‘My family and I were all sleeping when the soldiers arrived. They tied my husband’s hands behind his back and then they took turns raping me. Afterward … they killed him. I spent three weeks in the forest until one night I was able to escape. When I arrived home, I discovered that my little child was dead.’

— Panzi Hospital patient, Democratic Republic of Congo

(Testimonial from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative report, Now the World Is Without Me, 2010)

This is the new face of war: Militias going on house-to-house rape campaigns; girls as young as five and women as old as 80 shot in the genitals, or mutilated with razor blades; soldiers targeting whole villages for violation.

And as the scale of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo reaches surreal proportions — more than 1,150 rapes a day, by one account — many warn that sexual terrorism is spiralling out of control as the nature of warfare changes from the clash of national armies to savage internal conflicts in which women and children have become prime targets. Now sex attacks — pouring melted rubber into women’s vaginas, raping children in front of their parents — have become a core military strategy, not only in the Congo, but in conflicts around the world, from Sudan to Burma to Colombia.

That is the message three Nobel Peace Prize winners will be bringing when they touch down in Ottawa this weekend — the first time such a delegation has come to Canada. Members of a group called the Nobel Women’s Initiative, they are here to launch an international conference on the issue, followed by a meeting to which they have invited all three party leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“We all have a responsibility to do more in the face of this horrific violence against women,” says U.S. laureate Jody Williams, who won the peace prize after spearheading the 1997 ban on landmines.

“We hope that this conference brings us one step closer to a global campaign” against sexual violence in conflict zones, she says, adding that she hopes Canada will step up as a leader, as it did in the landmine campaign.

“Every day, women around the world are being raped in war zones,” says Liz Bernstein, director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which was founded by all the women who now hold the peace prize to lend support to women’s groups around the world. Rape is used to terrorize communities and “tear the fabric of society apart,” says Bernstein.

The laureates want to end the culture of impunity around sexual violence; they want better protection in place for women and children; they want more medical and legal services for survivors and improved systems to track incidents.

They define the issue broadly, to include regions still in turmoil even after the fighting is over, or where the rule of law has broken down, leaving women vulnerable — in Haiti after the earthquake, for example, or in refugee camps. The group also defines sexual violence broadly, to include any forced sexual activity, including trafficking, and notes that men and boys are also sometimes targeted.

Williams will be joined by human-rights defender Shirin Ebadi of Iran and anti-violence advocate Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland. The three remaining laureates — Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, indigenous-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala, and peace activist Betty Williams of Northern Ireland — could not attend personally, but will support the effort from their home countries.

A seventh laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is an honorary member of the group, her participation limited until recently by her house arrest in her native Burma. She has sent a video message, to be aired when the conference opens Monday in Montebello.

The three-day event brings together more than 120 policy-makers, academics and activists. Although its headquarters are in Ottawa, this the first time the Nobel group has held a conference in Canada.

Despite worldwide condemnation of mass rapes in both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the trend toward targeting women has continued, prompting Maj.-Gen. Patrick Cammaert, former UN division chief for the eastern Congo, to remark that now “it is perhaps more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”

It is a trend Aung San Suu Kyi has seen in her own country: In her video, she addresses for the first time the use of rape as a weapon of terror.

“Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights,” says a sombre but steady-voiced Suu Kyi. “It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.”

It’s a scourge many other nations face, she adds: “We want all wounds to be healed, not just in my country but in all other places where wounds have been deep.”

Kenyan laureate Wangari Maathai has also seen the devastating effects of sexual violence: When Kenya was thrown into turmoil following the 2007-2008 elections, “sexual violence became the preferred weapon of choice against those who were perceived as enemies,” she recalls.

Social taboos mean that sexual violence remains a silent, unspeakable act: “It is a crime that is not discussed. It is almost taken as something that has to happen,” she says. To make matters worse, communities often shun the survivors, leaving them alone to face HIV, pregnancy, injuries and other consequences of sex attacks.

Despite a spate of UN resolutions, many nations ignore the problem. “There is a tendency to trivialize women’s concerns,” and perpetrators are often not punished, she says.

As many as 3,000 women were raped in postelection attacks, according to the Kenyan Federation of Women Lawyers.

“It was horrific, especially in a country where you also have HIV-AIDS,” Maathai recalls. To this day, she adds, many of the survivors, thousands of them still in relief camps, remain in a state of shock: “Sometimes you meet people you know, and it’s like they have never seen you before. … They are still in another world. You can see their pain.”

Sexual violence in times of war or turmoil is not new: “Rape has been a part of war for as long as wars have been recorded,” notes Valerie Oosterveld, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario and an expert on war crimes.

What has changed, she says, is the nature of war itself: “It used to be two armies fighting each other, facing off on a field,” away from the civilian population. But since the 1970s, “most wars are now internal armed conflicts, not one country against another country’s army.”

In other words, the targets are now civilians, and “this has made rape a very useful form of war, unfortunately,” says Oosterveld, a former Canadian government lawyer specializing in the International Criminal Court, as well as the postwar tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

“It has very powerful psychological impacts,” such as humiliating the men in a community when they can’t defend their women and children, she observes. As bearers of the next generation, women are powerful symbols not only of a family’s honour, but also of the future of society as a whole: In defiling them, attackers tear the soul out of the community, researchers such as German sociologist Ruth Seifert have argued.

