The incidence of rape and sexual violence in these situations not only increases but often becomes systematic. Rape becomes a weapon of war with women and girls the targets.
Seen this way, sexual violence is not "only" a consequence or side effect of war and displacement. It is, instead, a deliberate tool of war, used to destabilize and threaten a part of the civilian population, often a particular group. Women and girls are singled out because the harm and humiliation inflicted on them not only hurts them but also deeply harms and humiliates their families and often the entire community. Unfortunately, too often when even the war might have finished, rape hasn't.
MSF was first confronted with this in their programmes in the 1990s. In Bosnia, systematic rape was used as part of the strategy of ethnic cleansing. Women were raped so they could give birth to a Serbian baby. In Rwanda, systematic rape of Tutsi women took place during the genocide. Between 300,000 and 500,000 female survivors of the genocide are estimated to have been raped.
With the aids pandemic, rape has now become a lethal weapon. Immediate medical care, including the availability of Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), is now a matter of life and death. More must be done to treat and support the victims of sexual violence and to prevent it from happening in the future. Silence, indifference and inaction have been the answer for too long. Enough is enough.
Rape: Impunity has to stop
Wars leave women and girls particularly vulnerable. Women, girls and even young children are all too often raped, abducted and forced into sexual slavery as social and economic structures fall apart.
Unfortunately, impunity is often the norm. Whilst some progress has been made in recognising rape and other acts of sexual violence as war crimes (rape is now specifically mentioned in the Statute of the International Criminal Court), the international and national response so far remains unclear and inadequate.
Local, national and international actors must take all necessary measures to address impunity and help prevent such acts. Counselling sessions with rape survivors have also highlighted the importance to the healing process of having rape declared a punishable crime, even in international law. The present lack of justice remains unacceptable and sexual violence will continue unless political and military decision-makers finally decide to act.