an emergency on my hands.’

There is often an attitude that such concerns are somehow peripheral to the real work of responding to need. No one argues the relative merits of food or shelter or medical care. Yet the cross-cutting need to ensure that women and children do not experience a second level of suffering may be neglected.

‘Rape in war? Not an issue. Men are being killed.’ This comment from an experienced worker with a  major humanitarian agency highlights one of the most serious instances of deciding when one horror is worse than another horror. Rape can be a form of genocide, yet it has seldom been named as such. Key elements of the text of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are issues of defining and identifying the perpetrators, the targeted victims, the nature of the acts, the intent behind those acts, and the responsibility to prosecute.

Rape and genocide

The decade of the 1990s saw heightened awareness of rape as a weapon of war rather than a more limited notion of it as a by-product of unruly troops engaged in conflict. In 1993, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) expressed outrage at rape being used as a weapon of war, and in 1994 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1994/205 expressed alarm at the ‘the continuing use of rape as a weapon of war.’ A link had been made between rape and genocide.

It is as important to understand the nature of rape and genocide as it is important to understand the nature of killing and genocide, if the international community is to have any chance of prohibiting, preventing, recognising, responding to, prosecuting, and punishing these practices.

Rapes in the 1990s in Rwanda and in the Balkans conflicts (especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina) could be deemed genocidal in that they were elements of genocidal campaigns.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) ruled that rape and sexual violence constituted genocide in the same way as any other act, as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or part, a particular group targeted as such. In the Balkans, where many rapes targeted women who were then left alive, rape would seem to have been a parallel campaign in which rape on its own could be defined as genocidal. In Rwanda, rapes, which were most often the precursor to killing,were also genocidal because they were part of one integrated genocidal campaign.

By December 1994, in the former Yugoslavia, there were approximately 1,100 reported cases of rape and sexual assault. About 800 victims had been named or were known to the submitting source; about 1,800 victims had been specifically referred to but not named or identified sufficiently by the reporting witness; witness reports through approximations referred to a possible further 10,000 victims. The European Council report from an Investigative Mission in January 1993 accepted the possibility of speaking in terms of many thousands. Estimates varied widely, ranging from 10,000 to as many as 60,000. The most reasoned estimates suggested to the Mission placed the number of victims at around 20,000.

There was an acknowledged reluctance by many women to report rapes. Reasons for this reluctance included fear of reprisals for themselves and family members; shame and fear of ostracisation;many women just wanting to get on with their lives; many women not having a place to report the assaults of rapes; and refugees having an increasing scepticism about the response of the international community.

In the case of Rwanda, histories of the genocide make clear that there was a systematic use of rape. The exact number of women raped will never be known, but testimonies from survivors confirm that thousands of women and girls were individually raped, raped with objects such as gunbarrels, held in sexual slavery either collectively or through forced ‘marriage,’ or sexually mutilated.

Reasons for Rwandan women not always reporting rape were noted as similar to those of women in the Balkans. Women knew that their suffering may not be recognised, that they may be blamed in some way, that for much of the world, rape does not matter too much.

Long-term impact

Yet, rape contributes to mass killing and causes serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction and to prevent births within the group.

Deaths have resulted from children being abandoned or from infanticide. These children are referred to as ‘pregnancies of the war,’ ‘children of hate,’ ‘enfants non-désirés’ (unwanted children) or ‘enfants mauvais souvenirs’( children of bad memories). In patriarchal societies such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, children are recognised as belonging to the group of the father. Not only are the children of the rapes seen as not part of the mother’s group, they are often the cause of family divisions when mothers try to raise them.

Many women are rejected by communities, or suffer feelings of guilt for having survived after the rape. Additionally, there is the long-term impact on a group when many of its women suffer physical and psychological injuries, and encounter economic difficulties when deprived of traditional support of husbands and community – who may ostracise victims or blame or suspect them of complicity with the enemy. There are clear grounds for admitting rape as a  potentially genocidal act.

Both in Rwanda and in the Balkans rapes were perpetrated by, and targeted, identifiable groups. There is evidence of destruction ‘in part or in whole of a group’ as such and there is clear evidence of intent. Naming a series of acts as genocide brings with it a responsibility to prosecute. The difficulties in prosecuting those guilty of genocide are acknowledged. But difficulty in implementing prosecution should not be equated with any logical or ethical reason to avoid acknowledging, naming, and increasing awareness of genocide.

This is true of genocide by direct slaying or genocide by rape, which has the same outcome. Given the lack of interest in prosecuting crimes of sexual violence against women, it is possible that genocide by rape could go unnoticed, uncondemned, unprosecuted, or unpunished, and that few resources would be allocated to proactive strategies of prevention.

Somehow genocide by rape has been relegated to a lower position in the hierarchy of horrors. This must change.

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