While the nature of war has changed over the years, the fact remains that civilians bear the brunt of today’s conflicts, with women and children paying a particularly heavy toll, says the United Nations envoy on sexual violence in conflict, who stresses that rape has become a tool to spread terror and exert control on communities.
“It is unfortunately a very effective, cheap and silent weapon with a long-lasting effect on society,” Margot Wallström, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told the UN News Centre as part of its Newsmaker profile series.
“It is a way of demonstrating power and control. It inflicts fear on the whole community. It is also to send a message to the men: ‘You are not able to defend your women.’”
A Swedish politician with a long history in defending women’s rights, Ms. Wallström was appointed to her current post in February. In April she visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which she has described as “the rape capital of the world.”
According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 8,000 women were raped in the DRC during fighting between warring factions last year. Just a few months ago, reports emerged of rape and assault of scores of civilians in the remote and troubled far east of the DRC over a four-day period.
“You can see that it was systematic, it was planned. There were no killings at that time but this was used as a way to spread terror and fear,” the Special Representative said, referring to the atrocities committed in Walikale between 30 July and 2 August.
Ms. Wallström has repeatedly stressed the need to make the prevention of sexual violence a top priority, and to end impunity for the scourge.
“I think the most important signal is to demonstrate that we go after the perpetrators of crimes, that we will find them and they will be punished.”
While much of the focus in recent months has been on DRC, “sexual violence in conflict is a global scourge,” said Ms. Wallström, who plans to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina soon. There are also regular reports coming from Nepal, Timor-Leste, Myanmar and Colombia, among other places, she added.
“We will demonstrate that we have a global war. It’s not only Africa.”