War-zone rape has a long and dark history.
Right now, in South Sudan, reports are emerging daily of women being gang-raped by government and rebel troops. Rape has been routinely used as a weapon of war in Congo, against women, children and just as systematically in some places against men (the rape of men in conflict zones has been documented in many countries, including the former Yugoslavia). In Bosnia, more than 25,000 women and possibly as many as 50,000 are thought to have been been raped; more than 250,000 women and girls were subjected to the ordeal in Rwanda in a co-ordinated fashion during the genocide, some of them as a prelude to mutilation or murder; and the number of women raped by the Red Army as it advanced westwards towards the end of the SecondWorld War is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands.
For far too long, this appalling mass abuse of women has been largely ignored, whether because of a defeatist view that it is inevitable, or because of a sense of powerlessness over how to tackle it, but the will now exists to fight back. The international summit End Sexual Violence in Conflict (ESVC) being held in London this week will be the largest ever gathering on the subject. The conference will undoubtedly help to mobilise global outrage about these atrocities, which is a necessary prelude to any initiatives designed to prevent them.
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Yet the question is: what can a meeting in a London conference centre actually do to make the lives of South Sundanese women safer as they venture fearfully from their villages? How can the words of actress and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Foreign Secretary William Hague influence the behaviour of soldiers who are operating in countries where the rule of law has broken down?
Clearly it will take a great deal of hard work and an abundance of political will internationally, and action on a number of fronts, to stem the rising tide of war zone rape. This conference is only the beginning, but there are heartening signs of good strategic initiatives in the making. An International Protocol to help strengthen prosecutions for rape in conflict is to be launched today. The conference also aims to draw up an international agreement on standards for documenting and investigating the violence, and campaigners want to see efforts made to train armies to prevent sexual violence, and for more support for survivors (the UK Government has pledged £6 million to this end).
Yet no number of well-meant initiatives can ultimately succeed unless the problem of the insidious abuse of women and girls in peace- time goes unchallenged. Sadly, these appalling violations can be committed even by soldiers who do not come from cultures where women are treated as second-class citizens but, in many countries where rape is used systematically as a weapon of war, female genital mutilation, child marriage, restrictions on education for girls and the treatment of married women as chattels, are endemic.
Efforts to make males see females as equals will be crucial to ending rape in war zones.