I have been spending the last few days reading a book on India’s Policies during the Bangladesh Liberation War that took place in 1971. One of the chapters vividly records the mass exodus of refugees that took place during this war, one of the largest that ever took place in modern world history. Thousands of these refugees had been fleeing to neighbouring India to escape the sexual violence that was being perpetrated on the women and girls of the family, especially upon the minority Hindus. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of independent Bangladesh, labeled the estimated 200,000 survivors of rape during the 1971 fight for independence “war heroines” to acknowledge their role in the resistance and the particular trauma they experienced.
That sexual violence has been and continues to be used as an effective tool and war-time strategy by the aggressor in a conflict situation is not a facet of modern history, but accounts of it can be found in all of recorded history from every corner of the world that has faced some or the other form of conflict. Sexual violence including rape and assault on women have been reported even during the ongoing Ukrainian crises, establishing, therefore, that even during a political impasse, there remains scant respect for a woman’s bodily autonomy and her rights to life, health, personal freedom and security, as well as their rights not to be tortured or exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment.
The United Nations’ definition of conflict-related sexual violence refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked (temporally, geographically or causally) to a conflict. The United Nations has, very significantly, marked the 19th of June as the International Observance Day for Sexual Violence in conflict, vide the General Assembly’s resolution of 2015.
But despite such observance as noted above, there has been little in terms of prosecution with regard to the “world’s oldest and least condemned crime”, as in the words of Ms. Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The impact of conflict related sexual violence most often remains underrated – the survivors and victims of this crime must recuperate from the mental, physical and emotional trauma caused by the sexual violences caused to them, whilst having to deal with the added trauma that is being inflicted upon them by the ongoing conflict. Most often than not, the perpetrators of the crime are able to escape scot free with impunity.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continues to undertaken numerous measures, such as monitoring, investigating and documenting sexual and gender-based violence as a human rights issue. One of the latest reports submitted by Ms. Patten, that covers almost 18 country situations and documents more than 3200 UN verified cases, suggests that there has been a “significant” increase in the number of sexual violences cases in conflict zones, almost 800 more cases in 2021 itself, than in 2020.
THE WAY FORWARD
Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad, who was was one among thousands of women from the Yazidi minority group in northern Iraq who were sold into sexual slavery and raped by ISIL terrorists, suggests taking recourse to the International Criminal Court, or a hybrid court, to prosecute the sexual crimes committed in conflict situations. While survivors like herself have to garner every shred of courage and strength within them to document their stories, with the view to help other victims of this horrific crime, there is little reciprocation from the political front. Ms. Murad has stated very poignantly that “survivors do not want pity, they want justice”.
With funding from the UK Government, the ‘Murad Code’, a set of guidelines, were shaped by feedback from survivors around the globe, for journalists, investigators, and others documenting and investigating conflict-related sexual violence, and set in motion on April 13th, this year. Iraq also adopted a law in 2021 in support of the Female Yezidi survivors, recognising rape and other forms of sexual violence inflicted by the IS as forms of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Certainly, these are welcome moves, but perhaps, much too late for such an ancient crime. And certainly these measures are not full-proof and substantial. From Syria to Tigray and Ukraine in the most recent times, victims of sexual violence in conflict continue to look on abjectly, when yet another conflict grips a different part of the world. Like always, women and girls end up paying the greatest cost in any conflict, and yet, seldom receive justice.
The Soroptimist International Position Paper on Women Peace and Security (WPS) recognises the importance of the participation of women in peace and security processes is core to the operational effectiveness of peace and security efforts worldwide. This ensures strengthening the protection efforts of peacekeepers, improving prevention of radicalisation and accelerating economic recovery. Women’s meaningful participation helps the conclusion and implementation of more sustainable peace agreements.
As Soroptimists, our actions must be aimed at intervening during and after conflict situations, to meet the specific needs and demand of women and girls that arise out of such situations. We must seek to implement in practical ways its commitment to peace, security, and justice for all people with special attention paid to the particular needs of women and girls.