Overlooked crimes: Torture of women in conflict

Hear Us: Women Affected by Political Violence in Zimbabwe Speak Out chronicles the stories of four Zimbabwean women who were among the estimated several thousand women targeted for their political affiliation and subjected to state torture. These four women have come forth to demand justice. The film is produced by WITNESS and the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) of Zimbabwe.

Each year activists around the world set aside 16 days to fight for an end to violence against women. These 16 days span from the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to Human Rights Day on 10 December, chosen to emphasise that women’s rights are also human rights.

This year’s theme is particularly apt for our work in preventing torture – From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women.

As we have previously noted, torture can happen anywhere to anyone, regardless of the political system, climate of conflict, or leadership; “Torture is practiced in more than 90 percent of all countries in all regions of the world; big or small, dictatorship or democracy,” said Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and IRCT Patron. However, undeniably certain political and security conditions allow for a climate that condones torture; and certain identities, such as ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, the poor, and women, which are often already made vulnerable, are often increasingly targeted for torture and ill-treatment.

States of conflict, unceasing violence, and militarism often creates a climate where women’s bodies become the site of violent contestation. During the Egyptian revolution this year, military police tortured 18 women demonstrators who were detained and subjected to ‘virginity testing’. Following the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the Zenica Centre for the Registration of War and Genocide Crime documented over 40,000 cases of war-related rape, according to a UNFPA briefing paper (PDF). And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, decades of war and strife have yielded uncountable accounts of rape, estimates ranging at the hundreds of thousands.

Rape and sexual violence are often used during conflict to destabilize regions, publically shame and humiliate the victims, to instil fear in populations, and also as a form of ethnic cleansing.

During this 16 Days of Activism, as we have seen millions take to the streets to claim their human rights this year, we wish to take up this year’s theme of militarism and violence against women to focus on the use of sexual violence as torture against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings. In addition, as with all victims of torture, the survivors of these crimes have the right to justice and rehabilitation, both medical and psycho-social.

As conflicts cease and regimes topple the justice processes must include victims of sexual torture and the rehabilitation they require.

Tessa is communications assistant at the IRCT.


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