Why underreporting conflict-related sexual violence is catastrophic

Congolese citizens fleeing war between Congolese forces and M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2022. When such conflicts erupt, women and children bear the bigger portion of the brunt. PHOTO/AP.
Congolese citizens fleeing war between Congolese forces and M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2022. When such conflicts erupt, women and children bear the bigger portion of the brunt. PHOTO/AP.

Every year, the world commemorates the International Day of Elimination of Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict.

According to the United Nations (UN), the aim is “…to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes.”

Sexual violence is a war crime prohibited under the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in international and non-international armed conflict.

In this case, conflict-related sexual violence has been defined by various scholars as rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced abortion, forced pregnancy, forced marriage, enforced sterilization, and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women and girls directly or indirectly linked to conflicts.

This leaves not behind trafficking in persons during conflicts, with its prime focus being sexual violence and exploitation.

What war does to women

I recently listened to various podcasts that amplified the voices of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence across Africa.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been pervasive in conflicts throughout history.

From 1980 to 2009, Africa has had civil wars, one after the other.

These Civil wars, from the Second Eritrean Civil War in 1980, the Sierra Leone Civil War, the Algerian Civil War, the Somali Civil War, the Burundian Civil War, the Republic of the Congo Civil War, and so many others, had widespread sexual violence.

In northern Uganda, between 1986 and 2006, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) committed large-scale human rights abuses in Uganda, including conflict-related sexual violence.

Before the emergence of the LRA, which Joseph Kony led, there was the Holy Spirit Movement which was popular and directed by Alice Lakwena, who led a millennial rebellion against the Ugandan government forces of President Yoweri Museveni from August 1986 until November 1987.

She later-on escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya, making the LRA gain strength and become the most prominent rebel group against the government.

Conflict-related sexual violence registered at that time was most of the time perpetrated against women and girls throughout the 20-year conflict.

Some were even wives of the rebels with whom they later conceived children that they never liked based on how they were born.

The rebels boasted about how they divided women among themselves.

They would be chosen as their brides and the so-called ‘marriages’ would mean rape and control for as long as the rebels desired.

When the women tried to object to that, they would be tortured until they had no choice but to relent.

During the Sierra Leone Civil War, Sierra Leone had prominent cases where rape was used as a weapon of war to take dominion by the commanders or combatants within the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Ten-year conflict in Algeria that started in 1992 between armed Islamists and the civil army continued victimizing Algerian women in extreme ways and tore the country apart.

Thousands of women were kidnapped and temporarily married in their hideouts.

The abducted women were raped by the leader of the group of the armed forces and then passed down to others.

Awadifo Kili, a lawyer, author and human rights activist. PHOTO/File.
Awadifo Kili, a lawyer, author and human rights activist. PHOTO/File.

Their clothes were confiscated, and they remained naked so that they would be raped anytime, and it also made it hard for them to escape.

Out of the rape, women found pregnant were killed most of the time.

Mothers who bore children out of rape found it difficult to bond with their children and oftentimes never liked them, or punished them heavily because they were born in an ugly way.

Some of the survivors who managed to escape or were liberated by the army lived in years of agony and shame.

My gratitude to the Algerian Islamic High Council in 1999 which made a religious decree that recognized the women who were survivors of conflict-related sexual violence as victims and declared that even though they suffered these aggressions, they were “pure and innocent” at the time of their suffering.

Traumatized innocents

Despite the religious decree by the Algerian Islamic High Council, however, these women never regained the respect of their community.

Still, many were rejected by their families and husbands and had no option but to change their lives, whereas others transitioned to the use of drugs and even prostitution.

They chose to stay elsewhere and changed their names.

Some of the young adolescents preferred committing suicide to end their lives.

In the course of the 100 days during the Rwandan Genocide that took shape in 1994, a lot of women and children were raped and even murdered.

The use of rape was a weapon of war during the genocide because it was intended to destroy a particular ethnic group. And as a result, thousands of war babies were born out of the rape cases.

South Sudanese women were physically assaulted while being raped at gunpoint, and they were held down and forced not to resist or report what happened, or they will be killed.

A woman described her friend being raped by a man in the forest who then said he wanted to continue to ‘have fun’ and further raped her with a firewood stick until she bled to death.

