Rape As A Weapon Of War

A single act of sexual violence already represents an atrocity so deep that it becomes virtually impossible to think about it existing in plurality, engaged in purposefully, and used on a mass-scale. Yet, this is a reality that has been with us for a long time now as wartime sexual violence has been both a consistently present and persisting feature of our history. Militaries, armies, and rebel groups alike have used sexual violence as a means of repression, terror, and control during armed conflicts across the world, effectively creating an epidemic of social violence.


These atrocities are a tool used by militaries to terrorize and destroy communities. And that tool is in essence a strategy for destruction, and, though unconventional, a true weapon of war. These acts of sexual violence may take the form of rape, sexual slavery, sexual torture or forced prostitution and have followed us throughout history. Sierra Leone saw upwards of 60,000 women raped during the 1991-1992 civil war. In the 1992 armed conflict in Bosnia, the same number of women were raped by Serbian forces. And just two years later, an estimated 500,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide. Recognizing the magnitude and prevalence of sexual violence during wartime, the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution acnowledging rape against civilians as a crime against humanity in 2008 after pressure to condemn such impunities from the international community and human rights activists on the front lines of these atrocities. Among those activists is Dr. Denis Mukwege, a world-renowned gynecologist who has dedicated his career to treating survivors of wartime sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


Located in Sub-saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country which has been ravaged by war since shortly after it acquired its independence in 1960. Factors such as political instability, the prevalence of armed groups, and the plundering of natural resources in the area have buried the country in decades of conflict. Since its first Civil War, a war also known as the first African World War for its deep significance, over six million people have been killed. Today, the situation has culminated into a deteriorating humanitarian crisis marked by the displacement of millions and perpetuated violence accentuated in the east of the country. In the midst of these wars, the United Nations estimates that 200,000 to 600,000 women have been subjected to acts of sexual violence by armed actors. This has left Dr. Mukwege with a lifetime of survivors to treat.


He founded the Panzi Hospital in 1999 where he has treated tens of thousands of women over the years. In his 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Speech, Dr. Mukwege recounts the story of a survivor whose horrific experience is closer to being the norm rather than the exception. Sarah was admitted at the Panzi Hospital after her village was attacked by an armed group and her entire family was assassinated. She was taken hostage in a forest and repeatedly gang-raped to the point of losing consciousness. The attacks destroyed her bladder and reproductive organs, leaving her and her six-year old daughter infected with HIV and in critical condition. Sarah’s story, although one of mutilation and psychological trauma, is also one of hope and recovery. Today, she has undergone fistula repair surgery to regain control over her body and runs a small business of her own.


Her story remains reflective of the millions of women who have been caught in the systematic spiral of violence that is rape as a weapon of war. The human cost of such acts leaves wounds that are far too deep to be only felt by the victims whose bodies carry them for their pain needs also be omnipresent in our lives and their quest for justice be a collectively shared burden in ours.


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