By Sophia Kulow
When media reports on conflict zones, the gender-based violence that occurs in these areas is often left out in favor of military action. The reality is that conflict zones are hotspots for sexual violence among girls and women, and gender-based violence is used as a weapon of war.
This past February, Global Rights for Women co-hosted a virtual webinar with the University of Minnesota with panelists from Haiti, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and Latvia, highlighting the ways gender-based violence manifests in conflict zones.
In Haiti, approximately 1.5 million people live in areas being controlled by gangs, which have been known to commit heinous forms of violence including kidnappings, assassinations, and sexual violence. According to Kerlande Joseph from Fondation Essence Elle in Haiti, there have been approximately 149 documented cases of rape committed by gangs.
It’s important to note, however, that due to the lack of protection and accountability by the justice system, many women fear they could be killed if they report a case of rape, while others believe that nothing will be done even if they do report it, thus, skewing the data.
Due to tensions with the federal government, the conflict zone of Tigray in Ethiopia arose in 2020. This war resulted in severe violence among women and girls. According to Hale Teka, a gynecologist in Tigray, there have been thousands of women subjected to violences including rape, gang rape, forced marriage, and other brutal acts. To make matters worse, these acts have been followed by indifference and inaction by authorities.
Another Tigrayian gynecologist, Mohammedtahir Yahya, visited one of the worst conflict areas of Tigray and examined 110 women, 90 of which had reported being raped. Many of the women were displaced after the act of violence and the shelter they were brought to had been bombed. Yahya noted that these acts of violence had been done deliberately to dehumanize them because they are representatives of the regions.
Currently in Northeastern Europe, conflict zones in Ukraine are also experiencing a large influx in reports of gender-based violence. There have reports of Russian soldiers carrying out violences such as murder, tortures, and rape among civilians.
Anna Orel is a part of The Andreev Foundation in Ukraine. This foundation has a group of psychologists that travel to Russian occupied areas in Ukraine to provide support for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Orel notes that the victims have panic attacks, problems with eating or sleeping, and there have been reports of young girls and women using alcohol to cope with their traumas.
Many states in Ukraine have minimal understanding of gender-based violence and the increase in violence due to the war, which has subsequently led to sexual exploitation. In fact, some states believe women in conflict zones are engaging in the violent sexual acts willingly, which is why few states have regulations on the matter.
Why does gender-based and sexual violence manifest more in conflict zones? Women and girls are the seeds of culture. Women bring life into the world and they sustain a culture. By targeting women, hopelessness and fear is instilled into the community, allowing for the perpetrators to hold a continuous power over an occupied region. Sexual violence becomes normalized among soldiers as they become desensitized to dehumanizing women and children.
Awareness is the first step. Journalistic coverage of conflict zones doesn’t even begin to show the magnitude of gender-based violence. Organizations like Global Rights for Women are working towards bringing awareness to the issues through connecting their supporters to people in conflict zones fighting against the violence in real time.
Learning firsthand what atrocities are occurring to women and girls calls for international accountability. There is a need for proper prosecution to ensure countries and soldiers have repercussions on the pain and suffering they are inflicting.
There is a need to prioritize the needs of survivors, including access to medical attention and supplies to aid women who have sexual or reproductive injuries, unplanned pregnancies, and more.
There is a need for financial support to fund the doctors, medical supplies, and basic needs, including food. Many doctors, such as those in Tigray, are working endlessly without compensation, sometimes even begging on the street for a meal.
For those perceiving the conflicts through media, it can be hard to relate to their trauma. However, the gender-based violence discussed can occur in any country, at any time due to ongoing inequality and oppression. Supporting organizations that work to end gender-based violence locally, nationally, or internationally puts pressure on all justice systems and governments to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
As Anna Orel powerfully stated at the end of the virtual webinar, “Different countries, different griefs, but we are so similar. We need to help these people, justice should win.”
Sophia Kulow is an intern with Global Rights for Women. She is a fourth year student at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and is majoring in global studies, sustainability and fashion.