A 28-year-old Saudi woman was recently sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail for being gang raped. The crime had occurred in 2006. The woman, known in the media as “the girl from Qatif,” was 19-years-old. She was kidnapped, along with her male companion, and raped 14 times by a gang of seven. And to clarify my opening statement, she was actually sentenced for breaking Sharia law, by being alone with a male who was not a relative. Originally condemned to 90 lashes, the girl from Qatif had her sentence increased on appeal for drawing international media attention. Her male companion was also gang raped, as well as sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail.
The Qatif rape case is one of the more shocking cases. First, that the perpetrators were convicted at all is the exception to the rule. It is estimated that globally, less than 5 percent of all rape prosecutions actually lead to a conviction. Moreover, most rape crimes go unreported. Victims are reluctant to speak out for fear of being stigmatized or targeted for retribution. Furthermore, while most countries have legislated against rape as a criminal offence, many lack policies for enforcement, leading perpetrators of sexual violence to enjoy impunity. In countries such as Kenya and India for example, the police tend not to readily involve themselves in matters of rape. This is especially true when the victim is poor. Such norms contribute to a climate of impunity, and the expectation that rape is both normal and inevitable.
The average rape victim comes from the poorest and most vulnerable communities in society. In Canada, for example, Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violence, including sexual violence, than non-Aboriginal women. The average rape victim is also female. Often, she is a young girl. But men and boys are also, not uncommonly, victims of rape and sexual abuse. Similarly, anyone can be a perpetrator of a sexual crime, particularly when that person is in a position of power.
People are raped in every country; yet it happens more often where sexual criminals enjoy impunity. Victim blaming is one such tactic. With legal maneuvering, the girl from Qatif was in effect found guilty for being the victim of a crime. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not the only country with draconian laws that injure victims and discriminate against women. In Somalia in 2008, a 13-year-old girl named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was publicly stoned to death for “adultery” after being raped. Needless to say, women who live in countries where adultery is illegal are terrified to report a rape for fear of being indicted. This allows rapists to get away with their crime. In less extreme circumstances, victim blaming is more implicit, though no less prevalent. Anyone who has experienced an attack and been asked whether she was wearing “revealing” clothing knows this all too well.
Yet nothing contributes more to a climate of impunity than the sanctioning of rape as a deliberate tactic of war. Rape has always been an unfortunate product of war. Scholars now recognise that rape has been and is currently used as a strategy to control and destroy opposing communities. A witness testimony of prisoners in the Trnopolje concentration camp during the Bosnian war remarked on its effects:
“They could [explain] when somebody steals something from them, or even beatings or even some killings. Somehow they sort of accepted it… but when the rapes started they lost all hope. Until then they had hope that this war could pass, that everything would quiet down. When the rapes started, everybody lost hope, everybody in the camp, men and women. There was such fear…”
In Bosnia in 1992, rape was used explicitly as a strategy for ethnic cleansing. Women were targeted so they could give birth to Serbian babies. The same tactic was used in 1971 by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War, and more recently by the Janjaweed in the Darfur region of Sudan. Rape as a tool of war is used to sow terror, destabilise the community, and exert control. Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is deemed the worst place in the world for sexual violence. Near-constant violence in certain regions has led to extremely high (though wildly underreported) incidences of rape and sexual violence, which then spill over into stable areas free from conflict. It is estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC.
According to international human rights law, rape perpetrated on a mass scale is a crime against humanity, which makes it prosecutable under international law. In 1996, Canada’s Honourable Louise Arbour was appointed Chief Prosecutor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). These ad-hoc tribunals prosecuted agents of the state for instigating mass rape as an act of genocide. An estimated 250,000 women were raped in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and approximately 60,000 women were raped during the Bosnian War from 1992-1995.
I had the chance to speak to Louise Arbour about the difficulty of prosecuting rape as a crime against humanity. She articulated that while the legal basis for such a definition was set in the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the difficult part was in drawing attention to rape when so much death and other atrocities had occurred. And the “really difficult part was in prosecuting rape as a crime of genocide.” In doing so, Madame Arbour has fought against the impunity with which heads of state have allowed the bodies of women, girls, boys, and men, to be used as casualties of war in the most horrific sense.
Arbour also stressed the difficulties encountered as a prosecutor in gathering evidence for crimes of rape when victims were so reluctant to speak about their experiences. Rape is a horrific crime in all manners and definitions, and at all times. Communities must fight against the stigmatisation connected to rape victims. We must work together towards healing and ending impunity for sexual offenders.
Groups that seek to empower women, such as the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL) which PeaceGeeks helps to promote, will strengthen social bonds and de-stigmatise crucial issues. Civil society, with organisations like Amnesty International, must constantly put pressure on states to enforce their own laws against rape crimes and fight back against draconian laws which prosecute the victim. Indeed, international pressure led Saudi King Abdullah to, in the end, pardon both the girl from Qatif, and her male companion. If we recognise the prevalence of rape within societies, we can fight against it. We can end impunity for those who perpetrate one of humanity’s most grotesque crimes.