In War Zones, Rape Is A Powerful Weapon

WIDE: Minister with rape victim in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo i i

Father Samuel (left) holds the hand and the face of a rape victim as they pray at the Heal Africa clinic in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Aug. 11, just after the Congolese woman underwent surgery to repair physical damage suffered while being raped. Hundreds of thousands of women have been brutally raped in the country's nearly decade-long conflict. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
WIDE: Minister with rape victim in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Father Samuel (left) holds the hand and the face of a rape victim as they pray at the Heal Africa clinic in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Aug. 11, just after the Congolese woman underwent surgery to repair physical damage suffered while being raped. Hundreds of thousands of women have been brutally raped in the country's nearly decade-long conflict.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been putting women's issues at the center of her work: speaking out forcefully against recent rapes in Guinea, leading a special U.N. Security Council meeting on women and security, and even visiting eastern Congo, where the use of rape as a weapon of war has affected hundreds of thousands of women.

But, as Clinton is discovering, highlighting these issues is one thing — and getting the international community to do something about them is quite another.

Sexual violence against women has been a feature in most recent conflicts — from the Balkans to Myanmar, Sri Lanka to Guinea.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recently met with Guinean women who had witnessed or survived rapes during the recent political turmoil in that country that is believed to have left more than 150 people dead. She shares that experience.

At the end of September, the Security Council adopted a new resolution that specifically mandates peacekeeping missions to protect women and children from rampant sexual violence during armed conflict.

Clinton said she hoped the resolution would make a difference. One way to help, the U.S. secretary of state suggested, is to have more women involved in mediation efforts.

"The more we know about conflicts, the more we realize that women, who do not start conflicts, are often the victims, but women have tremendous potential to being peacemakers and peacekeepers," she said.

It has been nearly a decade since the Security Council first passed a resolution meant to get more women involved in conflict resolution and peacekeeping.

Margot Wallstrom, vice president of the European Commission, says the words are good but the follow-up is lacking.

"They are excellent, they are very good texts, but the problem is implementation and enforcement, so very little has happened. I would say almost nothing. Still, we send delegations, mediators or negotiators that are only men. Very few women have found their way into that whole system," she says.

Wallstrom, who leads a network of women government ministers, told NPR there is a simple reason why change is important.

Congolese women walk past a sign opposing sexual violence in December 2008 in eastern Congo i i

Congolese women walk past a sign opposing sexual violence in December 2008 in eastern Congo. But efforts by international authorities to stamp out the scourge face many obstacles. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images
Congolese women walk past a sign opposing sexual violence in December 2008 in eastern Congo

Congolese women walk past a sign opposing sexual violence in December 2008 in eastern Congo. But efforts by international authorities to stamp out the scourge face many obstacles.

Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

"Who will women talk to unless we also offer a possibility to have women negotiators or mediators or special representatives?" she says, adding that many women in conflict zones wouldn't — or wouldn't be allowed to — talk to men.

In eastern Congo — which U.N. officials have called the rape capital of the world — U.N. peacekeepers go on market patrols and have special training, which was required after some peacekeepers were involved in sex scandals of their own.

Alan Doss, who runs the U.N. office there, says there are still far too few women wearing the U.N.'s blue helmet.

"We ask countries to provide us with women, but we don't seem to get too many. We have more women police officers, but again, it's a small fraction, and I think this is a challenge for us — how to get more women in peacekeeping missions," he says, adding that the office does have a number of women in civilian positions.

Liberia — where Doss previously served — has one all-female U.N. police unit, but that is an exception. It will take much more than that, Doss says, to tackle the issue of violence against women.

Other necessary steps, he says, include an overhaul of local justice systems, better training for military forces and, in the case of eastern Congo, putting various armed militias that are immune to justice out of business.

Doss was with Clinton when she visited the eastern Congo city of Goma in August.

"That was extremely important, because she put it on the world map. She said this is not acceptable. And it's a problem, again, not only for the Congo, not only for Africa," Doss says.

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