Upon medical checkups, the medical personnel confessed that most survivors were raped too many times and left to bleed.

They further stated that some survivors miscarried and others contracted sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Husbands of the women were left searching for their abducted wives and daughters often spent years not knowing their fate or where they could be.

Sometimes, it was a matter of having a thought that you’ll not see each other again.

It was an in-between thought that they were either dead or alive. Life was full of uncertainties for them.

Upon learning that some of their wives were facing sexually related violence, they were quickly sent to depression.

In Tigray, sexual violence has been a tactic in the northern region of Ethiopia, which has been the center of a brutal civil war between ethno-regional militias, federal government forces, and the Eritrean military.

Amnesty International reported in August 2021 that gang rape and sexual slavery, along with others, were the tactics employed as weapons of war against Tigrayan women and girls.

This was part of a strategy to terrorize, degrade, and humiliate victims and the ethnic group at large.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a long history of unrest and instability, where sexual violence occurred in some capacity during the early 1990s and later.

Mostly occurring in the eastern region of the country, much of it was perpetrated by armed militia.

Tracking recent cases

In recent years, Boko Haram in Nigeria has been abducting hundreds of school girls and women.

The captives suffocated under the shadows of sexual violence during the conflicts. They were subjected to forced marriage and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Women and children fleeing war in DRC. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Women and children fleeing war in DRC. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Since 2009, the Islamist insurgency group Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, has committed serious acts of violence, murdering and displacing thousands of people.

Their interests have been placed on abducting thousands of girls and young women, including hostility to education by attacks on schools through abducting several Chibok school girls.

Clearly, these war crimes are prevalent but underreported.

Sexual violence during conflicts has been influenced by so many factors like military conquest and ethical standards, among other factors. It has been used to instill fear, pain, suffering, and censorship in targets.

To make it worse, when survivors try to report the attacks, they receive massive social stigma, persecution, and retaliation threats.

Survivors’ voices admit that women who were abducted during the conflict find it difficult to cope with their communities due to stigma, which later translates to discrimination and turns traumatic.

These crimes have even further affected spousal relationships, separating families.

Additionally, the absence of adequate health facilities, psychological support, and counseling services has been a major challenge among conflict-affected communities in the war zones.

Law, testifying and underreporting

International Law addresses rape and sexual violence in conflict

and provides wide protection against sexual violence. Sadly, the enforcement of these provisions has remained weak.

Little has been done to uproot the stems and roots of sexual violence during conflicts.

Conflict-induced sexual violence can be prosecuted, but survivors are often hesitant to report and testify due to trauma, social stigma, and other factors.

When this happens, it’s always hard to gather sufficient evidence during trials for legal action, particularly in conflict-affected areas.

It is so unfortunate that there is chronic underreporting of conflict-related sexual violence. This underreporting is a bare plague.

It’s my fervent hope that guns go silent, unused. Upon understanding armed conflicts, it is important to maximize efforts to silence the guns and emphasize enhancing reconciliation and harmony at the grassroots, national and regional levels.

The root cause of every conflict should be addressed with concrete solutions and guidelines. Concrete solutions like peacekeeping can help countries that have suffered the difficult path of conflict and lead them to peace.

More emphasis should be on the welfare of citizens, such as access to social and economic opportunities like quality education, healthcare, and improved access to water & sanitation, which are the states’ responsibilities.

This would improve citizens’ lives.

Witnesses should be protected by improving reporting and creating safe spaces that permit them to give testimonies without fear of retaliation threats. This is paramount in maintaining the rule of law.

YOU CAN ALSO READ: Why gender-based violence irks these activists

Through reporting, the voices of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence should be amplified.

Even though we tout policies on conflict-related sexual violence that focuses on helping the survivors of such abuse, the most concrete action should be prevention.

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Awadifo Kili is a Ugandan Lawyer and Author. She is the Author of the books "Victorious Tales", "Echoes of Wails" and her recent book "Stains on a Cowrie Shell", a book crafted in an African narrative that presents the extent to which some traditions and customs are a barrier to the promotion and protection of human rights. Kili is passionate about human rights and her literature is around domestic, regional, and international human rights Law and perspectives.


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