The traditional idea of war is a very male one. But soldiers facing each other in battle has only ever been one part of the story. The impact of conflict on women is a newer focus of the global community, especially when it comes to one of war's most degrading and taboo weapons, sexual violence. After the chaos of recent years, it is more important than ever to broach this difficult topic.
Gender-based abuse can be a brutal and demoralising military tactic. ISIS actively publicised its use of sexual slavery as a means of attracting global attention and instilling terror in the hearts of millions. This most famously involved captured Yazidi women.
It can also arise from the general social and legal breakdown that follows violence. There have been widespread reports, for example, of female refugees suffering sexual crimes in the ongoing Rohingya crisis, which saw hundreds of thousands of Myanmar's Muslim minority flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Sometimes violence is even perpetrated by those with a duty of care, who use disaster to exploit victims. This month, fresh allegations emerged of workers from Oxfam, a leading charity, sexually exploiting vulnerable women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2018, similar reports came to light over the organisation's work in Haiti, when after a devastating earthquake in 2010, charity employees were accused of using prostitutes, some of whom may even have been under 18. The latest round of allegations have led to the British government suspending aid to the group.
Solving the issue is as complex as it is pressing. The UAE recently submitted a statement to the UN Security Council's annual debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict, outlining the country's efforts to tackle the issue, which include a national action plan and a $10 million donation to the UN Population Fund's gender-based violence response. The UAE and other countries shining a spotlight on the issue is vital in combatting it.
A solution should be built on the inclusion of women in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, so that the voices of the main victims of gender-based violence are heard.
It is easy to look at war as an isolated event. But peacetime's pre-existing structural inequalities and harmful social norms are compounded in conflict and should, therefore, be addressed by all governments. And as long as the taboo that accompanies sexual violence persists, policymakers will not know the true extent of the problem or be able to tackle its root causes. More women – including victims themselves – supporting female survivors will facilitate open and frank conversation.
As is the case with sexism in general, men also benefit from positive change. While sexual violence in conflict is primarily an issue that women face, many males also experience it. In discussions with 89 Rohingya men, the Women's Refugee Commission found that one-third of participants said they knew a man or boy who had been the victim of sexual abuse.
War is a tragedy for all involved. It is perhaps even more of an ordeal for those who, because of longstanding taboos, are forced into silence. Women, particularly victims, hold the key to understanding and tackling the issue. It is not a comfortable subject, but it needs to be addressed urgently.