The Legacy of Sexual Assault in Warzones | Sarah Stook

In December 2013, war erupted in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. A country only aged two at the start of the conflict, government instability led to the crisis that is still raging today. Ethnic tensions have reached a boiling point, with atrocities occurring with relative frequency. The damaged nation is currently suffering from a severe famine, and has now overtaken Somalia as number 1 on the Fragile States Index.

One consistent part of the war is sexual assault. Only recently, Amnesty International released a report which detailed the sexual assault suffered by many South Sudanese people. The statistics are hard to obtain due to the nature of the conflict, but their ‘Survivors of Sexual Violence in South Sudan Call for Justice and Reparations’ Report holds some information. The organisation reports that between December 2013 and 2016, the number of child victims totalled at around 1,130. 72% of women who lived in PoC (Protection of Citizens) camps in capital Juba reported being raped in a 2015 survey. In 2016, the number of sexual assaults rose sharply at a rate of around 60%. In July 2016 alone, 217 people were victims of rape during and after the fighting in Juba. For women living in South Sudan, it is sadly a reality.

Even when the dust has settled, and peace-or stability, depending on which way you look at it, the legacy of sexual assault remains.

Though men are often victims- something we will get to later in this article- it is primarily a form of weapon used against women, who make up the large majority of victims. In the patriarchal cultures that sometimes strangle warzones- such as the aforementioned South Sudan- a woman is not only a victim of sexual assault, but is a victim of society and the law. A woman who has been assaulted or raped in a warzone is presented with a unique set of challenges. In peacetime, there are many countries where one cannot come forward due to the risk of ridicule or even reprisals (such as the women of Saudi Arabia, who are often accused of fornication or adultery if they come forward). In, or after, a warzone, these women have little chance to seek psychological or physical help in their broken homes, often relying on charities that do not always have the means to offer help on a wide scale.

The brutality of the rape is something that the South Sudanese victims will carry with them physically. Particularly violent rapes are not uncommon, and gang rapes are definitely not unheard of, especially in ethnic disputes when men in certain ethnic groups are encouraged to use rape as a means to dominate other ethnic groups. Minutes, hours, days later, when the rape is over, the physical burden remains. This isn’t just stitches and pain. These are women who now have broken and mangled reproductive organs, their privates having been penetrated with blunt and sharp instruments just to add to their torture, echoing the tragic rape and death of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi. Often, they are humiliated by the enemy, tortured with more than just a lack of consent. Stories surfaced of women unable to control their bladders, or had severe pain when passing urine. On the outside, they are beaten, and often left for dead as they are simply discarded. The Amnesty International report tells of a woman whose vagina was mutilated when she resisted, causing her death several days later. Another woman bleeds frequently and suffers from incontinence.

When hospitals have been targeted, and with limited medical centres- even with the heavy presence of the UN, these women who have physical scars will often suffer for much, much longer than they need to. Even prior to the war, South Sudan suffered from a severe lack of medical centres and supplies, and during it, medical centres are not protected from the fighting. Pain, infertility and other physical burdens will stay with these women.

Psychologically, the scars are hidden, but they will always be there.

These women- and men- are supposed to be protected by the militia and police, but these groups often make up a large proportion of the attackers. As men with arms, they hold both physical and social power in their status as members of authority. Girls have put their lives in their hands, desperate to escape civilian enemies, and are instead assaulted. Soldiers both official and unofficial use ethnic tensions to justify it, encouraging their forces to take advantage of that power. Cases have been reported of men being forced at gunpoint to rape their own sisters, mothers and daughters.

One lady interviewed by Amnesty International stated that she lives in constant fear of the soldiers who raped her returning, whilst another was raped by soldiers at an official checkpoint. The sheer lawlessness of the place means that it is almost impossible to hold them to account. It is chilling that the supposed protectors are the likeliest attackers, soldiers of great cruelty- not only raping, but torture, murder, mutilation for unfortunate women, whether they resist or not. When these men are not reprimanded, there is the high chance that their victims will be able to see them day and night, and will not be able to protect themselves. Depression, panic attacks and PTSD are all likely, with nightmares not allowing them peace when the sun sets. As in many countries, there is a huge lack of mental health provisions, especially in comparison to physical health. As stated previously, hospitals are often targeted, or are collateral damage. In many cases, the UN and other aid organisations will help with mental health provisions, but again, this is often not enough.

