A hundred years ago, 90% of war casualties were soldiers. Now, 90% of casualties are civilians. We hear about it too often: soldiers systematically raping women and girls during war; husbands rejecting their wives after they have been raped; girls and women infected or impregnated during rape who get no medical help and are stigmatised for the crime of having survived rape; children born of rape facing a similar fate; legal systems that condone or ignore rape.
At Network for Africa we confront the consequences of rape during conflict on a daily basis; in Uganda where thousands of girls and women abducted by the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army were enslaved, raped and brutalised; and in Rwanda where at least 250,000 women and girls were raped during the 1994 genocide.
Instead of sympathy and help, too many women face prejudice and ignorance from their communities. It is only recently that rape was acknowledged as a weapon of war. Although the women and girls of Berlin were raped en masse in 1945 when the Soviet Union liberated the city, it was barely mentioned. Too often, we would hear, “This is what happens in war,” or “Boys will be boys.”
The shroud of silence was lifted after the Bosnian war (1992-5) when tens of thousands of Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped by the Serbs. Several brave Bosnian women launched legal cases against their Serb attackers. Thanks to them, rape was finally recognised as an integral part of genocide, destroying the fabric of society – especially in traditional cultures – and as a weapon of war.
However, having laws against rape in war is not the same as enforcing them. In London last week, Angelina Jolie and the UK foreign secretary William Hague led a remarkable and unique conference on how the world must prevent rape during conflict, and how we must respond in the aftermath.
Underlying it all are persisting and ingrained negative attitudes toward women. The best laws in the world are meaningless if some men continue to treat women as little more than slaves – the harsh daily reality in vast areas of the globe.
Network for Africa’s team has been tackling this cultural challenge by involving male partners in some of our training sessions for women. We have been working with local men’s groups in Rwanda and Uganda who emphasise positive masculinity, and provide positive male role models. Men are more likely to listen to another man from their own community than they are to a woman or a foreign man.
We were heartened to learn from others at the London conference about the methods they use to show men that it is in their interest to stop raping and beating women. For instance, some groups focus on persuading elders and community leaders to use their influence to discourage violence to the benefit of everyone involved. However, this can take years to change traditional justice systems, as well as notions rooted in superstition.
Several successful projects emphasise the benefits men get from having a more peaceful home life, with happier, healthier children and spouses who no longer live in fear. As we have found in our projects, there is often a break through when we persuade men to start talking to their women about their grievances, rather than immediately resorting to violence.
Men’s perception of virility must also be re-framed away from “I have sired 12 children, half of whom died in infancy, and only one of whom goes to school,” to “I have four healthy children, all of whom are doing well at school, and who will take care of me when I’m old.”
Many voices at the conference commended the importance of working in schools, telling boys about the legal rights of women and girls, rather than assuming people know it is illegal to beat and rape females. However, we know boys learn from their father’s actions, and less from what people tell them. That makes the promotion of positive male role models, and agents of change, all the more important. Some groups attract men and boys to “sensitization” sessions with access to football games. At Network for Africa we use health checks to convince men to participate in training meetings. We also know that men can resent projects they think benefit only women. They become less suspicious when they see their women earning an income when we train them in skills like hairdressing and cookery.
There was also recognition that women perpetuate negative genders roles. For instance in some parts of the world mothers-in-law encourage women to abort female foetuses. Mothers and grandmothers mutilate their daughters in order to make them marriageable; and women feel ashamed when they bear daughters because their first duty will be to serve their husband’s family, and not care for their fathers in old age. For Western women who are horrified by this, one has only to read the novels of Jane Austen to see that not that long ago we too considered baby girls an inconvenience to be married off as fast as possible. The message coming from the London conference was that change is possible, but it takes persistence, and it must happen on many fronts.