Sexual Violence in times of War

The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:

“By 1993, the Zenica Centre for the Registration of War and Genocide Crime in Bosnia-Herzegovina had documented 40,000 cases of war-related rape. Of a sample of Rwandan women surveyed in 1999, 39 percent reported being raped during the 1994 genocide, and 72 percent said they knew someone who had been raped. An estimated 23,200 to 45,600 Kosovar Albanian women are believed to have been raped between August 1998 and August 1999, the height of the conflict with Serbia.

In 2003, 74 percent of a random sample of 388 Liberian refugee women living in camps in Sierra Leone reported being sexually abused prior to being displaced from their homes in Liberia. Fifty-five percent of them experienced sexual violence during displacement. Of a sample of 410 internally displaced Colombian women in Cartagena who were surveyed in 2003, 8 percent reported some form of sexual violence prior to being displaced, and 11 percent reported being abused since their displacement.

The changing face of war

A growing body of data from the wars of the last decade is finally bringing to light “one of history’s great silences”: the sexual violation and torture of civilian women and girls during periods of armed conflict. Until recently, the evidence — along with the issue — had been generally ignored by historians, politicians and the world at large, yet it is hardly new. The licence of victors to “rape and pillage” the vanquished dates back to Ancient Greek, Roman and Hebrew wars. In examplesfrom the last century alone, Jewish women were raped by Cossacks during the 1919 pogroms in Russia; the Japanese military trafficked thousands of “comfort women” from countries across Asia and sexually enslaved them during World War II; over 100,000 women were raped in the Berlin area directly following World War II; and hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Bangladeshi war of secession.

Despite the history of sexual violence committed against women and girls by men in times of war, what is especially disturbing about the statistics from the past 10 years is how rife the phenomenon appears to have become. It might be argued that the current data simply reflect greater international attention to the issue — provoked in part by the media coverage of the sexual atrocities committed during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and even more importantly by the decades of intensive awareness-raising by women’s activists around the world — rather than a significant rise in absolute numbers of victims. A more likely explanation, however, is that the nature of warfare is changing, in ways that increasingly endanger women and girls. Since the latter half of the last century, combat primarily limited to military engagements between national armies has been largely supplanted by civil wars and regional conflicts that pit communities along racial, religious and/or ethnic lines. The result is that civilian populations are victimised on a massive scale. Between 1989 and 1997, an estimated 103 armed conflicts were launched in 69 countries across the world. Civilian casualties during these more recent conflicts are estimated to be as high as 75 percent, a stunning contrast to the 5 percent estimate from the start of the last century. Although overall more men than women continue to die as a result of conflict, women and girls suffer myriad debilitating consequences of war. So much so, according to a 2002 report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, that “women and children are disproportionately targets” and “constitute the majority of all victims” of contemporary armed conflicts.

What the current data conceal

However disturbing the current statistics are, they probably conceal more than they reveal in terms of the true extent of sexual violence against women and girls during armed conflict. For a number of reasons, data on rape in war are exceedingly difficult to capture — as seen in the sometimes dramatic variance in estimates from any given country, such as those from Bosnia that range from 14,000 to 50,000, and from Rwanda that range from 15,700 to a half million. Sometimes the discrepancies reflect political interests, where a government or armed group may seek to downplay the extent of crimes committed by its members, while others are working to highlight those crimes. Yet even when research is undertaken by nonaligned human rights or other groups, obtaining an accurate representation of the scope of sexual violence presents tremendous challenges.

Research on sexual violence against women during war is in its relative infancy. Investigators have only just begun to develop and test methodologies for collecting representative data. In addition, substantial underreporting of rape is commonplace even in times of peace; in times of war and its aftermath, when constraining factors such as stigma and shame are compounded by political instability and threats to personal safety, rates of reporting are likely to be even lower. Exposing violence in the context of active conflict can represent a security risk for all involved — as evidenced by the May 2005 arrest of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Khartoum, Sudan, who was charged by the Sudanese government with crimes against the state after publishing a report on women seeking rape-related medical treatment in MSF facilities throughout Darfur.