In a culture of silence, these victims cannot scream.

Then there is the society that South Sudan is. Strongly patriarchal, it follows Sudan in women being the subservient gender, expected to obey fathers, then husbands, in society. A woman who is not pure is not a woman in their eyes, and this extends to rape. Often, they do not care that the woman was involved without her consent- she is ruined, either through adultery if she is married, fornication if widowed or divorced, or through her virginity being taken if unmarried. If a woman is impure, she may struggle to marry, or will be abandoned by her family. In many cases, her rape is seen as more of an affront to her family, especially the males. Of course, it would be completely false to say that every rape will cause family abandonment, as we do not wish to stereotype a people, but it is fair to say that society is more likely to fail the women of South Sudan.

At the end of the day, there is a chance that she will be a social pariah, and all because of the actions of a controlling animal.

In a warzone, with a lack of laws, it is hard to protect these victims from both the rape and its consequences. In a country where its government is tearing itself apart, we cannot rely on the state- the largest actor- to protect them either. Sexual assault in a war zone is so hard to address.

This brings me on to a case from over twenty years ago.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is today a stable country, a tourist region with relative harmony. From 1992 to 1995, it was a site of constant battle. In Bosnia, there were disgusting examples of ethnic cleansing, especially of Bosnian Muslims, and massacres such as the Fall of Srebrenica.

Many women were separated from men, and raped- often in ‘official’ houses, sometimes until they had given birth to a child. The aftermath is similar to that of South Sudan- gynaecological defects, physical and mental health issues.

In this case, records are more transparent, and we can finally get a picture of how it affected not only females, but males too. It is reported that around 80% men who were held in Sarajevo camps were sexually assaulted, and a proportion of those raped. This is a similar picture in prisons and camps across the world- upwards of 70% of men held in El Salvador where sexually tortured to some degree, and we can also point to the actions of soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison controversy. Whilst women are still the primary victims, men are more than just a tiny statistic. In history, the Romans often favoured young, often prepubescent boys. In the DRC, men make up percentages not that lower than females.

The patriarchy that hurts South Sudan also hurts men. Women from some conflict zones are inclined to leaving their husbands, owing to the ‘ultimate weakness.’ In countries where homosexuality is a heavy taboo, or even illegal, there is that fear that male victims will be wrongly branded as gay, where it could cost them their life. Men are set up by society as the strong, and being penetrated apparently takes that away from them. Even worse for these males, there is sometimes a denial that it can happen to men, as they suppose that men are not ever in that situation of weakness.

It is interesting to note that these assaults tend to happen inside supposedly secure places, places of pain such as camps and prisons, where men do not have that protection of society. Similarly to other war zones, they are like women in that they are often victimised by security services. For male civilians, their dominance as men is outstripped by those with weapons and guns.

The UN has tried, but as with a fair number of their missions, there is a general failure to bring about stability, especially when many of its members are not part of the country and culture that the victims are most familiar. In recent years, noted actress and staunch activist Angelina Jolie has recently started a campaign to look into sexual assault in conflict zones, something that she brought friend William Hague, former Foreign Secretary into. It is not an easy thing to address, and we do not deny that a lot more needs to be done, especially in cultures where both male and female victims struggle to receive even a slither of justice.

War is brutal, and so is the sexual assault that befalls its poor citizens. It is not just a crisis of South Sudan, of Bosnia, of El Salvador, or Iraq- it is a crisis on a truly global scale. In lawless zones, it cannot be prevented. STI tests, rape kits, reproductive services, and mental health services- the list of what we need is endless.

In a culture of war, these victims go through more than their share of battles.


Credit: ‘Survivors of Sexual Violence in South Sudan Call for Justice and Reparations’- Amnesty International Report, July 2017

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