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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

I was watching the BBC World News coverage of the invasion of Ukraine when the anchor prefaced a report with a warning that it contained disturbing material. The report, which was indeed horrifying, detailed crimes of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian girls and women.

I wondered how many viewers had changed the channel. Every time there is news about rape being used as a tool of subjugation and terror – whether it’s in Myanmar or Tigray or Rwanda or Colombia or, now, Ukraine – there’s almost always a preface that the material will shock and disturb. And there’s almost never an acknowledgment that these acts of sexual violence are not random or isolated, but a deliberate strategy of war.

Reports of rape by Russian soldiers are beginning to appear from various parts of Ukraine (with the caveat that rape in wartime is notoriously underreported, and the violence is ongoing). “About 25 girls and women aged 14 to 24 were systematically raped during the occupation in the basement of one house in Bucha. Nine of them are pregnant,” Lyudmyla Denisova, the country’s human-rights ombudsman, told the BBC. “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.” One woman whose home was used as a shelter by Russian soldiers near Kyiv reported finding Viagra and other drugs among their detritus after they left.

What if we reported sexual violence the way we report other military tactics? “The Russians deployed these tanks and missiles, and these soldiers armed with Viagra.” “These Ethiopian paramilitaries were unleashed on the women and girls of Tigray with the marching orders to use rape as a means of ‘purifying the blood’ of an ethnic group.”

Would it be more shocking, or less? It would certainly be true. We may want to avert our eyes – we do avert our eyes – but rape as a tool of oppressors against civilians is as old as war. What’s shocking is that even though it continues in modern times, from the rape camps of the Bosnian war to the systematic rapes of imprisoned Uyghurs, there is still little public recognition of the systemic nature of these crimes.

“Sexual violence is not a side effect of conflict. It is a tactic of war as old as time,” said Nadia Murad this week, speaking to a United Nations Security Council session on sexual violence in conflict. Ms. Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq who escaped sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her work on behalf of abuse survivors.

She was speaking to the UN 14 years after the Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, which recognizes rape as a tactic of war, and acknowledges that it can be a war crime, a crime against humanity, or part of a genocidal campaign. The UN has pledged to investigate the sexual violence perpetrated by Russian forces in Ukraine, and it continues to investigate similar crimes around the world.

But UN resolutions aren’t worth much when you’re huddled in a basement or lying on the ground with a gun against your head. As Ms. Murad pointed out, speech is one thing, and action another: There are still nearly 3,000 Yazidi women and girls held captive by ISIS. “As I know from personal experience,” she said, “a few days or even a week in the news cycle does nothing to address the systemic challenges women face.”

She outlined possible solutions, some of which are aimed at prevention in the short term (ensuring that those who perpetrate such crimes are held accountable, such as an ISIS member who was recently sentenced to life in prison by a German court). Ms. Murad is also the co-founder of the Global Survivors Fund, which works to bring reparations to survivors of sexual violence in conflict. And this week she announced the Murad Code, a more humane way for survivors to report their abuse without being retraumatized.

Ms. Murad’s other solutions are absolutely non-negotiable, but will take longer: ensuring gender equality, and making women an integral part of peace processes. While boys and men are also subject to sexual violence in conflict, and are even more likely to suffer in silence, it is the particular role of women and girls in many cultures to bear a community’s “honour” – and, conversely, its shame.

The shame should be the burden of the perpetrators, but unfortunately it’s borne by victims. Survivors of sexual abuse in conflict report being shunned by their communities. They are often unable to access support services, even if those services were available in their regions. They are unlikely to report what happened to them, and for very good reasons. They often suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies (which are, again, a deliberate tactic that accompanies ethnic cleansing).

Above all, survivors feel ignored and shoved aside, their pain unacknowledged or dismissed as just an inevitable byproduct of war. Thirty years after the conflict in the Balkans, a study from Bosnia-Herzegovina uncovered “the immense gap between the needs of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and the poor, if not inexistent response they have received from the state.”

Now similar crimes are being committed in Ukraine, and in Tigray, and in places we probably don’t even know about right now. They are still being treated as isolated and unrelated incidents. “Wars are still being fought on and over the bodies of women,” a UN report noted in 2018, but those words could have come from 1938 or 1998. The question now is whether we do anything to prevent those words from being relevant 20 and 200 years from now. Do we confront the disturbing reality, or turn away?

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