Rape in Wartime Can Be Eradicated, U.N. Peacekeeper Says

U.N. peacekeeping specialist says rape is one of war’s cheapest weapons. But solutions are cheap, too.

Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP Photo

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, released last week, presents a simple thesis: gender equality pays. Countries boasting the highest equality for women—Iceland, Norway, Finland—are among the world’s wealthiest. Its worst performers? Pakistan, Chad, and Yemen.

But in many countries across the globe, violence against women also pays. Small arms are cheap and readily available, but rape is even cheaper. Rape is free.

And when it’s used as a deliberate tactic of war, as it has been in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), among others, it’s an inexpensive way for local militia commanders to reward their troops, terrorize the public, and wreak civic and social unrest for generations to come.

Abigail E. Disney, an executive producer of the new PBS series Women, War & Peace, which explores women’s role in peace and conflict, interviews Major General Patrick Cammaert, a U.N. peacekeeping operations specialist and formerly the general officer commanding the U.N. division in the east of the DRC about the cost of rape in war—and the cost of fixing the problem.

AED: How do we take action against the use of rape in war when it is, effectively, a free and unlimited resource for combatants?

PC: Rape is an extremely cheap weapon, but has vast and far-reaching effects. With the single weapon of rape, soldiers and militants can disrupt and destroy the fabric of society. Rape sows fear; it spreads sexually transmitted disease. It excludes women from participation in civic life, since husbands and families often don’t want anything to do with a woman after she’s been attacked.

But there are concrete, effective solutions to this problem. As peacekeepers, we have to be extremely aware of this game; we need to keep an ear to the ground. As males, that’s almost impossible. You need females to do this: female soldiers, female translators, female doctors, female aid workers, female locals. When females talk to females, we as peacekeepers hear better what’s going on. When we gain this information, shared from woman to woman, we can better predict when and where these atrocities will occur—and can be prepared to prevent or quickly react if they’ve happened already.

This requires training. Soldiers, female and male, working on the ground in peacekeeping missions must be trained to deal with sexual violence. If you have trained women reaching out to locals, and military commanders willing to take action, you have a better chance of preventing the ongoing use of rape in war.

I’m thinking of the Kenyan refugee camps where some Somali refugees are being raped as they gather firewood. How do we prevent this?

In Kenya and Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—in principle, anywhere where there are internally displaced persons—if the local government and peacekeeping forces are prepared to expect rape and are willing to take action, it can be prevented. And the solutions are not rocket science. They do not cost billions of dollars.

First, the camps need to be properly lit and latrines need to be made safe and accessible. Second, local security arrangements must be in place. Third a trained, quick-reaction force needs to be ready. This means the force needs to be prepared to recognize and act swiftly to prevent sexual violence before they’ve been deployed to a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Fourth, there must be the will to prevent sexual violence—and this also comes with pre-deployment training. You can have the best troops and equipment, but the U.N. peacekeeping mandate—to protect civilians from violence—is only as strong as the will of the leadership and the troops contributing countries to implement it. And last, you need to gain the confidence of civilians.

Only when you really show the civilians that you are dedicated—that you are exhausted from patrolling at the end of the night because you have done all you can do—only then will the population trust you. You cannot always protect every Congolese, every Cote d’Ivoirian. But you can talk to the village elderly; you can talk to the women’s committees in the villages. You can listen to their fears, ask them their assessment of the security situation.

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You’ve said, “The weapon of rape may be less exposed than those of nuclear missiles or bombs.” Do you think a series like Women, War & Peace can remedy that problem?

Films like those featured in the Women, War & Peace series can do a lot. People in the United States need to have a better awareness of what’s going on outside their borders—that there are people outside their borders that need desperate attention. And once they are exposed to the problem, hopefully they can begin to take action, supporting peacekeepers, or supporting women in the communities that are suffering.

But films can also raise awareness among the local population in the host country as well. We have taken mobile cinemas from village to village to show the local people a film on sexual violence. This is another solution that does not cost a fortune. If local women know that rape need not be suffered silently, with impunity for the perpetrators, they can begin to work against the problem, too.

Let me give you an example of this impunity. In the Congo, a Mai Mai militia leader, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, is wanted for crimes against humanity, including mass rape. He is currently running for office in the National Assembly in elections to take place Nov. 28. The fact that he is allowed to register as a candidate is totally unacceptable. And if his candidacy is allowed, all of the women who have suffered at his hands will again be traumatized, because they see a ongoing culture of impunity—a criminal who will march down the street in a suit, representing them in national office.

We need films to paint a different picture that says sexual violence against women is unacceptable and will be punished. It’s a very successful formula because it breaks the silence. The local population—the women and the men—need to know that not only are laws punishing rape in place—but also that they will be implemented. If you show that intention, you make progress.