A leading campaigner against sexual violence in conflict has called for economists to calculate the global cost of the scourge which she said was probably “the most ignored of war crimes”.
Margot Wallstrom, who has spearheaded U.N. efforts to tackle the use of rape in conflict, said that as cynical as it might sound the issue would be taken far more seriously if a price tag were put on it.
“Sexual violence has become the weapon of choice for armed groups in conflicts … The reason is of course as simple as it is wicked - because it is cheap, silent and effective,” she added.
Rape not only crushes individual lives but also destroys society, creating an obstacle to lasting security and peace, said Wallstrom who was appointed the first United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict in 2010.
“Targeting women means targeting the backbone of society as women often bear the primary responsibility for the family,” she added. “Conflict-related sexual violence … tears society apart and creates incentives for revenge.”
Sexual violence during and after war jeopardises prospects for reconciliation and undermines trust in the justice system, said Wallstrom, who left her U.N. post in June.
The risk of assault also impedes women from taking part in economic activities and stops girls going to school - most attacks happen as women walk to work in the fields, go to market or fetch water or firewood.
“I would really love to see an economic study of the costs of conflict-related sexual violence. We have to put a price tag on it,” Wallstrom told a lecture at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Tuesday.
She drew a parallel with climate change, which she believed was only taken seriously after someone put a figure on how much it was costing the world.
“THEY TOOK MY LIFE”
Wallstrom said the rising prevalence of sexual violence in conflict was due to the changing nature of war, which is increasingly waged by non-state actors within the same country rather than between national armies. This has put civilians, including women and children, at the forefront of war.
For each rape reported, she said, it was estimated that 20 may go unreported.
Wallstrom said there was a widespread misconception that sexual violence in war should be considered collateral damage and was “a lesser crime”.
She pointed to one trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia where three Serb defendants indicted for rape simply did not understand why they were being prosecuted. One of them defended his actions, saying: “But we could have killed them.”
Wallstrom contrasted this with the comment of a Bosnian “rape camp” survivor who had told her: “They took my life without killing me.”
She also talked about a woman she had met in Guinea where scores of women were raped during a 2009 pro-democracy demonstration in the capital.
The woman, a teacher, was found naked and half dead. She had been gang-raped and shot in the vagina. She said her attackers had destroyed her honour and her life, she could no longer work as a teacher and would never have children.
None of the victims of the mass rape had been able to access justice, Wallstrom said. Yet some of the perpetrators now held important positions.
In many places sexual violence is committed not only by rebel fighters but also by national security forces.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Wallstrom has previously called the rape capital of the world, she said soldiers had been asked what they thought would happen if they raped a woman.
Several of them did not understand the question, others thought they might settle the case by giving a goat to the family or that they might be locked up for a couple of days. But nobody believed there would be any serious punishment for rape.
Wallstrom said fighting impunity for crimes of sexual violence must be made a priority and prosecutions would be an important deterrent.
“Acts of sexual violence should lead to the prison cell rather than the corridors of power,” she added.
Wallstrom said that although the accounts of rape survivors took you "to the heart of darkness”, there was hope for the future.
Sexual violence is now firmly on the Security Council's agenda, she said, and U.N. peacekeepers are being better trained and equipped to prevent it.
It has also been recognised in international law as a crime against humanity and a war crime and most International Criminal Court indictments have included sexual violence.
Wallstrom said this year's judgment in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor had been particularly important in its recognition of the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.