Silence on Rape Is the Biggest Obstacle to Prevention

I recently held a seminar on rape in war with military lawyers from across the world. We talked through a number of obstacles to prevention and elimination of sexual violence, but at the end of the seminar everyone agreed that the biggest of them all is silence. "We don't ever get to have this conversation," the participants agreed.

Unfortunately, this is particularly true in the countries most affected by sexual violence in war: Not only is rape not talked about, but many of those who try to address this terrible crime are attacked, often violently. On Oct. 25, unknown men carried out an assassination attempt on Dr. Denis Mukwege, and succeeded in killing his bodyguard, Joseph Bizimana. Dr. Mukwege is known for his tireless work in defense of women victims of sexual violence in the Congo.

Silence also reigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This week, Amnesty International launched a briefing paper detailing the continued silence about the rapes in Republika Srpska, almost two decades after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended. To the extent there is any attention to the widespread rapes during the 1992-95 conflict, it is focused on the perpetrators -- though many are still at large. Meanwhile, the women and girls who suffered systematic rape and forced pregnancies are overlooked.

It is, in fact, a widespread phenomenon that insofar as authorities and the public at large pay any attention to rape and violence against women, this attention is focused on punishing the perpetrator. And it is, of course, important to apply criminal justice where intentional harm has been done to another person, whether physically or psychologically. However, punishment is only effective as prevention when it is seen to be applied. In the case of sexual violence and rape, only a sliver of perpetrators are ever investigated, prosecuted, convicted, and serving a sentence. For more than 97 percent of those who commit rape, it is therefore of little relevance if the law metes out 10 or 20 years of jail time to a very few: Most will never spend a day behind bars.

An equally important and often woefully ignored part of guaranteeing justice is to make sure rape victims have access to the justice system in the first place, and that they receive meaningful reparations for the harm they suffered as part of the sentencing.

Neither of these issues is appropriately dealt with in Republica Srpska. Many victims of widespread rape are still, after almost 20 years, unable to talk openly about their ordeals due to post-traumatic stress disorder that has not been dealt with. The authorities have not addressed the stigma attached to sexual violence in society as a whole, and have done little to overcome harmful stereotyping about gender roles, which bleed into public perceptions about rape. As a result, many women say they were mistreated, rather than raped, and the silence surrounding sexual violence continues.

More to the point, perhaps, while the silence continues, victims do not receive adequate reparations for their suffering. "Reparations" is the term for the measures states are obliged to take to help victims overcome their ordeals, and they include both what we traditionally think of as "justice" (that is, investigations and court cases) as well as guarantees of non-repetition, compensation for the abuse, and rehabilitation. Most importantly, true reparations are meant to guarantee the victim that their suffering will never re-occur.

This -- guarantees of non-repetition -- is where justice for individual cases meets prevention as a whole. Unfortunately, this is also where our efforts are the weakest: If part of the reason rape happens is because we allow it to, that means that to issue a guarantee that rape will stop, we have to change. And that kind of fundamental change is incredibly hard.

The good news is that it is not impossible. There are conflicts where rape is rare, and there are relationships where violence is impossible. In my recent seminar, we talked about how to change the way our most immediate family and friends think about rape. If we all make sure the 10 persons we are closest to understand that rape is wrong and never the fault of the victim, we will have changed the world.

Hopefully, change will come soon to Republika Srpska and anywhere else where silence continues to reign.

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