Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Should rape in conflict zones be classified as torture?

On Sunday January 31st, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced he was appointing a special envoy to curb rape as a weapon of war. Margot Wallstrom, outgoing vice president of the European Commission, will be taxed with combating sexual violence against women and children in conflict zones, as reported here: http://bit.ly/9H81Pt

World In Need works in many of the areas where these atrocities take place, and we work with victims, helping them to rebuild their shattered lives. Children as young as eight are routinely gang raped by soldiers and militia men, who see it as part of their arsenal of weapons. They use rape to punish, to humiliate, to assert their authority and superiority. Some victims are so roughly treated their injuries will never properly heal. They are left torn, crippled, infertile.

Their physical injuries are not the only scars rape victims bear. The damage to them psychologically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, can be much harder to come to terms with than physical problems. In this society, a woman who has been raped is shamed, her body considered defiled. Girls who are raped are not as valued when it comes to marriage. The women and children know this. They carry the shame of the rape inside them long after the physical effects of the crime have faded.

In the Congo and Northern Uganda, we work with many young children who have been raped by soldiers. We care for them, love them, find them sponsors who will support them. All of them need care, attention, therapy to overcome the dreadful things that have happened to them, and to come to terms with the shame and humiliation they feel because of those happenings. The feelings of the victims inspired the following poem:

I hide in shadows,
No-one sees me in the darkest corners.
If I never meet your eyes
You will not see my shame.

I stay silent.
Head down, body folded, tiny in the shadows.
I can still hide my shame.

They came in packs.
Snarling, snapping, slavering at an easy prey.
Circled with excited yips
And tore me to shreds.
Clawed and pawed,
Howled with triumph at the moon,
Left me lying in a rutted field,
Innocence shed.

Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?

Lord, they have hurt me.
Do you not see me in the darkest corners?
Am I hidden from your eyes,
Lost in my shame?

Childhood seeps from me
Tinged with maiden’s blood and school girl dreams.
Emptied of myself,
My rounding belly fills with shame.

Violated yet again
On the shudder of a new born’s cry.
He grows in the wreckage of my life
And suckles on my shame.

The shame of the rape, the psychological and emotional scars that follow, make this one of the most heinous acts that men of violence can commit. Indeed, its long lasting and far reaching effects could mean rape constitutes an act of torture.

The prohibition of torture has a special status in international law. It is part of customary international law, which means it is binding on all states, whether or not they have ratified any of the international human rights treaties. Article 2(2) of the Geneva Convention states that: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

If men of violence will not see rape as a heinous and inexcusable act, if they see violence against women and children as justifiable, perhaps we need to officially define rape in conflict zones as torture, increasing public awareness of the crime and, with that awareness, a growing clamour to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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