/ 26 November 2007

Not all rape is the same

In 2005 I spoke to a traumatised filmmaker who had returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo where he interviewed a 19-year-old woman who 18 months before had been raped by 49 soldiers, one after the other. The pregnant teenager was then shot in the belly by the soldiers, killing her baby and rendering her sterile.

It is one thing for an individual to be raped, it’s quite another when a battalion of heavily armed soldiers violates a woman.

In the 2004 genocide in Rwanda Human Rights Watch claim there was not a woman or girl who was not raped, many with sharpened sticks.

During the conflict in Bosnia rape was frequent. A Bosnian woman told the International Criminal Court in 2000 that her 14-year-old son was forced, at gunpoint, to rape her. Yet it was only in 2001 that rape was first labelled a crime against humanity; it is still not classified as torture.

Yazeed Kamaldien, a South African journalist in Khartoum, last month interviewed Sudanese aid worker Lemia Elhag, who works in Darfur. She said there was a failure by ”the government to halt rape … keep mouths shut about sexual violence in Darfur … ” She says rape is ”a weapon, like mines and Kalashnikovs. It’s physical and psychological and is very effective as humiliation.”

Yet Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s permanent representative at the United Nations, says the country is blocking a UN General Assembly resolution that would condemn sexual violence used by governments and armed groups to achieve political and military objectives because South Africa opposes rape in all its forms (Mail & Guardian November 16).

Try telling that to the one in two South African women raped, or one of the 98% who report rape and see no arrests or convictions (according to the Department of Justice, which says less than two percent of rapes are successfully prosecuted). Of an average 55 000 reported rapes each year, about 53 000 rapists remain free because South Africa lacks the political will to accord sufficient resources to track and jail perpetrators.

Why does South Africa not accede to this resolution as it has to others that emptily proclaim the right of women and children to live dignified lives without harm?

Because while all the others are not worth the paper they are written on, this one will carry consequences. South Africa already has a string of trials against its soldiers for rape in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is supposed to maintain peace. To do something about rape would not just mean disciplining soldiers, but working to change the attitudes and practices within this society that enable rape.

The resolution, which has 61 co-sponsors including Burundi, Congo and Liberia, would call on the secretary general to report to the General Assembly evidence of government-sanctioned rape. This mechanism does not exist in any of the international conventions and resolutions on sexual abuse.

Repeated violations could lead to the General Assembly first condemning and then considering action against nations that allow or encourage rape during conflict.

Only the insensitive or the ignorant would believe that all rape is the same. Incest is perhaps the most traumatic. Gang rape is worse than single-perpetrator rape.

From time immemorial wars have shown that the way to destabilise the enemy is first to rape the women. This violation of the beloved of enemy men is intended to emasculate.

It is convenient to prosecute soldiers for rape when their actions might be fuelled by a sense that military or political leaders desire, condone or ignore such acts. Shame must be carried not just by soldiers but by nations that allow such horror.

The human rights ethos of the Mandela era is well and truly dead. First we supported Burma, then Zimbabwe, and we are now acting against women’s interests at the UN. The era of shame has returned.

Charlene Smith is a journalist