Annie Bunting, an associate professor of law and society at York University in Canada, is leading a three-year research project on enslavement in war for forced marriage in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
She spoke to TrustLaw about her work.
What do you hope to achieve in your research?
We hope to provide a more complete picture of what people experience during those conflicts. There still seems to be a push from our [local research] partners and the people they work with to have their voices heard, to have their versions of their stories included in history.
We are hoping to have an impact on international criminal law, on how indictments are formed and on how those charges are laid against commanders responsible for violence in war. We are also hoping to have an impact on reparations for the harms experienced in conflict.
We don’t hear much about sexual slavery during the Rwandan genocide.
Forced marriage during the genocide is very much a hidden history that was overlooked, in part because it was all described as rape. It was usually a Hutu man or an Interahamwe [Hutu militiaman] keeping a Tutsi woman alive, claiming her as his wife. She was then basically his property because he had saved her.
My research partner Godeliève Mukasarasi was working with a group last month – she said she met with 17 women, 12 of whom said they had experienced forced marriage. Now that’s not a representative percentage, but I found that really surprising. I think this kind of new knowledge will be among the most surprising to come out of the research project.
Why do men sexually enslave women in war?
There was a line of command authority where this was not just random men taking spoils of war through rape. This was actually a military strategy in order to support the rebels.
We are going to do interviews with non-governmental organisations that are working with men because we feel that there needs to be future research on men who were lower ranking rebels, who were instructed to be violent, take ‘wives’, to rape and so on.
I think those interviews with men are really important in that legal argument.
Why is it a strategy of war?
Some people have argued that abducting women and girls and having sexual and domestic labour available to rebels helps their morale.
As with historical cases of slavery, this is free labour. Women, girls and men were doing a lot of labour that the rebels couldn’t do because they were fighting. There was a lot of food preparation. You also had women working as porters and as spies.
Living in fear of having yourself or your daughter abducted, raped, kept by rebels for extended periods of time is a tactic of terror as well.
Can you give an example?
The LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda] was the most organised about abduction. Uganda is the only place where women and girls were not necessarily raped right away. They were assigned by a commander to a particular man. You could be punished with death if you violated those types of orders.
Do you think international criminal tribunals can stop conjugal enslavement?
I don’t think that if we have a few high-profile International Criminal Court indictments and successful sentences that that will end it. The ICC is quite far away for the average person.
They want to know someone has been held responsible and has gone to jail – there is no question. But they need the average person – the demobilised guy who lives down the street – they need to see they are safe in relation to that person.
I wasn’t a big fan of the initiative for the International Criminal Court because that is a huge infrastructure with millions of dollars being devoted to, as they say, getting the ‘big fish’.
When you go and interview women in small villages who are the survivors of conflict and war, they care more about getting their kids through school and putting their lives back together again.
Has there been sufficient compensation, for example, for the tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean ‘bush wives’?
Over 30,000 people made claims for reparations [in Sierra Leone] and a little over 10 percent of those – 3,500 – were women making claims for sexual violence. Of those who made claims, only 650 got training and only 235 received any financial compensation. So obviously it’s totally inadequate.
What type of compensation do women want?
I think that skills training is really important because one of the things that women have talked to me about is that their education is cut short. So they want the opportunity to finish school. If not, they want to train as taxi drivers or hairdressers or tailors. Those are very concrete things that change people’s lives.
Where else should money go?
I’d also put money into national justice systems and local customary justice systems. They tend to have a much more effective deterrent impact on communities because they resonate with the local communities in a much more direct way.
So long as we continue to control the agenda for ‘democratising’ or community ‘development’ or whatever our model of justice is, there is still going to be resentment. There is still not going to be ownership over the outcomes. So if I had a whole bunch of money, I’d give it away.