Violence against women in times of war – a look at root causes

Violence against women is a universal problem. It happens in every country in the world and is all too often ignored or forgotten about. It is also nothing new. According to a 2004 IRIN report, “an estimated half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A staggering 50% of all women in Sierra Leone were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, torture and sexual slavery, according to a 2002 report by Physicians for Human Rights. In Liberia, an estimated 40 percent of all girls and women have fallen victim to abuse. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped.”

Yet recently, increasing attention has been drawn to the use of rape as an instrument of war, particularly in Guinea and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During a September 30, 2009 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the issue of a “mandate [for] peacekeeping missions to protect women and children from rampant sexual violence during armed conflict.”  The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also appoint an individual to identify specific methods to combat this crime.

While these atrocities are finally getting more attention from world leaders and the media, there remains little discussion of the root causes of violence against women. In order to stop this sort of violence from happening, it is critical to understand why this violence is happening in the first place.

In the May 2009 edition of the World Savvy Monitor on the Global Status of Women, we explored some of reasons women are vulnerable to domestic violence, including unequal power relations between men and women, financial dependence of women on husbands and strict divorce laws making them unable to escape violent situations, stigma blaming women for being raped leading to under reporting of crimes and impunity for perpetrators.

In the situation of rape in times of war, the causes of gender-based violence share some similarities with the causes of domestic violence, including unequal power relations, stigma and impunity; however there is also the added element of community shame. According to Sarah Maguire, UK-based lawyer and human rights consultant, in a 2004 IRIN in-depth report on gender-based violence, “Women and girls are singled out because the harm and humiliation inflicted not only hurts them, but also deeply harms and affects the men in the targeted community. Such sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. This kind of systematic rape is an effort to humiliate the targeted community. Although it involves women, it’s specifically aimed at the men of that community. This type of rape is about ‘cleansing’ or changing the ethnic makeup of a group, which in my opinion is tantamount to genocide.”

Over the next month, World Savvy Monitor editor Cate Biggs will be traveling to Liberia to explore how women have shaped the country during post-conflict resolution. Stay tuned for blog entries from Cate along the way.

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