LONDON (AlertNet) - Away from the headlines of girls gang-raped by marauding fighters, there’s an equally disturbing but hidden reality of war zones: women are more likely to be violated by their husbands than by a combatant.
Surveys of displaced Sri Lankan, northern Ugandan and Somali women in camps found that, in the vast majority of rape cases, women had been attacked by their partners, according to a report launched earlier this month.
Even in Congo - dubbed the “rape capital of the world” for the prevalence and brutality of sex attacks by fighters - the rate of domestic rape is nearly double conflict rape, the 2012 Human Security Report says.
“You may be protected by U.N. peacekeepers if you go out and work in the fields, but they’re not going to protect you from your husband in the evening if he decides he wants to rape you,” said Andrew Mack, editor of the report and director of the Human Security Research Project, which is affiliated with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.
There are major difficulties in highlighting domestic sexual violence in war. The reason rape by combatants is on the international radar at all is because of a huge campaign by U.N. agencies and large NGOs that convinced the U.N. Security Council to view it as a threat to international peace and security, pushing it onto the council agenda.
That was “unthinkable even a decade ago”, and has increased the amount of aid for survivors – although there’s still not enough to meet their needs, Mack said.
“But it came at a certain cost… The downside is that domestic sexual violence in wartime has been largely ignored,” he said.
NOT AN EMERGENCY ISSUE
War-torn countries with even higher levels of sexual violence than Congo receive relatively little attention because most of that violence is domestic, the report said. In Uganda, 39 percent of women have experienced sexual violence, and 44 percent in parts of Ethiopia, compared with about 20 percent in one of Congo’s worst-affected provinces, North Kivu.
Because domestic rape in wartime is a continuation of what already happened in peacetime, it does not constitute an “emergency” issue. So its survivors rarely receive humanitarian aid.
There are also challenges closer to home. “In many … developing countries rape in marriage isn’t even a crime, and unfortunately … women themselves actually believe it’s OK for their husbands to beat them if they refuse sex,” Mack said. “It should at least get as much political attention as does the conflict-related sexual violence.”
Researchers aren’t yet sure whether domestic rape rises during conflicts.
“There are some arguments to say that (during a war) a lot of men will be away from home, or women will be displaced in refugee camps where they will be relatively speaking safer, but we don’t know,” Mack said.
And it is possible that domestic violence increases at the end of a war when former combatants “who have probably been taking rape almost for granted” go home, he added.
One reason for the uncertainty is that surveys usually look at the numbers of people reporting a rape, or focus on displacement camps, not the population as a whole. And only two major surveys have probed the gender of the attackers.
In Sierra Leone, a 2004 survey found that women took part in about a quarter of reported cases of gang rape by combatants.
And in eastern Congo, female victims of conflict-related sexual violence said 41 percent of their attackers were female, according to a 2010 survey. Male victims reported that 10 percent were female. Women have also been involved in sexual violence in the Liberian conflict, in Haiti and during the Rwandan genocide.
“We had no idea of the extent to which the perpetration of sexual violence by women is an issue,” Mack said.
Men make up a significant number of victims in war too. “It may be that 8 to 12 percent of acts of sexual violence are perpetrated against men… It is important, and it has been neglected,” he added.
There is very little evidence that any of the programmes aimed at stopping or reducing sexual violence are having a major impact, Mack noted.
“In the longer term, challenging the huge culture of impunity that exists in many countries will make a difference but that’s going to take years - decades probably,” he said.
The most effective way to prevent rape by armed groups is to end conflicts – something the international community is quite good at - and put more resources into peacebuilding, Mack said.
“Even when peace agreements fail and fighting restarts, on average the level of violence is 80 percent lower than it was during the war itself,” he added.
But it’s hard to see what can be done to protect women from their partners.
“If U.N. peacekeepers can’t stop conflict-related sexual violence, which is a minority of all sexual violence in wartime, the probability they can do anything about domestic sexual violence is nil,” Mack said.
He suggested adapting methods used by the international campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM), which has been successful in several countries. The approach treats FGM as a health issue, works at the community level - and includes men.