The Weapon of Rape


by Nicholas D. Kristof

World leaders fight terrorism all the time, with summit meetings and sound bites and security initiatives. But they have studiously ignored one of the most common and brutal varieties of terrorism in the world today.

This is a kind of terrorism that disproportionately targets children. It involves not WMD but simply AK-47s, machetes and pointed sticks. It is mass rape — and it will be elevated, belatedly, to a spot on the international agenda this week.

The UN Security Council will hold a special session on sexual violence this Thursday, with Condoleezza Rice coming to New York to lead the debate. This session, sponsored by the United States and backed by a Security Council resolution calling for regular follow-up reports, just may help mass rape graduate from an unmentionable to a serious foreign policy issue.

The world woke up to this phenomenon in 1993, after discovering that Serbian forces had set up a network of “rape camps” in which women and girls, some as young as 12, were enslaved. Since then, we’ve seen similar patterns of systematic rape in many countries, and it has become clear that mass rape is not just a byproduct of war but also sometimes a deliberate weapon.

“Rape in war has been going on since time immemorial,” said Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador who was the UN’s envoy for AIDS in Africa. “But it has taken a new twist as commanders have used it as a strategy of war.”

There are two reasons for this. First, mass rape is very effective militarily. From the viewpoint of a militia, getting into a firefight is risky, so it’s preferable to terrorize civilians sympathetic to a rival group and drive them away, depriving the rivals of support.

Second, mass rape attracts less international scrutiny than piles of bodies do, because the issue is indelicate and the victims are usually too ashamed to speak up.

In Sudan, the government has turned Darfur into a rape camp. The first person to alert me to this was Zahra Abdelkarim, who had been kidnapped, gang-raped, mutilated — slashed with a sword on her leg — and then left naked and bleeding to wander back to her Zaghawa tribe. In effect, she had become a message to her people: Flee, or else.

Since then, this practice of “marking” the Darfur rape victims has become widespread: typically, the women are scarred or branded, or occasionally have their ears cut off. This is often done by police officers or soldiers, in uniform, as part of a coordinated government policy.

When the governments of South Africa, China, Libya and Indonesia support Sudan’s positions in Darfur, do they really mean to adopt a pro-rape foreign policy?

The rape capital of the world is eastern Congo, where in some areas three-quarters of women have been raped. Sometimes the rapes are conducted with pointed sticks that leave the victims incontinent from internal injuries. A former UN force commander there, Patrick Cammaert, says it is “more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier.”

The international community’s response so far? Approximately: “Not our problem.”

Yet such rapes also complicate post-conflict recovery, with sexual violence lingering even after peace has been restored. In Liberia, the civil war is over but rape is still epidemic.

Painfully slowly, the United Nations and its member states seem to be recognizing the fact that systematic mass rape is at least as much an international outrage as, say, pirated DVDs. Yet China and Russia are resisting any new reporting mechanism for sexual violence, seeing such rapes as tragic but simply a criminal matter.

On the contrary, systematic rape has properly been found by international tribunals to constitute a crime against humanity, and it thrives in part because the world shrugs. The UN could do far more to provide health services to victims of mass rape and to insist that peacekeepers at least try to stop it.

In Congo, the doctors at Heal Africa Hospital and Panzi Hospital ( and repair the internal injuries of rape victims with skill and humanity. But my most indelible memory from my most recent visit, last year, came as I was interviewing a woman who had been gang-raped.

I had taken her aside to protect her privacy, but a large group of women suddenly approached. I tried to shoo them away, and then the women explained that they had all been gang-raped and had decided that despite the stigma and risk of reprisal, they would all tell their stories.

So let’s hope that this week the world’s leaders and diplomats stop offering excuses for paralysis and begin emulating the courageous outspokenness of those Congolese women.