Seeking Justice: Accountability for Sexual Violence


This article is published in honor of International Women’s Day.

Today, March 8th, 2010, is the 99th celebration of International Women’s Day.  As countries throughout the world honor women’s economic, political, and social advancements, the women of Zimbabwe are recovering from a brutal campaign of rape.

In 2008, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF political party plotted and implemented a campaign of rape against female political opponents in order to maintain their grip on power in the presidential elections.  AIDS-Free World has documented these crimes against humanity in a report titled Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The women’s horrific accounts, told to the AIDS-Free World legal team over the course of more than 300 hours of interviews and detailed in the report, demonstrate that the rapes perpetrated by ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe constituted crimes against humanity: they were widespread and systematic.  Every victim supported the opposition political party (the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC) and in every attack the perpetrators were clearly identifiable as part of the ZANU-PF militia.  Strikingly similar patterns recurred throughout the testimonies of the seventy survivors and two witnesses interviewed, and cannot be coincidental.

The exceptionally violent rapes and torture, as described by women from every province of Zimbabwe, were often nearly fatal.  Afterward, many of the women were denied access to medical care, and left vulnerable to HIV, unwanted pregnancies, and life-threatening injuries. All of the women interviewed by AIDS-Free World have experienced trauma from the rapes, including recurring nightmares and flashbacks.  Some admitted to feeling suicidal in the aftermath of their ordeals, and at least one woman tried to kill herself.  Not one was able to bring her attackers to court.

Rape in Zimbabwe, a country with one of the world’s highest burdens of HIV and a decimated medical infrastructure, is a death sentence for many women there.  The adult HIV prevalence rate in Zimbabwe has been estimated at 15.3 percent, placing the women who were raped at high risk of becoming infected.  In January 2009, the toll from AIDS in Zimbabwe was estimated to be 400 deaths per day.

What happened in Zimbabwe in 2008 is not an isolated occurrence.  Throughout the world, rape is being used both as a weapon of war and a means of maintaining political power.  This past week, AIDS-Free World gathered activists, lawyers, and United States government officials at two events to discuss accountability for this kind of systematic sexual violence.  In Washington DC, panelists addressed global impunity for orchestrated sexual violence and the obligation of the U.S. government and the international community to respond. They told the audience that the United States, as the world’s superpower, can and must take a stronger stance to address orchestrated sexual violence around the world.

In New York City, a large group of women’s rights activists, delegates to the UN’S 54th Commission on the Status of Women, also came together to discuss finally ending impunity for systematic sexual violence.  Activists from Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Sudan, Liberia, the United States, and Canada noted the alarming pervasiveness, tenacity and consistency of the obstacles that have so far allowed men to use rape strategically for their political and military ends, and to get away with it:  prejudicial laws and broken judicial systems that stack the decks against victims of sexual offenses; stigma and discrimination that render women alone, afraid and ashamed after their rape; and inadequate medical systems that prevent women from getting the post-rape care that they desperately need to heal and to protect themselves from HIV. 

Accountability for orchestrated sexual violence is critical – both to provide justice for the victims and to send a strong and clear message to the world that maintaining abusive regimes at the cost of women’s lives and health will not be tolerated.  Ending impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity will both punish offenders and deter future rapes.

It’s unlikely that any RH Reality Check reader was yet born when advocates for women’s rights first began discussing the global problem of sexual violence on March 8th, 1911.  This year, though – perhaps for the first time in herstory – two solid solutions have appeared as lights at the end of what may be a shortening tunnel.  The first is the formation of a new United Nations Women’s Agency.  Member States have finally acknowledged that the UN has been failing women, and women can now demand an agency with the will, the expertise, and the capacity on the ground to support their global efforts, including efforts to end the scourge of rape.  Secondly, AIDS-Free World and others are galvanized to use international legal mechanisms as well as high-level advocacy to punish the crimes against humanity that occurred in Zimbabwe.  The consensus felt between the two panels signals a new hope, not only that justice can be achieved for the victims of Mugabe’s campaign of sexual terror, but that accountability in that country will mark the beginning of the end of impunity for masterminds and perpetrators everywhere who use women’s bodies to wage their campaigns for political or military power.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  Let us not cross into a new century of advancement for women without demanding ever-increasing global attention to systematic rape, leading beyond rhetorical demands for accountability to zero tolerance and full legal enforcement.

For more information on AIDS-Free World’s work on sexual violence, please visit www.aidsfreeworld.org.

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To schedule an interview with Shonali Shome please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.