Melanne Verveer and Peter Westmacott write: Nearly 40,000 people have died already in Syria’s civil war, and close to 100 are still being killed each day. Homes, hospitals, water infrastructure, and sanitation systems have been destroyed. But one element of this ongoing brutality has been largely overlooked in the media: the appalling sexual violence being visited on the Syrian people by government and militia forces. Such use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is shocking — yet depressingly familiar.
Today, Nov. 25, marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the beginning of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence. These awareness-raising campaigns are vital, both because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeated time and again, women’s rights are human rights; and because, without accountability for sexual violence and other acts of severe violence against women and girls—which are often designed to humiliate and degrade victims and the groups with which they identify — security and development are impossible.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has referred to sexual violence as the “silent scourge of war.” The sheer scale of the brutality, and the lack of accountability surrounding it, is nothing short of sickening. During the Bosnian War, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, many of them in camps specifically designed for the purpose. But this tidal wave of systematic brutality has resulted in only 30 convictions. All this took place in Europe within the past two decades.
Elsewhere the numbers are even starker. In the 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, up to half a million women are estimated to have been raped, a staggering figure in a total population of only 6 million people at the time. Of the 14,200 cases of sexual violence recorded in neighboring South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2005 and 2009, fewer than 1 percent were ever heard in court. It has been estimated that in some conflicts as many as 90 percent of cases of sexual violence go unreported because of stigma, weak legal and judicial systems, or fear of retribution. Gender-based violence constitutes a global epidemic that persists today in both conflict and nonconflict settings. [Continue reading…]