Sexual violence hauled out of the shadows

WASHINGTON, Jun 16 (IPS) - On Jun. 19, 2008, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1820, expressly addressing the problems of sexual violence in conflict situations. One year later, three experts in the field gathered to speak at the United States Institute of Peace to evaluate the implementation of 1820 and consider how it might better prevent this widespread crime.

The resolution marked a major step forward for the U.N. in addressing the problems of sexual violence in conflict zones. Anne-Marie Goetz, a chief advisor at the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), presents it as a groundbreaking resolution, linking sexual violence to broader peace and security concerns.

'For the very first time, the U.N. Security Council recognises that systematic sexual violence can be a tactic of warfare. And because it's a tactic of warfare, it requires a security and policy response,' said Goetz, speaking at the USIP on Thursday.

Goetz was joined by Neil Boothby, a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University, and Dara Kay Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science at Stanford University, to mark the one-year anniversary of Resolution 1820.

The resolution acknowledges that sexual violence is often widespread in conflict zones, and that this violence is not just a social problem. Rather, the resolution says that sexual violence 'can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security.'

Boothby, Goetz and Cohen addressed the unique challenges of studying and ameliorating the sexual and gender-based violence situations in conflict zones. They also presented new findings about data-collection and perpetrators' motives that promise to help reverse the trend of sexual violence within conflict zones.

All three experts emphasised the extent to which sexual violence in conflict zones is misunderstood. The prevalence of the problem is particularly difficult to estimate.

Knowing the frequency of sexual violence in any conflict zone is difficult because being the victim of sexual violence often carries with it a heavy stigma. Thus, it is often not reported to officials, U.N. observers, or researchers.

Furthermore, rape in conflict zones is not always stranger rape; it may be performed by a partner or spouse. Domestic sexual violence is not often reported because the victims fear retribution from their partners.

However, the victims share stories with each other, and with this in mind, Boothby advocates the 'neighbourhood method' of gathering information. This method, according to Boothby, 'operates on the assumption that people know when their female neighbours have been raped or beaten.'

'We need methods capable of tapping into these informal information networks,' continued Boothby. He added that although the victims don't report their stories officially, they consider sexual violence a major problem. In one study performed in northern Uganda of gender-based violence, the women in the study 'ranked gender-based violence the number-one problem in their lives.'

Resolution 1820 states that 'women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war', but it is notable that gender-based violence in conflict situations is not always perpetrated by males upon female victims.

Cohen found that in Sierra Leone's civil war, the RUF rebel group was about one-quarter women, some of whom were known to participate in gang-rapes. Likewise, though less common, men have been victims of sexual violence in conflict situations as well.

Understanding who is committing this violence is important, but the why is crucial to effectively preventing its widespread, systematic use as a tactic of war. Cohen's research addresses this question of motives.

Cohen hypothesised, 'Sexual violence is a phenomenon, used as a socialisation practice, particularly by fighters who need to trust each other but do not know each other.' She said that militant groups that partake in regular, systematic gang rape do so to create trust and cohesion between members.

Thus, though the easiest cases to prevent and punish are those that are 'commanded, planned, and organised' from the top down, as Goetz has said, such cases are not the norm.

The consequences of widespread gender-based violence are far-reaching. There are, first of all, the immediate consequences of the victims' humiliation and degradation. Sexually transmitted diseases are also a major problem, affecting both the perpetrators and victims. A 2004 WHO study found that the rural prevalence of HIV in Rwanda increased from 1 percent in 1994, at the start of the civil war, to 11 percent in 1997.

Economic difficulties also often accompany sexual violence in conflict zones. Goetz said that sexual violence affects food-crop production and sales in areas where women participate most in those areas. This can be a major hindrance to post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Still, this topic has yet to be studied in detail.

'Very little is known about how sexual violence affects rebuilding and recovery' in conflict zones, said Goetz.

A March 2009 U.N. report on the implementation of Resolution 1820 made several key recommendations for action on the problem of sexual violence in conflict zones.

One major recommendation was to emphasise prevention, rather than coping. Having a better idea of the motives behind such violence is a good way to address prevention.

Cohen posited that militant groups that engage in forced recruitment might undertake drastic measures, such as sexual violence, to create cohesion. These groups, then, might be targeted by U.N. peacekeepers as possible perpetrators of sexual violence.

Still, there is much work to be done. Only six peace deals have even mentioned sexual violence, Goetz pointed out, and 'there's often a spike in sexual violence immediately post-conflict.'

There is hope that Resolution 1820 will ultimately help to change these trends. Linking sexual violence to international peace and security may help to show that it needs to be addressed in any conflict situation.

Goetz emphasised this point, saying that a war is not really over until sexual violence stops: 'A ceasefire that stops the guns but doesn't stop the rape means that sexual violence can continue occurring.'