In many more instances, there is simply no insitutional authority or organization to whom a woman can recount her experience. Even where services do exist, pervasive impunity for perpetrators of war-related sexual violence means that many survivors may accurately reason that no justice — and thus no purpose — will be served by reporting their victimisation. Notably, in a 2001 study from Timor Leste (East Timor), only 7 percent of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence during the crisis of 1999 ever reported their victimisation to a local authority. In a survey from Rwanda, only 6 percent of respondents who had been raped during the genocide ever sought medical treatment.

The current statistics — detached as they are from the nature of the crimes — also do not reveal the depths of violence to which women and girls have been exposed, or the terror they are forced to endure when their bodies become the ways and means of war. It is only the personal accounts that do this — accounts that most of the world will likely never hear.

Three personal stories

Since the 1996 outbreak of hostilities among multiple armed factions in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), atrocities against women have been so horrific and extensive that the violence has been referred to colloquially as the “war within a war” and the “war against women”. Although a peace process was initiated at the end of 2002, the prevailing lawlessness in the eastern part of the country continues to put many women and girls at risk. In recent research in South Kivu, 492 women — 79 percent of whom had been sexually assaulted by between two and 20 attackers — shared their experiences of rape, mutilation and torture. One incident was related by a victim still confined to a hospital bed:

“A few moments after the Interahamwe [Rwandan militia] arrived in the village I heard my neighbour screaming. I looked out of the window and I saw some men, all holding rifles. Immediately, I wanted to run away and hide but three of them turned up at our house. My husband pretended to be asleep … they grabbed me roughly. One of them restrained me, while another took my pili pili pestle and pushed it several times into my vagina, as if he was pounding. This agony seemed to be a neverending hell … then they suddenly left. For two weeks my vagina was discharging. I was operated on … I have to relieve myself into a bag tied to an opening in the side of my belly. They also killed my husband and my son.”

In another instance, a Congolese woman described the brutality she endured at the hands of militia:

“I was busy cutting wood, when four armed men suddenly appeared at the other end of the field. They told me to undress and to volunteer myself to one of them. I refused. Then they took me, spreading my legs out and tying them, one to the bottom of a tree, the other to another tree trunk. They stuck my head between two sticks held diagonally, so that I couldn’t sit up without hurting myself. I stayed in this position and one of the attackers penetrated me forcefully from behind in the vagina, and the other pushed his penis into my mouth, right into my throat … I was retrieved by neighbours who watched my ordeal from a distance. When they found me I had fainted and was covered in blood.”

Similar atrocities were committed by all parties to Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war. The primary perpetrators of the most egregious abuses, however, were among the rebel forces, particularly the Revolutionary United Front. They raped as a matter of course, often in gangs, often in front of family members. They forced boys and men to rape their mothers and wives. They sexually assaulted and then disemboweled pregnant women. They mutilated women’s genitals with knives, burning wood and gun barrels. One particularly violent rebel incursion, on the capital city of Freetown in January 1999, let loose a “hellish cycle of rape, sexual assault, and mutilation.” A 13-year-old girl, abducted during the incursion and forced into sexual slavery by rebels, already had given birth to a baby girl born of rape by the time she told her story to researchers in 2001. She remembered how her captivity began:

“We were taken to a house with about 200 people in it. My older cousin was sent to go and select 25 men and 25 women to have their hands chopped off. Then she was told to cut off the first man’s hand. She refused to do it, saying she was afraid. I was then told to do it. I said I’d never done such a thing before and that I was afraid. We were told to sit on the side and watch. So we sat. They chopped off two men’s hands. My cousin couldn’t watch and bowed her head down to avoid the sight. Because she did that, they shot her in the foot. They bandaged her foot and then forced her to walk. We left the two men whose hands had been cut off behind. We were then taken to a mosque in Kissy. They killed everyone in there. … They were snatching babies and infants from their mother’s arms and tossing them in the air. The babies would free fall to their deaths. At other times they would also chop them from the back of their heads to kill them, you know, like you do when you slaughter chickens. One girl with us tried to escape. They made her take off her slippers and give them to me and then killed her. … One time we came across two pregnant women. They tied the women down with their legs eagle spread and took a sharpened stick and jabbed them inside their wombs until the babies came out on the stick.”

The “murderous madness” of sexual violence in conflict

The motivation for rape committed during armed conflict varies. The violence can be a by-product of the collapse in social and moral order that accompanies war. In DRC, rape has become so indiscriminate as to be referred to as “murderous madness”. In one example, a Congolese mother walked into her house to find a paramilitary raping her 10- month-old baby. Such incidents are not only limited to combatants. Men from the local community may exploit the chaos of conflict to commit sexual violence against women without fear of punishment.

