by Matilda Branson
(trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence)
June 26, International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, commemorating the day the Convention against Torture came into force 11 years ago, prompted me to have a bit of a think on torture – more specifically on sexual violence as torture and how this impacts women in conflict zones. Pretty light stuff. If it’s morning where you are and you’re sitting there with your coffee, maybe postpone reading this until the afternoon. I write this, though, because despite it being a bit of a conversation killer, I realised I’ve put rape and sexual violence at the back of my mind of late, because actually it’s easier not to think about it, to pretend that wide-scale atrocities are not occurring, now, as I write, across the world. So if I’ve forgotten, maybe you have too. Read on.
The main elements of torture are:
- Severe pain or suffering
- It is inflicted intentionally and for a purpose
- The pain or suffering of someone is inflicted by, at the instigation of, with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or any person acting in an official capacity
Within these definitions, sexual violence comes under the umbrella of torture. As perpetrators, armed groups fall under this definition too; it’s not always your average Government Joe in a fancy uniform. I think what bugs me is that this sexual violence, this torture occurs, and we do nothing. We hear of atrocities and we do nothing. We draft a few fancy regulations and Conventions but practically, on the ground, little is achieved. No justice is served.
Not long ago I did some work on resiliency strategies of victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And we are talking resilience on a massive scale, on a whole new level that is almost impossible to contemplate. In one region of northern DRC, a favourite tactic of terror of soldiers was to force fathers at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, with the whole family watching. To refuse meant death to the entire family. The resiliency strategy employed by locals? As sexual violence committed by armed groups was seen as inevitable in that region, neighbours would swap daughters, so that at least when the fathers were forced to rape, they would not be raping their own daughters, but someone else’s.
One brave lady kept a little black book, filled with the stories of the sexual violence that women she met have endured, detailing the event – the time, place, circumstances, victim’s identity, perpetrator’s identity – recording the atrocities one by one, so that one day, if and when justice for victims can be sought, she will have that information ready at hand, despite the fact she risks her life carrying and collecting such information day to day.
UN peacekeeping vehicles which patrolled and attempted to have some presence of authority in rural areas at night reported that in the morning,their vehicles would be surrounded by 20, 30, 50 people, huddled around their vehicles, seeking the only protection they could from the terrors of the night. (This, perhaps, not such a great strategy, if you consider the events between 30 July and 2 August 2010, when 242 civilians in thirteen villages in North Kivu in the eastern regions of DRC suffered organised and systemic gang-rape and other sexual violence at the hands of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the Mai Mai rebel movement. One targeted town, Luvingi, was located less than twenty miles from UN peacekeeping soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were unaware of the disastrous events unfolding).
I mention these extreme examples of resiliency employed in the face of such torture to illustrate the pressing need for victims of torture to be supported in real, concrete terms. Sign those petitions supporting victims of torture (Amnesty International is always a good obvious start), get involved with an organization involved in this stuff in your local area, and write scathing letters to any authorities who may wield influence in such matters. If you don’t know where DRC is on a map, bring up Google Maps right now and find it.
Sexual violence as torture continues to be used by armed forces because no one – at the domestic or international level – cares enough to stop it. So people have to employ the most desperate of resiliency strategies to ‘improve’ their situations. Sexual violence as torture becomes an uncomfortable thought we tuck away at the back of our minds – don’t! Please don’t! At least give it a thought, once in a while.