By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
Rape, and other forms of sexual violence against women in war and conflict, represent one of the great silences and suppressed issues in modern-day history.
Yet, women remain the greatest victims of war and other forms of conflict in many parts of the world. Recently, in Haiti, rape has become a weapon for members of the 200 gangs which now control 60 per cent of the Capital, Port-au-Prince. Women and girls are deliberately targeted for rapes, torture, kidnappings and killings. Tragic stories have emerged of schoolgirls being captured, gang raped and becoming pregnant; their lives stripped of dignity or choice.
In the war in Ukraine, rape is also used as a deliberate weapon of terror, or by soldiers taking advantage of their position to rape women in the absence of any deterrent. U.N. findings suggest thar the incidents of rape are underreported in Ukraine. Similarly, the number of rapes, reported in Haiti, are far less than accounts given by victims, who either have no means of making an official report or are too frightened to do so.
Women have been a target of war wherever it has occurred. U.N. statistics show that, in Rwanda, up to 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide, in acts known as ‘genocidal rape’; in Sierra Leone 60,000 women were raped during the civil war (1991-2002); in Liberia, 40,000 women were raped and mutilated (1989-2003); in Bosnia in Europe, 60,000 women were raped (1992-1995); in Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 200,000 women were raped in a decade of conflict. None of this takes account of rapes that certainly occurred during conflicts in Central and South America.
Rape is prohibited, under the Rules of War, particularly the “Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949)”, and its 1977 protocol. However, this prohibition is not a deterrent, since the governments, that send their soldiers into war, have not made rape, committed during conflicts, a criminal offence. Indeed, as has happened in the war against Ukraine, Russia has described reports of rape as lies.
Wars and conflicts create refugees who are forced into camps with little protection from predators – in some cases, officials who manage the camps. In such vulnerable situations, women again become victims.
Unacceptable and wrongful as is rape of women in wars and their aftermath, it is in daily life that violence against women, including rape, is most despicable and inexcusable. The situation cries out for action to end it. U.N. figures paint a grim picture.
Globally, an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or both at least once in their life. More than 640 million women aged 15 and older have been subjected to intimate partner violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, violence against women increased dramatically.
It is significant that, globally, violence against women disproportionately affects low- and lower-middle-income countries and regions. Thirty-seven per cent of women aged 15 to 49, living in “least developed” countries, have been subject to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lives. Globally 81,000 women and girls were killed in 2020, around 47,000 of them (58 per cent) died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. This latter figure equates to a woman or girl being killed every 11 minutes in their home. In 58 per cent of all killings, perpetrated by intimate partners or other family members, the victim was a woman or girl.
While these figures are deeply disturbing, the silent acceptance of the situation is worse, condemning all societies in which such tolerance prevails.
Against this background, an international coalition of 2,100 women’s rights advocates in 128 nations called “Every Woman”, is proposing the adoption of a global treaty to eradicate violence against women and girls. It is a treaty whose creation and adoption should be fully supported.
The treaty will not cause violence against women to end overnight, but it will be a potent international instrument that would bind governments to take the necessary legislative, preventative and protective measures to save millions of women from the killings and violence that now exist. The urgency for a global treaty is driven by the fact that, although several conventions have been adopted globally, and legal frameworks have been established nationally, violence against women has persisted. The existing frameworks have failed to deliver the strong measures that are clearly required.
In truth, many of the existing Conventions have serious gaps that have allowed governments to sidestep their responsibilities. And, even where Conventions have not been strong, some governments have not agreed to them. The global treaty seeks to remedy the obvious weaknesses and gaps in existing Conventions.
The government of Costa Rica, which has an outstanding record in advocating for human rights, has already endorsed the concept of a Global Treaty, recognizing that much more has to be done to protect women from violence. Caribbean governments and civil society should not hesitate to join in the treaty’s promotion.
Even with the best will in the world, a global treaty cannot be negotiated, agreed and ratified with the swiftness it deserves. It could take years, by which time many more millions of women – mothers, daughters, sisters – will die or be seriously injured as victim of violence.
As the advocates of the treaty argue, “It’s time to come together to outpace the violence with a concrete, clear and actionable solution. Women and girls are waiting. They are asking that we do better”.
Women are restricted to contributing only 37 percent of global production even though they are 50 per cent of the world’s population. Yet, a McKinsey Global Institute report finds that, by advancing women’s equality, US$12 trillion could be added to global output by 2025. The global circulation of that money would make a huge difference to the economic wellbeing of all countries.
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