By Dr. César Chelala
Rape as a weapon of war continues to take a heavy toll on women’s lives in today’s conflicts around the world. A high proportion of the women who are victims of rape end up infected with sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is experiencing an almost perpetual state of internal strife and lacks medicines and basic health-care services, particularly in rural areas. As a result, becoming HIV-infected is virtually a death sentence for many women.
Rape happens on a wide scale in the DRC and in Sudan. In the DRC, where more than 3 million people have been displaced by war, rape victims are counted in the tens of thousands. According to some estimates, up to 60% of combatants in the DRC are HIV-infected, and can transmit the infection to the women they rape. As Anne-Christine d’Adesky, executive director of Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment stated, “Rape is an engine of HIV infection.”
In Uganda, soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army have raped and mutilated women during their struggle to replace the government in the country. Despite the cessation of hostilities the situation in the country remains grim. “The horrific violence committed during the many years of conflict in northern Uganda continues to aggravate discrimination against women and girls in the area today,” stated Godfrey Odongo, Amnesty International’s researcher in Kampala.
While rape in Rwanda has stopped, in Sudan and the DRC, human-rights activists say girls as young as 3 years old have been raped with knives, sticks and guns. In the DRC, gang rape has become so common that thousands of women suffer from vaginal fistulas, which leave them unable to control bodily functions and lead to lifelong debilitating health problems.
Rape as a way of humiliating women, their families and their communities is frequently conducted in public, in front of husbands and children. It is, in essence, a brutal way to show or maintain dominance over the women and their families.
There are many other consequences of rape aside from the obvious physical and psychological violence of the act and the high risk of HIV. Many women get pregnant after being raped. In many cases raped women are later killed by their attackers. Among those that survive, a high proportion are forced to become sex slaves.
Many men view the rape of their wives as a form of humiliation, not only against themselves but also against their ethnic, tribal or religious group. Many husbands and communities reject rape victims and even their children. The women, having endured the brutality of the rape itself and its physical and psychological consequences, afterwards find themselves denied their most basic human rights.
Even when pregnancy does not occur, men in patriarchal societies may still reject their wives, mothers or daughters after they have been raped. Lepa Mladjenovic, a Serbian psychotherapist and antiwar activist, said that rape renders a woman “homeless in her own body.”
Is it possible to do something about a situation that causes so much harm to women? Many non-governmental organizations are working with victims of rape, trying to re-integrate them into society, despite the strong social stigma against them. But their efforts should be supported by other actions.
It is imperative to do educational work with men in the military to make them aware of the consequences on women of their atrocities and the importance of stopping this kind of violence. “I actually believe out of many interviews with hundreds of men that this is possible,” declared Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, in a TV interview.
At the same time it is crucial to find and punish the perpetrators. “It is of the utmost importance that the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to pursue its efforts to fight impunity,” said a UN Security Council statement following the mass rape of more than 200 women and children in Congo by Rwandan and Congolese rebels.
Rape of women during conflicts, particularly now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its impact on the spreading of HIV/AIDS has been one of most neglected areas of intervention in recent times. It is time to bring this knowledge to the fore and improve a situation that has such devastating consequences on women’s lives and well being.
Dr. César Chelala, an international public health consultant, is an award-winning writer on human rights issues. He is the author of “AIDS: A Modern Epidemic,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.