From Colombia to Zimbabwe, members of a global network of rape survivors are demanding an end to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war
All photographs by Raegan Hodge of the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation
by Kate Hodal
Carmen was raped by armed guerrilla forces in Colombia. Ekhlas was kidnapped by Isis in Iraq and forced into sexual slavery. Grace was taken by rebels from her classroom in Uganda, “given” to a soldier and impregnated twice before finally fleeing to safety.
Today, these women are all members of the Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Rape, known as Sema, which translates to “speak out” in Swahili. The network represents roughly 2,000 rape survivors and 90 years’ worth of conflict across 21 countries in Africa, South America, the Middle East and Europe.
Although there are no comprehensive statistics on rape as a tool of war, the estimates that do exist reveal a violent, centuries-old trend around the world. An estimated 80,000 women and girls were sexually assaulted in Nanjing in 1937, and more than half a million were raped in Rwanda in the 1990s. More recently, more than 7,000 Yazidi women are believed to have been taken hostage as sex slaves by Isis. Nearly half of them are still captive, according to the NGO We Are Not Weapons of War.
Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist who has treated tens of thousands of rape survivors and whose foundation facilitates Sema, said not enough was being done to prevent rape from being used as a weapon of war – despite international pressure to take action.
“As reports emerged just this week that dozens of civilians have been raped at political protests in Sudan, it is clear that we must do more,” said Mukwege.
“From Yazidi survivors in the Middle East to those in asylum centres in Europe, survivors lack access to the care they need and deserve. Now is the time to listen to them and to act accordingly. To do this, we must stand with survivors to amplify their voices by sharing their lived realities.”
Despite the adoption in April of UN security council resolution 2467, which takes a survivor-centred approach to combat wartime rape and is aimed at strengthening justice and accountability, governments are still failing to act, said Mukwege.
“[As] long as there are new victims, this is not enough,” he said. “We need to take more important measures, we need to put an end to impunity, we need put an end to violence and we need to do it now.”
To mark last week’s international day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict, some of Sema’s members have spoken out about their own experience of sexual assault and their hopes for the future.
Carmen Zape Paja, Colombia
Carmen Zape Paja, who is from Colombia’s indigenous Nasa community, was raped by armed guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. ang rape and other forms of sexual violence were regularly used to assert control over communities and instil fear, according to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, which estimates that 16,000 people fell victim to sexual violence at the hands of rightwing paramilitary groups, security forces and Marxist guerrillas over the 52-year conflict.
The perpetrators largely profited from impunity until August 2018, when 2,000 women brought their cases before a peace tribunal despite the fear of retaliation.
Today, Carmen works with indigenous communities and people with disabilities and uses educational programmes and traditional tools to combat sexual violence. In 2016, she won a national prize for her work promoting indigenous people’s rights.
Indigenous populations across Colombia were targeted during the conflict as a means of asserting control over them, said Carmen: “Sexual violence against indigenous women illustrates the power of violence as a weapon of war and terror in armed conflict, and increases racism and stigmatisation against the indigenous population.”
Desanges, the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Desanges is a survivor of sexual violence from the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country once described by the UN as “the rape capital of the world”. Despite supposed peace negotiations, conflict has raged on and off in the country – particularly in the east – since 1994, and the number of sexual violence victims has not abated, said Mukwege: “Mass rape continues, and the ongoing impunity for perpetrators, coupled with toxic masculinities reinforced by years of war, allow for the violence to persist – be it executed by civilians, militias or state agents.”
International health workers on the ground claim fighting is invariably accompanied by systematic rape: “in villages, at checkpoints on roads, wherever”, one worker told the Guardian last year.
Desanges is now an active member of the DRC Survivors’ Movement and recently starred in a film depicting the fight for justice for Congolese rape victims.
After attending an April forum on sexual violence that was sponsored by the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Desanges wrote a poem about her wishes for the future: “I dream one day I will be the Grand Duchess of the Congo, so I can fight against the impunity that reigns in my country today.”
Iryna Dovgan, Ukraine
In August 2014, Iryna Dovgan was arrested in Ukraine by pro-Russian military forces, tortured and publicly humiliated. She was tied to a lamppost by pro-Russian separatists, had a sign tied around her neck that read “child killer”, and was kicked and spat on. The picture eventually led to a public outcry and her release, yet the perpetrators were not punished.
Today, Iryna lives in Kyiv, where she organises and transfers aid to military and civilian prisoners in the currently occupied territories. She is also involved in advocacy and educational activities, speaking at international forums and conferences on human rights violations.
“In my case, the names of the perpetrators are known, their faces are in the photos,” said Iryna. “However, they calmly returned to Russia and they are not in danger.”
Ekhlas Bajoo, Iraq
Ekhlas Bajoo was 14 when she watched Isis rebels kill her father. She was then kidnapped from her Yazidi village in Iraq and forced into sexual slavery for six months until she successfully escaped at the fourth attempt.
Ekhlas eventually found a home as a refugee in Germany and is now a high-profile advocate for survivors and persecuted minorities. Her appeal has been heard in the US Congress and British parliament, supporting unanimous resolutions declaring Isis-committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities. She is also the first student of the tech over trauma programme, an online mentorship and counselling tool that provides support to survivors of severe traumatic experiences, and is studying to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“I didn’t come here to talk about my sorrows,” says Ekhlas. “I came to talk about hope.”
Grace Acan, Uganda
Grace Acan was kidnapped in the dead of night from her school dormitory in Aboke, Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1996. She was held captive by the rebels for eight years, forced to marry a soldier and then bore his two children. One day, while the rebel camp fled an attack, she became separated from the others with one of her children, and decided to flee. Eventually, she reunited with her family and went to university to become “an independent woman”.
Today, she is a writer and advocate. Having founded an organisation for women and children affected by war, Grace helps to secure the financial futures of children born from forced marriages by connecting them with the families of their fathers.
“Abduction and sexual abuse of young girls and women in wartime has long lasting negative effects,” says Grace. “Stop! Let’s join hands in rebuilding their lives now.”
Oumou Barry, Guinea
In 2009, Oumou Barry survived a mass rape at a football stadium in Conakry, Guinea, where tens of thousands of protesters had gathered to demand an end to military rule. A UN investigation into the incident surmised that government action against the protesters was premeditated, as soldiers used real bullets and “targeted parts of the body where vital organs are located”, and “women were raped with objects, including bayonets, sticks, pieces of metal and clubs”.
Today, Oumou, 61, is a member of both Sema and the Victims, Parents and Friends Association of 28 September 2009, a local organisation. “We fight against impunity through peaceful marches and advocacy with authorities, political parties, civil society and leaders of national and international opinion in order that our ways be heard,” says Oumou.
“I want us, the surviving victims, to have access to reparations and protection, and medical, psychological, moral and financial treatment to enable us to live better lives. Since 2009, already seven women have died from the consequences of the violence. It is urgent to take action.”
Mildred Mapingure, Zimbabwe
Mildred Mapingure was gang-raped after the bloody events following the Zimbabwe election of 2005. After falling pregnant from the rape, she successfully sued the government for failing to terminate the pregnancy.
“Rapists of sexual violence have to be brought to justice, but how can we do this when the rapists are those in power?” asks Mildred.