Wartime rape is a persistent and brutal aspect of conflict, whether during or in the aftermath of hostilities. In the recent warfare in Libya, as well as in most civil and international armed conflicts, women were subjected to different forms of visible and invisible violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse.
However, the most recent news reports reveal that the wartime rape of women and minors in Libya was systematic and adopted by Moammar Gadhafi's troops on a massive scale and as a strategic weapon of war, leaving thousands of physically and psychologically devastated women. It has been reported that Gadhafi himself had ordered the supply of anti-impotence drugs given to his soldiers and authorized them to rape Libyan opponent women in a brutal continuing campaign.
Despite uncertainty about the exact numbers and locations of Libyan women rape victims, and the difficulty of investigating allegations of sexual violence conducted during armed conflict, high-ranking officers in the Libyan Revolution's Military Council have affirmed that Libyan rebels found cellphone pictures and videos of rape, condoms and Viagra in the tanks and uniform pockets of Gadhafi loyalists who were captured on the battlefield. Moreover, Seham Sergewa, a psychologist in Benghazi Hospital, identified tens of Libyan women rape victims and interviewed many of them in eastern Libya and along the Tunisian border.
Notwithstanding the consequences of the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a "weapon of mass destruction" to damage the fabric of Libyan society, and as a result drive a wedge between its tribal communities, Libyan women rape survivors suffer in silence, vulnerable to several forms of hidden death and confronted with a cluster of overwhelming problems.
The Libyan people comprise a conservative society that holds women's chastity and honor as among the most highly regarded of values. Accordingly, to maintain the family's honor, many Libyan individuals, including victims themselves, believe that raped women must be subjected to "honor killing," regardless of the fact that they were assaulted against their will.
This is a social value that contravenes Islamic law, which prohibits victimizing the victim and encourages Muslim men to marry raped women and treat them gently.
Regrettably, current Libyan officials have discredited rape investigations and ordered the destruction of rape evidence, including cellphone rape pictures and videos, in a short-sighted effort to protect the victims' families.
For that reason, many victims have preferred to die in silence while some of them have urged their families to kill them or have intended to commit suicide for being unable to bear the stigma and shame. In this connection, campaigners for the U.S.-based organization Physicians for Human Rights reported that three teenage sisters raped by Gadhafi's soldiers at a school in the town of Misrata were later murdered by their father, who slit their throats in an honor killing for "bringing shame on the family."
Moreover, victims may suffer socio-medical problems, including sexually transmitted diseases, family rejection and social isolation. In other words, if the raped woman happened to be married, her husband might, at best, refuse to touch her. And if she were single, she would lose the opportunity to get married since she had lost her virginity before marriage. Indeed, women's virginity and chastity are highly cherished in Libyan Muslim society.
In view of the above, it is recommended that the Libyan Transitional Council immediately declare and recognize wartime rape survivors as heroines, as they were targeted and assaulted during the Libyan people's battle for liberation and democracy. Rape casualties should be considered as wounded combatants rather than mere victims of sexual violence, as veterans of a just war rather than a shameful statistic.
The new Libyan government should also establish special socio-medical centers, staffed only with well-trained female specialists — since victims are usually reluctant to talk to or be treated by men — to deal with and treat victims, rehabilitate them and encourage them to come forward and speak out. It would be unforgivable to revictimize those women who lost their self-esteem and integrity.
According to Colonel Salim Juha, leader of the Misrata insurgents, who spoke recently on Al Jazeera, many women in Misrata and its suburbs were forced to strip naked in front of strangers or their children, while others were brutally raped in their homes and severely traumatized. Ignoring the pains of those women and destroying rape evidence would encourage the culture of impunity and constitute a barrier to justice.
Hilmi M. Zawati is president of the International Legal Advocacy Forum and an international criminal law jurist and human rights advocate. He is the author of The Triumph of Ethnic Hatred and the Failure of International Political Will: Gendered Violence and Genocide in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (Edwin Mellen Press 2010).