Under the volatile and disorganized rule of the Mujahideen, for instance, rape and sexual assault in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul were reportedly so commonplace that the oppressive police state established after the Taliban takeover in 1996 was initially perceived by some women as a welcome reprieve.

Sexual violence may also be systematic, carried out by fighting forces for the explicit purpose of destabilising populations and destroying bonds within communities and families. In these instances, rape is often a public act, aimed to maximise humiliation and shame. In Timor Leste, Indonesian military reportedly raped women in front of their families and forced Timorese men to rape Timorese women.

Researchers on a 2004 fact-finding mission to Northern Uganda, where an 18-year insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continues, spoke with one man who was commanded by members of the LRA to have sex with his daughter:

“I refused. … They ordered my son … for the fear of a cocked gun he complied. … I was then forced to have sex with a hole they had dug in the floor using a knife. … They forced my private part in the hole several times — the skin was totally destroyed. … It was impossible to fight someone who is armed. … This was all done in front of my wife, son, and the daughter. … My wife went mad.”

A Sudanese man recounted to researchers his family’s similar degradation in Darfur: “In February 2004, I abandoned my house because of the conflict. I met six Arabs in the bush. I wanted to take my spear and defend my family, but they threatened me with a weapon and I had to stop. The six men raped my daughter, who is 25 years old, in front of me, my wife and young children.”

Sexual violence also can serve to quell resistance by instilling fear in local communities or in opposing armed groups. In such cases, women’s bodies are “used as an envelope to send messages to the perceived enemy.” In the Shan Province of Myanmar, where the government has been trying to violently suppress a local rebellion since the mid-1990s, hundreds of women have been systematically raped. In one example, an army major approached a young girl and “asked her about her parent’s [whereabouts] and ordered his soldiers to wait at the edge of the farm and arrest anyone who came to the farm. He then raped [the girl] in a hut several times during the day and at about 4 a.m. burned [her alive] in the hut, and left the place with his troops.”

Comparable violations by Russian soldiers in Chechnya have been reported during “mop up” operations that ensue after rebel Chechen fighters have decamped a town. Of four Chechen women vaginally and orally assaulted by Russian military in February 2000, one purportedly suffocated to death while a soldier sat on her head. In Colombia, paramilitary control of some regions often includes sexual violence and torture of women and girls. Intimidation campaigns are carried out on their bodies, as in one of many cases reported in 2001 to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, where a Colombian girl was raped and killed, her eyes and nails then removed, and her breasts cut off.

Particularly in conflicts defined by racial, tribal, religious and other divisions, violence may be used to advance the goal of ethnic cleansing. Public rapes in Bosnia, for example, were used to instigate the flight or expulsion of entire Muslim communities. Forced impregnation, mutilation of genitals and intentional HIV transmission are other techniques of ethnic cleansing. Women in Rwanda were taunted by their genocidal rapists, who promised to infect them with HIV. In Bosnia, Muslim women impregnated by Serbs reportedly were held captive until late term to prevent them from aborting. In Kosovo, an estimated 100 babies conceived in rape were born in January 2000 alone — the International Committee of the Red Cross speculated at the time that the real number of rape-related pregnancies was likely to be much higher. Sometimes attacks on women’s bodies — particularly their reproductive capacities — specifically target perceived rival progeny. One woman from Darfur reported in 2004, “I was with another woman, Aziza, aged 18, who had her stomach slit on the night we were abducted. She was pregnant and was killed and they said, ‘It is the child of an enemy.’

Sexual slaves to armed combatants

Many other instances have been identified where women and girls are abducted for the purposes of supplying combatants with sexual services. According to one soldier from DRC, “Our combatants don’t get paid. Therefore they can’t use prostitutes. If we politely ask women to come with us, they are not going to accept. So, we have to make them obey us so we can get what we want.” An elderly victim from Liberia, thought to be around 80 years old at the time she related her story to investigators, acknowledged being held by rebels in the town of Voinjama, where “at night, the men would come, usually more than one. They would rape me. They said they would help me. If I was lucky, they gave me 10 Liberian dollars (US 20 cents).”

