Nobel Women’s Initiative 2011

Survivors of sexual violence at a women’s centre. photo: Amnesty International/flickr

Yesterday, 23 May, the third international gathering of the Nobel Women’s Initiative opened its gates in Quebec, Canada. This year it carries the title Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict. For three days, over 120 civil society activists, corporate and security sector leaders, military and peacekeeping personnel, academics from around the world, and numerous Nobel Peace Laureates are convening to discuss strategies for tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Sexual violence in times of war or turmoil is not at all a new phenomenon. Rape has shadowed war for as long as armies have marched into battle. In the past four decades, however, the scale of sexual violence has come to reach almost surreal proportions. While “traditional” warfare was, in the past, characterized by a clash of armed forces, wars have developed more and more into internal armed conflicts. The targets are increasingly often civilians, turning rape and sexual attack into useful forms of war and a core military strategy in conflicts around the world, from Sudan to Burma to Colombia.

Rape is the most intrusive of traumatic events. Sexual violence is as damaging as a bullet. It destroys not only the body of the victim, but the basic social fabric of the community. Where sexual violence has been a way of war, it destroys the way of life. Rape shatters traditions that anchor community values, disrupting their transmission to future generations. Children accustomed to rape and violence grow into adults who accept them as the norm.

Rape of a Nation

Raped, ostracized, and looking straight at us. Photo: André Thiel/flickr

Last Sunday, 17 October 2010, over 1,700 women marched through the city of Bukavu in the strife-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to protest against the prevalent sexual violence against their gender.

Margot Wallstrom, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, calls the DRC the “rape capital of the world” and estimates that 35,000 women have been raped there since January of this year alone. With neither the Congolese army, nor the UN troops seemingly willing or able to guarantee public safety, the organizers of the march decided to take their demands to the public arena, hoping to draw international attention to the plight of Congolese women.

Since fighting broke out in 1998, a horrendous number of girls and women have been raped in the DRC, and it is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 surviving rape victims living in the country today. Unfortunately, the scale of rapes and sexual violence has not diminished in the last years. On the contrary: the illegal, yet highly lucrative exploitation of natural resources in the DRC has attracted increasing numbers of militias into the region, all of which are using rape as a weapon of war.