The Nobel group also points to other strategic uses of sexual violence: The military may use it to punish communities suspected of supporting rebels, as in Colombia and Burma. Rape is used as a form of torture, to extract information. Gang rapes are used to instil a bond among fighters.

Sexual terrorism can be used to drive villagers off resource-rich land, as in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Congo.

And of course, rape can be used as a form of genocide, to change the ethnic makeup of an area, as in Bosnia and Kosovo.

While there were instances of mass sex attacks before this transformation, such as the 1937 Rape of Nanking, the first incident to be internationally recognized as having a strategic military goal was a campaign targeting Muslim Bengali women during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, according the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute (PRIO).

The practice quickly gained momentum, reaching an unprecedented scale of depravity in the 1990s as a tool for genocide, from the “rape camps” of the former Yugoslavia to the surreal savagery of Rwanda.

The numbers are staggering: As many as 50,000 women raped in Bosnia. From 250,000 to 500,000 in Rwanda. More than 60,000 in Sierra Leone.

In the Darfur conflict, 40 per cent of women interviewed by Physicians for Human Rights said they had been raped; the rate is estimated to be close to 100 per cent for women in relief camps.

Last week, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced an investigation into charges that Libyan forces were using sex-enhancement drugs to gang-rape female rebels, CNN reported.

But nowhere is the picture more shocking than in the DRC. One hospital reported more than 350 cases a year of fistula, an injury from rape with sharp objects that tears the wall between the vagina and the rectum and leaves the victims incontinent, adding devastating health and social consequences to the trauma of rape.

The UN has estimated at least 200,000 women have been raped in eastern Congo since 1996, but under-reporting means this number may be 10 to 20 times higher — as high as 260,000 incidents in 2009 alone, a 2011 UNESCO report says.

Chillingly, prolonged exposure to sex attacks by armed groups may have created a “normalization of rape” in civilian society, warns a study published last year by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a think-tank specializing in relief strategies. It notes a 1,733-per-cent jump in civilian rapes from 2004 to 2008 in the DRC’s South Kivu province.

Last week, a new study put the countrywide incidence of rape, including domestic violence, at more than 400,000 — in one year. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the study found more than 1,150 women were raped every day — a rate of 48 per hour.

Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard agency, commented that “rape in the DRC has metastasized amid a climate of impunity, and has emerged as one of the great human crises of our time.”

The world has not sat by, entirely indifferent: The UN has responded, at least on paper, strongly and with increasing urgency to the growing use of sexual violence.

In 2000, it passed the first Security Council resolution to address the impact of war on women. As tragedies continued to unfold, the declarations came thick and fast — statements by the secretary general in 2004 and again in 2005; more Security Council resolutions in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Last year, the UN appointed a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and 24 countries, including Canada, have answered the UN’s call for national action plans on the issue.

Peacekeeping forces have learned that even simple steps such as patrolling when women are fetching water or firewood are highly effective; some national police and peacekeepers undergo special training to learn how to address sexual violence.

Meanwhile, some perpetrators are being brought to justice.

One acclaimed program sends “mobile justice courts” to remote areas of the DRC to try sexual-violence cases. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is pursuing cases that include sex-crimes allegations, and as of 2009, more than 50 charges had been laid under national laws in 13 European countries, according to Jayne Stoyles of the Canadian Centre for International Justice, an Ottawa-based charity that helps survivors of human-rights abuses seek justice.

Canada itself had a breakthrough in 2009, when Rwandan Désiré Munyaneza was convicted of war crimes, including rape, for his part in the 1994 genocide; he was the first person to be charged under Canada’s Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

But such progress seems pallid against the horrors playing out in places like the DRC. The ICC has charged only 12 people with sexual-violence crimes so far, Oosterveld says. And the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has charged only 58 people with sex crimes; the tribunal for Rwanda, only 35, as of 2010, according to PRIO.

“The use of rape as a political tool is becoming all too common. … There need to be voices on this issue that are compelling and that are listened to,” says Lloyd Axworthy, who helped spearhead the creation of the ICC, and entrench the UN’s policy on the protection of civilians, as Canada’s foreign affairs minister in the 1990s.

More importantly, he adds, those voices “need to be backed up by some action so that the psychotic tyrants and crazies who are doing this kind of stuff don’t think they can get away with it any more.”

As the revolution in warfare unfolds, sexual violence can no longer be seen only as a human-rights violation, the Nobel laureates say.

It is, they write, no less than “a threat to international peace and security,” warning that efforts at reconciliation will fail unless the issue is tackled head-on, not just by rights groups, but by governments and the military as well.

“There needs to be more co-ordination around the world to ensure that we can build political will and momentum,” says Jody Williams.

Beyond practical measures such as better peacekeeping measures, the Nobel group wants more fundamental changes: measures to empower survivors, to change social attitudes and eliminate the stigma attached to sexual violence.

Ultimately, Aung San Suu Kyi says in her video message, “we have to start by changing the minds of men and women all over the world — men that they may not think of women as ready victims, and women also that they may not think of themselves as helpless victims. … We must make sure our women are empowered and that our men are educated.”

It’s a sea-change that doesn’t just mean more courtrooms and more peacekeepers, Suu Kyi suggests. You can take away the guns; you can sign treaties and make solemn declarations. But you won’t have peace on the ground until it lives inside all those involved: “Violence” she says, “starts in the mind.”