More often the victims of sexual slavery are younger, and in many cases their victimisation comes under the terms of military duty. An estimated 40 percent of child soldiers around the world are girls, the majority of whom are forcibly or coercively conscripted. Their responsibilities may range from portering to active combat, with the additional expectation that they will provide sexual services to their superiors or fellow combatants. Much of the violence reportedly committed against women and girls by guerrilla groups in Colombia, for example, is in the context of forced recruitment.

Even those women and girls who “voluntarily” join fighting forces are unlikely to anticipate the extent to which they will suffer sexual exploitation. Data collected in 2004 from women participating in Liberia’s disarmament and demobilisation programme indicated that 73 percent of the women and girls experienced some form of sexual violence. In Uganda, a former child soldier of the National Resistance Army remembers:

“We collected firewood; we carried weapons. For girls it was worse because … we were girlfriends to many different officers. … At the end it became, like, I don’t own my own body, it’s their body. It was so hard to stay the 24 hours a day thinking, Which officer am I going to sleep with today?” In a similar account from a 19-year-old woman voluntarily associated with the Maoists in Nepal, “Sometimes we are forced to satisfy about a dozen [militia] per night. When I had gone to another region for party work, I had to have sex with seven militia and this was the worst day of my life.”

Some girls who are forced or coerced into sexual slavery may succeed in escaping their captors only to be seized again. Such was the experience of 16-year-old “Hawa”, from Sierra Leone:

“There were about 20 men. We ran to the bush, but I got separated from my family. I was with other people from the village, and we were captured by the rebels and taken to Liberia. … At first I refused to be a ‘wife’, but I had to agree because there was nobody to speak up for me, and nobody gave me food except the rebels. I was a wife for about eight months. … I had not even started my periods.”

Hawa eventually escaped and walked for three days in the bush until she got to a town where she found her parents. When they returned together to their remote village, Hawa recalled, “It was very sad when I … met my sisters because I felt I was somehow discriminated against because I had been raped.” Two years later, Hawa recaptured: “It was a different group: This time I was always with them at night as their wife.”

Hawa escaped a second time and was reunited with her family. For too many other women and girls who attempt to escape the perils of war, the threat of sexual violence follows them — from flight, to displacement in camps or other settings, through to their return and resettlement in their home communities.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the total number of people displaced by armed conflict in 2004 at 34 million: 9.3 million were refugees in neighbouring states, and another 25 million were internally displaced in their home countries. According to the United Nations Secretary-General, “The differential impact of armed conflict and the specific vulnerabilities of women can be seen in all phases of displacement.”

During flight, women and girls remain at high risk for sexual violence — committed by bandits, insurgency groups, military and border guards. Many women must flee without the added safeguard of male relatives or community members, further increasing their vulnerability. In the case of 17-year-old “Tatiana” from the DRC, the results were devastating: Tatiana was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant when her husband and her two-year-old son were hacked to death by irregular militia in May 2003. When she, her mother and two younger sisters heard that the same militia intended to raid the district of Bunia, where they lived, they fled. Six days later, they reached a militia checkpoint, but her mother could not pay the $100 demanded. The militia cut her throat, killing her. When Tatiana’s 14-year-old sister began to cry, she was shot in the head.

Her other sister, age 12, was taken to a nearby clearing and gang-raped. Tatiana was told to leave at once or suffer the same fate. After six days walking, she went into labour and gave birth to a girl. Although she had lost a lot of blood, she had to take to the road again the following day. The baby later died.

Without money or other resources, displaced women and girls may be compelled to submit to sex in return for safe passage, food, shelter or other resources. Some may head towards urban settings, possibly in search of the relative security of a densely populated area or in the hope of obtaining employment. Whatever the motivation, both internally displaced and refugee women and girls in urban settings are at risk of exploitation by local residents, especially because they are less likely than encamped populations to be targeted for assistance and protection by governments or by humanitarian agencies.

Afghan refugee women living in the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, for example, described being forced to exchange sex for rent-free housing. In Colombia, the Ministry for Social Protection reported in 2003 that 36 percent of internally displaced women in the country had been forced by men into having sexual relations. This statement was later confirmed in a study undertaken in the same year, which found that displaced women living in barrios in or near the city of Cartagena had suffered higher levels of physical and sexual violence after their displacement.

