In Sudan, girls as young as four are raped by rebel forces and government-backed militias. In Democratic Republic of Congo, women are sexually mutilated by roving gangs. In Burma, they are systematically raped as part of a military offensive.
Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council agreed that sexual violence against women and girls in war zones is a threat to international stability, opening the way for action against countries that condone or promote atrocities.
In a meeting called by the United States and chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the council unanimously approved a resolution calling sexual violence "a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group."
Such violence could aggravate situations of armed conflict and "may impede the restoration of international peace and security," it said.
Rice told the day-long meeting of some 60 countries that the vote has ended years of debate on whether rape was a security issue for the council to address.
"I am proud that today we have responded to that lingering question with a resounding yes. We affirm that sexual violence profoundly affects not only the health and safety of women but the economic and social stability of their nations," she said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has spearheaded a global effort to eradicate violence against women, said survivors are often so stigmatized by their communities that they can never hope for a normal life, and are afraid to seek justice.
"Even when they do have the courage to come forward despite the humiliations this can bring, the justice system too often fails and the perpetrators run free," he said. "This feeds a culture of impunity which does nothing to discourage more attacks."
Canada's deputy UN representative, Henri-Paul Normandin, said the debate "marks the beginning of a more concentrated effort on the part of the council to combat and prevent sexual violence" that is "all too frequently" used as a weapon of war.
Canada has campaigned to end sexual violence in Congo, where UN officials say they have seen the worst cases on record. And, Normandin said, "it is more than clear that in Sudan, the DRC and the Great Lakes Region (of Africa)... that sexual violence is a security problem requiring a security response."
A recent survey of 2,000 women and girls in the West African country of Liberia found that a stunning 75 per cent had been raped during the civil wars that racked the country from 1989 to 2003.
"Violence against women has reached unspeakable and pandemic proportions in societies attempting to recover from conflict," Ban told the council. "When you adopt resolutions with strong language on sexual and gender-based violence, the UN can respond more forcefully."
He also promised "zero tolerance" for incidents of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Congo and other war zones.
© 2008 Toronto Star