Friday was a particularly hard day. Work interspersed with outrage.
No, not outrage. Simple rage. Because, among other issues, we were focused on various reports of rape. The terrible rape and enslavement of women and girls in Iraq. The horrific rape of a twelve-year-old in the Central African Republic. Sexual violence against humanitarian workers. We could go on and on.
There is a “new normal” in the world: The ugly spread of conflicts and violence in every region, against which the capacity of the humanitarian response does not keep pace, despite the efforts of people and governments of good will.
But the sexual abuse of women, girls and boys in conflicts is anything but “new.” And we must no longer think of it in any way, as “normal.”
Women and girls have long been seen as one of the spoils of war. There is a reason that “pillage” is preceded by “rape” when we read of the past destruction of castles and cities by victorious armies.
In the earliest days of Rome, when the Sabines refused to provide their women as wives for the Romans, the latter simply seized them.
Even ancient religious texts, reflecting the outlook of the men who wrote them and their times, today still give the perverted a veneer of morality for their brutality. As reported by The New York Times on Thursday, those carrying out the systematic enslavement and rape of women and girls in Iraq are “justifying” their acts by texts from the Quran.
Before non-Muslims pass judgment, they should recall that the ancient texts of other religions could similarly be misused. Moses told his men after a battle, as recorded in Numbers 31:17-18: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” In other words, enslave the virgins.
No one of any good sense and sensibility should take such passages as religious instruction or absolution for such vile acts. But such texts show that rape is not an aberration; it is the most outrageous result of the historic lens through which men have seen women — as possessions.
The ancient code of conduct for Hindus, the Manusmriti, repeatedly views women in this way. For example, “Pita rakhshati …..” — 9/3. “Since women are not capable of living independently she is to be kept under the custody of her father as child, under her husband as a woman and under her son as widow.” Possessions with which he/they can do as they please. An attitude that can have terrible consequences.
Consider this one vile statistic from the United Nations: Worldwide, it is estimated that one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
The hard fact is that we don’t have hard facts about the numbers of women and children suffering sexual violence in conflicts. It is certainly many more than one in five.
It is estimated that over 200,000 women have suffered from sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo since armed conflict began there. Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women were reportedly raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In Bosnia, at least 20,000 women are believed to have been raped or suffered sexual violence during that conflict, although the true number will probably never be known. It is hard to even find an estimate of the women and girls raped in Darfur. A partial list of a global horror.
Women and girls are not only seen as the spoils of war and conflict, but their rape has been used as an instrument of war to terrorize populations and enemies into surrender and submission. They become the particular victims of genocide.
So on Friday, as we worked on speeding up our internal reporting procedures at UNICEF — both about alleged cases of sexual violence and about the work our colleagues in the field are doing to help care for the victims — we felt again our rage. Not only at how so many women and children are violated. But, at how, after so many centuries, we human beings continue to violate our own best hopes for ourselves.
In the end, while we in the United Nations — and many others — struggle with complex legal issues and procedural efficiencies, what matters most is that all of us avoid the moral numbness that can come with the statistics and stories of sexual abuse — and feel, instead, a rage for action.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Written by Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF, and Geeta Rao Gupta, a Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF