Let's End Rape in Conflict

As you'll soon notice, I'm not E.J. Graff. She's been kind enough to give me the keys to this joint for a week, and I'm going to do my best not to put too many dents in it. (I won't bore you with bio, but if you're wondering who I am, here's a good place to start.)

You will either be alarmed or intrigued to hear that this temporary takeover has a very specific focus: sexual violence in conflict. Stay with me! I’m not going to flood you with statistics and sad stories until you curl up in a ball in the corner. What I hope to do here is convince you that there are things you, actual person reading these words right now, can do about the situation.

That said, a few factoids are in order to set the stage, so brace yourself. Rape is as old as war itself. The ancient usage stemmed from a conception of women as property, to be lumped in with the “spoils” due the victors. This still happens today in some places, but  the current relationship between rape and conflict is much more tangled. There’s the rape soldiers commit against each other, including in the US military. There’s rape as a torture tactic during interrogation. There are the many ways military conflict creates a greater social license to operate for non-military rapists, as in the story told to me by an Israeli rape crisis line worker, who found that every time the Israeli government engaged in active hostilities with Palestine, calls to her hotline plummeted, because it was considered “unpatriotic” to worry about something as mundane as one’s sexual boundaries in a time of war.

Then, of course, there’s the deliberate tactical use of sexual violence against a population. This strategy, employed to destroy the social and cultural bonds of communities, (and, in some conflicts, to create cohesion within armed groups) has become distinctly visible only in more modern conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Today—literally today, Monday, May 14, 2012, more than a thousand women will be raped in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as in Sudan. And another thousand will be raped tomorrow. And on and on and on.

Had enough? Want it to stop? We can do that. The confidence behind that assertion is directly tied to the Nobel Women's Initiative (NWI), the organization that last week announced, in coalition with 24 other leading organizations, a global campaign to end rape in conflict. NWI is itself a coalition of women Nobel Peace Laureates—currently Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, and (in an honorary capacity) Aung San Suu Kyi—who have brought together their extraordinary experiences in an effort to help strengthen work being done in support of women's rights around the world. These are women who have led the charge to successfully ban landmines across most of the globe, won sweeping women’s rights in Iran, ended a brutal civil war in Liberia, and other mindboggling triumphs. These are women who know how to make impossible goals possible.

I’m sometimes tempted to call the Laureates and staff of the Nobel Women’s Initiative a team of superheroes, but imagining them as otherworldly is counterproductive. What's crucial for me to remember (and, I bet, for some of you as well) is that they’re much more like Black Widow than any of the dude Avengers. What I mean to say is: They have no actual superpowers. They're women who believed that the world could be more just than it was, then started acting to make it so. There is no magic here. We can all do the same thing in our own ways. This campaign can only succeed if we do.

You may be asking yourself: With all that peace-promoting power, why would we just try to make combatants stop raping? Why wouldn't we try to make them all stop fighting entirely? For the same reason we have an ethical and legal concept of “war crimes” in the first place: While we are still engaged in the work of ending war, a project unlikely to be completed soon, we have a moral obligation to reduce the harm that it does, beginning (but not ending) with torture. Which rape is a form of. Plus, much as a “harm reduction” public health project like a needle-exchange doesn’t focus on ending users’ addictions, but can result in some users engaging with services that do help them get clean, so too can the work of ending rape in conflict engage combatants in a process which may also help them disentangle from the larger contexts of conflict and militarism.

Bottom line: None of this is inevitable. Rape remains a public health crisis because we treat it like the weather: not much you can do about it except bring an umbrella and hope for the best. But rape isn’t a thunderstorm or even a tornado, not between two college students, not between soldiers in the US military, not at the border, and not in the DRC. How do we know this? In the case of rape in conflict, we can see clear examples of combatants declining to use rape as a systemic tactic. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers didn’t use rape as a weapon despite significant sexual violence by army. (I’m relying here on the work of Elisabeth Jean Wood. She’s worth a read.) In the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is no evidence that rape is used as a tactic against either side. If they can do it, so can everyone.

Want some more good news? The legal framework required to end rape in conflict already exists. A whole collection of UN resolutions obligate that body to act to end rape in conflict, and International Criminal Tribunals for conflicts in Rwanda, the Former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone have established that sexual violence in conflict can rise to the level of crime against humanity, even genocide.

What’s needed to turn these rules into results is accountability. And accountability means people-pressure. And you and I, we’re people. The Nobel Women’s Initiative knows how to make our actions effective. All they want from us right now is to take a simple pledge. Let's do this.

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