Unaccompanied girls are likely to be among the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. A 1999 government survey of over 2,000 prostitutes in Sierra Leone found that 37 percent of the young women were under the age of 15, and that the majority of them had been displaced by conflict and were unaccompanied by family. Still others attempting to escape from war may be the target of traffickers. The absence of border controls and normal policing make conflict-affected countries prime routes for traffickers. In Colombia, the ongoing internal conflict has given rise to one of the western hemisphere’s most active trafficking networks. Colombia’s Department of Security estimated that 35,000 to 50,000 women and girls were trafficked in 2000, the majority to countries in Asia and Western Europe, as well as to the United States.51 Myanmar, also wracked by long-standing civil conflict, is thought to supply some 40,000 trafficked women and girls annually for work in brothels, factories and as domestic labourers in Thailand.

Displacement to camp settings

Camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees may offer only limited protection from sexual violence. Humanitarian aid workers have consistently identified the danger to women who must venture far outside the confines of camps to search for firewood or other staples unavailable in the camp. Research undertaken almost 10 years ago among refugees living in camps in Dadaab, Kenya, found that more than 90 percent of reported rapes occurred under these circumstances. Despite the long-standing evidence, however, not enough has been done to anticipate and avert this predictable risk in more recently established camps.

One 27-year-old Liberian woman who had been raped twice before seeking safety in an IDP camp described the circumstances of her third rape, in 2003, when she left the camp to look for firewood:

“There were three government soldiers with guns. One of them saw me and asked, ‘Where are you going?’ I said I was looking for wood. Then he told me, ‘You are assigned to me for the day.’ I was very afraid. He forced me to go far into the bush, and he undressed me. Then he raped me. When I got dressed afterwards, he took 50 Liberian dollars from me. … My stomach is very painful, but I don’t have any money to go for treatment.”

The trend continues for encamped women displaced by the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, but in this instance, repeated reports by a number of international human rights organizations resulted in recent efforts to improve policing and security related to firewood collection. For many women, however, these security measures have come too late. Women are also at risk of rape in or near camps, particularly when the camps are poorly planned and/or administered. In a 1996 survey of Burundian refugee women displaced to a camp in Tanzania, more than one in four reported being raped during the prior three years of conflict, with two-thirds of the rapes occurring since displacement, either inside or close to the camp. The majority of perpetrators were other refugees (59 percent), followed by local Burundian residents (24 percent), and then local Tanzanians, soldiers and police. As with firewood collection, advocates and humanitarians have for several years spoken out about the relationship between ill-considered camp design and violence against women, and have put forth recommendations for reducing women’s vulnerability.

Nevertheless, the problem persists in many settings. A risk assessment carried out in 2004 in seven IDP camps in Montserrado County in Liberia concluded that overcrowded conditions, insufficient lighting at night, the close proximity of male and female latrines and bathhouses, and poor or unequal access to resources all conspired to increase the likelihood of sexual violence against women and girls. In a study undertaken in Northern Uganda, also in 2004, a woman living in one of many IDP camps in the region told investigators, “Rape is rampant here…a woman was recently harassed by two men who held her legs wide open and used a flashlight to observe her private parts and allowed another man to rape her while they observed.

Lack of institutional protection

Not unlike rape in war, these acts of violence flourish in the environments of impunity that too often circumscribe the lives of displaced populations. The problem can be especially dire for IDPs. Despite the fact that in 1998 the United Nations produced guiding principles on the protection of displaced populations, there is still no United Nations agency specifically mandated with their care and protection. UNHCR is increasingly stepping up to fill the void, but in 2004 the refugee agency assisted only 5.6 million of the estimated 25 million internally displaced persons around the world. More often, the responsibility for IDPs falls primarily to national governments, whose resources are likely to be drained or diverted by the conflict. A global evaluation of the reproductive health of refugees and IDPs by an interagency working group found that reproductive health services are most lacking among IDP populations, of which services addressing gender-based violence are the least developed.

The scenario may be only marginally improved for refugees. In too many instances there are not enough UNHCR staff on the ground who are designated to address the issue of gender-based violence. Even where staffing is sufficient, UNHCR’s ability to provide sustained protection against sexual violence is all too often only as good as a host country’s commitment addressing the issue of gender-based violence. Wherever a host government or local community is hostile, the risk of all forms of violence against refugees – including sexual violence – is higher.

