Guns, bombs, rockets, grenades, soldiers, pilots, even child soldiers – all of these are known tools of war and destruction. But one unnamed tool of war leaves women and girls vulnerable during times of conflict and ashamed for years after. For our final week of Women's History Month's 'Rights and Plights,' this is a particularly gruesome issue to deal with and especially difficult for people in the Western world to wrap our heads around. It’s also an issue that is rarely addressed in their own societies for fear of being shunned by their own families and communities. If the international community doesn’t advocate for them, no one will.
The use of rape and violent sexual assault is a horrendous tool of war that is statistically on the rise in almost all current conflict areas.
In the past few decades, rape has been used as a tool of war in Vietnam, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Darfur, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, just to name a few.
Right: Women everywhere have the right to be free from gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual and psychological harm.
Plight: In order to understand the global plight of this issue, here are a few examples of different ways women have been victimized by the use of rape in war.
Public Shame: In many conflict areas, militiamen are specifically told to rape women and young girls in front of their families or in open view of the village. The shame is two-fold because men are forced to watch as their wives and daughters are violated and their family unit is shattered, and public rape is obviously very shameful for the women involved.
'Carrying the Seed of the Enemy': In Rwanda, Hutu guerrillas were told to rape and impregnate Tutsi women in order to force the woman to “carry the seed of the enemy,” adding to the extreme shame of the situation.
Also in Iraq, when a Shiite militiaman rapes a Sunni woman, he is “implanting a Shiite” into her womb. This adds to the humiliation – not only is she sexually violated, she and her child could be cast out or killed for carrying and giving birth to “the enemy.”
Unthinkable choices: In Darfur, one of the most common daily choices for the over 2.5 million people who are displaced from their homes is whether the men or the women should leave the safety of the refugee camp to get firewood. The camps are usually surrounded by enemy militia so here’s the choice: send the men out and they will likely all get killed OR send the women out and they will get brutally raped. In most cases, the refugees choose the most logical choice – that everyone lives which means that the women are raped.
Trafficking: In many wars, women are abducted and sold into sexual slavery. They become sex slaves for militia groups, or groups make money by selling women into sexual slavery in other parts of the country or world.
Aftermath: Many militias will disfigure women, by amputation or knife wounds, in order to mark them as a victim of rape, so that even silence can’t hide their plight.
Stigma: In many countries that have seen rape used as a tool of war, the stigma around sexual violence is huge, so gathering information about sexual violence is not easy. Speaking out publicly about rape or sexual violence can leave a women shunned from her community and abandoned by her husband. In Darfur, many husbands leave their wives after a rape occurs, and in Iraq many are killed in “honor killing” rituals for shaming their husbands by being raped.
The issue seems overwhelming but there are many ways to take action around it. Rape is often used as a tool of war in genocides and conflicts that involve human rights abuses so taking action to end these kinds of conflicts is a good way to put an end to the victimization of women.
Many groups, like UNHCR and UNICEF work with victims of rape to let them know that it is OK for them to talk about what happened to them. They also work with men to create communities that are more accepting of rape victims. The first step to taking action is to learn more about these international human rights  issues, like Darfur .