Sexual Violence, Armed Conflict and International Law in Africa

Monday, September 3, 2007
Ntombizozuko Dyani

Recent empirical evidence suggests that sexual violence is increasingly becominga phenomenon of armed confl ict. There is a causal link between armed conflict and sexual violence: armed confl ict results in casualties and many of those casualtiestend to include women who have been sexually violated. The occurrenceof sexual violence during armed conflict necessitates a reaction from states in accordance with their obligations under international law. This article examinesthe phenomenon of sexual violence in armed confl ict in Africa and the international legal framework dealing with this problem.

There is a long history of sexual violence during armed confl ict. For example,during World War II in occupied Europe thousands of women were subjectedto rape and thousands more were forced to enter brothels for Nazi troops.1 Inaddition, thousands of Korean women were forced by the Japanese army to workas ‘comfort' women in Japanese army brothels. Only in 1992 did some Japaneseleaders apologise for this practice.2 Further, about 900 000 German women areestimated to have been raped by Russian forces in Berlin during the fi nal daysof World War II,3 and about 20 000 Chinese women were raped in Nankingfollowing the Japanese takeover of the city in 1937.4 It is estimated that about20 000 women were raped during the armed confl ict in the former Yugoslavia.These women were raped by the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim military groups, although most perpetrators were Serbian. In these instances rape was seen as a weapon of war to fulfil the policy of ethnic cleansing.

There is an increasing documentation of sexual violence against women duringthe armed confl icts in Africa. For example, during the apartheid era in SouthAfrica, it is reported women in detention centres were sexually abused. Pregnantwomen were subjected to electric shocks; medical care was withheld, leading tomiscarriages; body searches and vaginal examinations were carried out; rape andforced intercourse with other prisoners occurred; and foreign objects, includingrats, were inserted into women's vaginas.6 Women's fallopian tubes were fl oodedwith water, sometimes destroying their childbearing ability.7 Approximately 500000 women, mostly members of the Tutsi community, are estimated to have beenraped during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.8 And, thousands of women wereraped in Sierra Leone during the 10-year civil war.

Recently, based on its investigations, the International Commission of Inquiryon Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law in Darfur established that the Government of Sudan and the government-backed Janjaweed, consisting mainly of Arab militia, raided the villages of those victims,mounted on horses or caramels, and killed, looted, burned and raped. It isreported that there were few cases reported of rebels committing rape and sexualviolence. The Janjaweed are reportedly targeting people from African tribes.

These examples show that women are raped as part of a policy in orderto either destroy the group to which they belong, for the purposes of ethniccleansing and to defeat the opposition. Women are also targeted because of theirgender. The examples also show that violence is widely recognised as one of themost pervasive problems facing women in every country throughout the worldand it is one of the principal ways by which women are controlled and patriarchal structures reinforced. From time immemorial women were regarded as virtualproperty and often enjoyed no legal capacity. Consequently, rape committedby a member of a community was considered an injury to the male estate andthe community, not to the woman in question. Hence, the license to rape wasconsidered a major incentive for the soldier involved in siege warfare.

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Sexual Violence Armed Conflict Intl Law, Dyan, 2007