Following a statement issued in 2000 by the president of Guinea, for example, in which Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees were blamed for sheltering armed rebels responsible for attacks on Guinea, women and girl refugees reportedly raped in mob reprisals launched by Guinean police, soldiers and civilians. Some 50 Burundian refugee women in Tanzania allegedly were attacked in May 1999 by a group of over 100 Tanzanian men who were apparently avenging the death of a local schoolteacher. Thousands of Afgans in Pakistan and Burmese in Thailand have never been granted official refugee status by their host governments. The fear of forced return means that they are unlikely ever to report a case of sexual violence committed against them to local authorities. Not surprisingly, in both Pakistan and Thailand multiple incidents have been recounted by refugee women and girls of local police or security colluding in or even perpetrating sexual violence against them.

What is perhaps more surprising is the extent to which humanitarian actors – those whose commitment is to provide assistance – have been implicated in sexual crimes against refugees and IDPs. A 2002 report jointly published by Save the Children (UK) an UNHCR documented allegations against 67 individuals working in 40 aid agencies serving refugees in three countries in West Africa. One young refugee mother told researchers, “I have to sleep with so many men to make 1,500 GNF (37 cents) so that I can feed myself and my child. [The locals] pay me 300 (7 cents) each time, but if I am lucky and I get [an aid] worker, he can pay me 1,500.” Another refugee suggested, “In this community, no one can access CSB [a soy nutrient] without having sex first”. Although a United Nations-sponsored investigative team following up on the allegations questioned the verity of the report, multiple subsequent incidents of sexual exploitation by aid workers in camps in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nepal, among others, have continued to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem.

Reconstruction or exploitation?

Evidence suggests that sexual violence does not necessarily end with the cessation of armed conflict. Incidents of rape are reported to have increased sharply in the context of ongoing insecurity in post-war Iraq, for example. One of the victims, “Dalal”, was abducted, held overnight and allegedly raped in 2003 by four Iraqi men who she believes “wanted to kidnap anyone…to take what they wanted.” In other post-conflict settings, incidents of rape may decrease, but risk of exposure to forced or coerced prostitution, as well as trafficking, may increase. Events in the Balkans — where prostitution and trafficking burgeoned in the aftermath of wars in the former Yugoslavia — illustrate how criminal elements may replace fighting factions in the continued sexual victimisation of women and girls. The added presence of peacekeeping forces, who have been implicated as users of commercial sex workers in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Timor Leste and the DRC, may supply a notable portion of local demand.

In many instances, the risk to women and girls of falling prey to sexual exploiters is exacerbated by reconstruction programmes that fail to specifically target their needs, or to address long-standing patriarchal traditions that discriminate against women. After the genocide in Rwanda, for example, inheritance laws barred surviving women and girls from accessing the property of their dead male family members unless they had been explicitly named as beneficiaries. As a result, thousands were left with no legal claim to their homes and land. Such impoverished women, returning to their communities without family or resources, are more likely to be caught up in the sex trade.

Ironically, and sadly, women and girls who experienced sexual violence during conflict are probably the most vulnerable of all to further exploitation in post-conflict settings. Some rape victims may be rejected by their families and communities for having “lost their value.” In Burundi, women who had been raped told researchers in 2003 that “they had been mocked, humiliated and rejected by women relatives, classmates, friends and neighbours because of the abuse they had suffered.” Raped women may be abandoned by husbands who fear contracting HIV, or who simply cannot tolerate the shadow of “dishonour” they believe their raped wives have cast across them. Without prospects for the future, prostitution may seem the only viable option to these women.

For other women and girls, their histories of victimisation may dull them to the dangers of entering the sex trade. One young girl in Sierra Leone who previously had been abducted by rebels voluntarily became a prostitute after she was released by her captors. She reportedly “considered herself fortunate that she was now being paid.” In Rwanda, an HIV-positive woman in Kagali spoke of her sister’s resignation: “After the war, we saw our family decimated … my little sister for whom I care is a pseudo-prostitute because she has no money. She says that she will continue this lifestyle even is she becomes HIV-positive. She says she looks at my health degrading and insists that she wants to taste life before she dies.” Disregard for one’s own wellbeing is only one of the many potential devastating effects of sexual violence on its survivors.

All text is copyright (IRIN). Full permission is given for reproduction for non-commercial purposes.


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