AMSTERDAM – Truth is often said to be the first casualty in wartime. But if the real truth is told, it is women who are the first casualties. In conflict zones, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF recently observed, sexual violence usually spreads like an epidemic. Whether it is civil war, pogroms, or other armed conflicts, all too often women’s bodies become part of the battlefield. The victims of large-scale sexual atrocities range from baby girls to old women.
In Darfur, janjaweed militia kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and gang-raped her for a week, pulling her legs so far apart that she was crippled for life. The biggest fear of rape victims in Darfur, however, is that they will never find a husband. Under sharia law, raped women are prosecuted for adultery or fornication. Last year, at least two young women in Sudan were sentenced to death by stoning. As Refugees International observes: “The government is more likely to take action against those who report and document rape than those who commit it.”
In the wars now savaging the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape victims also take most of the blame. After being raped, Congolese women are banished by their husbands and ostracized by their communities. Often they are genitally mutilated by a gunshot or tossed on a fire naked.
In cultures where girls and women are married off and chastity is central to womanhood, all is lost for a woman who loses her honor. The subsequent stigma often is a heavier burden than the assault itself. So it should be no surprise that most of these wounded girls and women keep silent.