Sexual violence against women requires action

Sexual violence against women in war zones is just a symptom of a wider problem of attitudes towards women generally that needs to be challenged and changed.

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When it comes to ending the prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual violence in war zones, the solution requires challenging some widespread attitudes towards women. As the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was told this week, rape is an abhorrent tactic of war that must be eliminated.

The London-based conference – which was attended by UN special envoy Angelina Jolie and the UK’s foreign secretary William Hague who continue to campaign for this cause – seeks to create an international agreement on standards for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict zones and to introduce more training for peacekeepers and those involved in the military to ensure justice for victims.

The deliberate use of sexual violence against women has often been used in conflict zones as a way to establish power by weakening the social fabric of the communities where they occur. The United Nations estimated that since 1998, more than 420,000 women have been raped during conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Bosnia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nor are these countries the exception – rape remains a deliberate tactic used in war-torn countries like Syria.

While this abhorrent practice is more severe in conflict zones, it exists in part because of prevailing attitudes towards women generally, including in politically stable countries. These attitudes must be confronted, challenged and changed wherever and whenever they occur.

A case in point is the controversial claim this week by Ramsevak Paikra, the minister responsible for law and order in India’s central Chhattisgarh state, that rapes “do not happen deliberately”. Another example this week in Egypt involved the sexual assault of a 19-year-old student during celebrations marking the inauguration of the country’s new president.

These attitudes and the sexual assaults that often follow prevail when misogyny is justified by social attitudes associating maleness with violence and power. Prosecuting the perpetrators and empowering women requires the support of both the authorities and the communities they represent. This includes supporting victims of rape, even if social norms mitigate against it, and particularly if the rape leads to pregnancy.

If the world is serious about lessening the prevalence of rape during conflict, it must start with improving attitudes towards women everywhere.