US Senate tackles rape as weapon of war

Playwright Eve Ensler and activist John Prendergast will testify about the problem in Congo and Darfur.

At 2 p.m. today, the Senate foreign relations committee holds a hearing called "Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin will preside over the hearing, which will include testimony from 2 panels of experts, including John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project; and Eve Ensler, founder of the women's rights group V-Day who's best known for writing and starring in The Vagina Monologues.

The hearing focuses on two countries where rape has been used widely as a weapon of war: Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo's become known as the "rape capital of the world" where doctors and aid workers speak of the problem as an "epidemic." And, Sudan. Well, that's where the government-sponsored Arab janjaweed militia raped Darfuri women in order to dilute the bloodlines of non-Arabs.

Of course, marauding armies have used sexual violence to subdue enemy populations since the days of Genghis Khan. Long, long before his Mongol hordes tore their way to Europe, actually.

But what's new is the scope of efforts to stop this especially insidious – and devastating - form of warfare.

We'll have to see what comes of the hearing, but the Monitor has written extensively about efforts to stop rape in conflict zones.

Earlier this week, in fact, Bogotá correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky wrote about how women's groups in Colombia are pushing for more rape cases to be tried under the country's special Justice and Peace Law.

Local and national women's organizations say there are thousands of cases of sexual violence – by right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas – that go unreported by women too afraid to talk. But now, the groups are campaigning to make women aware of their rights as victims and to push prosecutors to question paramilitaries about sexual violence.
It seems to be working. In May 2007, there were only 12 cases of sexual violence filed with prosecutors appointed to carry out Colombia's special Justice and Peace Law. Today there are 228.

Last fall, Africa Bureau Chief Scott Baldauf profiled an award-winning surgeon who's helping rape victims recover in war-ravaged eastern Congo.

Congo is where the problem of rape-as-a-weapon-of-war has been most severe. Fifty thousand to 100,000 women – perhaps many more – have been raped in Congo in the past 10 years, according to Mike Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative and an emergency room physician with experience in international disaster zones, especially eastern Congo.

"By anyone's estimate, Congo is the worst in the world," he told me in a recent interview, days after he returned from one of his many trips to Congo. "We worry that rape is becoming part of the culture."

As far as Congolese are concerned, that worry has already been realized. Many people I spoke with on a recent trip to eastern Congo told me that war – and especially the prevalence of rape – has broken their society.

But there are signs of a change. New programs focusing on getting male leaders to help reverse that trend - as opposed to simply treating the seemingly endless flow of women victims - are making a difference.

As a news organization that considers compassion and rule of law central to its mission, the Monitor will continue to cover this issue. Watch for a story from Congo on men stopping rape - including video of a former militiaman explaining why he used to rape - in the weeks to come.

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