The bodies of women and girls have long been a battlefield in war. This week, the UN’s high representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, warned that reports of attacks in Ukraine were increasing exponentially, while Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, called for an independent investigation into sexual violence there. The brutal accounts of assaults by Russian troops have chilling echoes of wars elsewhere. According to the UN, there were heightened levels of conflict-related sexual violence last year.
Rape is one of the most common atrocities in wartime, though in some wars it is particularly widespread and even systematic. The vulnerable – such as disabled people – are often targeted. And war puts women at increased risk even when they have fled the conflict zone, or when a conflict has ended. Ms Patten fears that a humanitarian crisis is turning into a trafficking crisis, and the UN refugee agency has urged the UK not to allow single men to host lone Ukrainian women following predatory approaches.
Yet despite its prevalence, sexual violence is one of the least understood, reported and punished crimes in conflict. Stigma and fear – including of the reaction of their own families and communities – prevent victims from coming forward. Men and boys are attacked too and may be even more reluctant to disclose what has happened to them. Survivors know that their attackers are unlikely to suffer any consequences, while they must live with trauma, punitive social costs and often long-term damage to their health.
The broader difficulties of pursuing perpetrators in what some have termed an “age of impunity” – so visible in Russia’s actions from Grozny to Aleppo – are well documented. But it is also true that rape has not been treated with the same gravity as other offences. It was not listed in the indictments for the Nuremberg trials, and the Tokyo tribunals never addressed the Chinese and Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops. There was no justice for the estimated 2 million German women raped by Soviet soldiers after the country’s defeat. The hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women held in rape camps by Pakistani troops in the 1971 war never saw their attackers punished.
The 1949 Geneva conventions specify that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” But it is only relatively recently that a fuller understanding of the crime has emerged, treating it not as the “spoils of war” or extension of an existing culture of sexual violence, but as a weapon used to terrify, dehumanise and even destroy the enemy.
Experts have called for specialist training of lawyers and psychologists at all tribunals. The Global Survivors Fund, launched by Nobel peace laureates Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, seeks to improve reparations. But above all, what is needed is the international will to address the issue, with increased financial and political backing for bodies such as the international criminal court, and a determination to prioritise tackling sexual violence.