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Women in Conflict and Refugees

Soldiers, militia, and their sympathizers continued to sexually assault women with impunity in armed conflicts around the globe, including in Sierra Leone, Chechnya, East Timor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Angola. Despite international recognition of rape and other sexual assault in armed conflict as crimes, governments and the international community rarely responded vigorously to investigate and punish such violence. In fact, they typically went no further than rhetorical condemnation. In addition, women faced rampant violence and discrimination in their post-conflict lives. Women refugees, in their countries of refuge, continued to be sexually and otherwise physically attacked by armed groups and civilians. Women returning to their communities post-conflict found negligible protection from domestic violence or state-tolerated sex discrimination.

For example, in Sierra Leone, under the guise of bringing an end to the human suffering caused by the conflict, the fragile July 1999 Lomé peace accord granted a blanket amnesty to Revolutionary United Front (ruf) rebels for their atrocities, including sexual violence. From the signing of the peace accord to its collapse in May 2000, ruf rebels never stopped raping women. A hellish cycle of rape, sexual assault, and mutilation continued, perpetrated by all sides, including the Westside Boys rebel faction and pro-government Civil Defense Force militia. Sexual violence often took the form of individual and gang rape; sexual assault with objects such as firewood, umbrellas, and sticks; and sexual slavery. Despite egregious attacks on women, the Sierra Leonean police and the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (unamsil) did very little to protect women from further attacks and investigate cases to ensure that perpetrators were captured and punished.

Similarly, Russian soldiers raped women with impunity in Chechnya. Testimonies collected by human rights activists showed that women, men, and girls detained by Russian authorities were tortured, beaten, and raped. Witnesses spoke of brutal rapes in Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya, such as the villages of Alkhan-Yurt and Shali. Despite compelling and overwhelming evidence that Russian soldiers raped women during the Chechen conflict, Russian authorities managed to arrest only one alleged perpetrator, a colonel, on March 29, 2000. Charged with the sexual assault and murder of a Chechen woman, as of late October, the colonel was eligible for amnesty.

In Algeria, armed Islamist groups continued to target women in a conflict that has ebbed and flowed since 1992, when the government suspended elections Islamists were expected to win. Although threatening and assaulting women was part of their basic mode of operation ofmany of these groups well before the suspension of the 1992 elections, armed Islamist groups adopted violence against women as a more overt strategy between 1993 and 1998. Between 1993 and 1994, they killed women for expressing their opinions and for working in certain professions, such as hairdressers and writers. They also forcibly took women as wives in "temporary marriages." From 1995 to 1998, they treated women who lived in villages that opposed their rule as spoils of war, raping, abducting, and killing them. Disputing official government figures of two thousand six hundred, Algerian women's rights activists estimated that these groups raped five thousand women between 1995 and 1998. They criticized as severely deficient government programs and assistance to victims of sexual violence.

In Afghanistan, as the twenty-year civil war continued, the Taliban, which controlled 90 percent of the country, continued to violate women's rights with unabated severity. In addition to severe restrictions on women's access to paid work, health care, and secondary and higher education, the U.N.'s rapporteur for Afghanistan reported that Taliban members had abducted and raped ethnic Hazara and Tajik women with impunity. Such sexual violence by the Taliban undermined its leaders' claim that their policies toward women were intended to protect them from violence and abuse.

Violence against women continued to be a constant feature in the complex conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In March 2000, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of rape and other human rights violations in areas controlled by the Goma-based Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassamblement Congolais pour la Democratie, RCD) and its Rwandan allies. The rcd raped and otherwise attacked civilians to deter them from supporting its opponents. In one particularly gruesome incident, rcd soldiers beat, stripped, and raped five women who had been detained, reportedly because a RCD soldier's wife accused them of sorcery. The soldiers then put hot peppers in the women's vaginas, put them in a pit, and buried them alive. Despite its claim to be the legitimate local authority, the RCD failed to prevent or punish rape and other violence committed by its soldiers or civilians.

Similarly, in East Timor, pro-Indonesian militia and some Indonesian soldiers raped many women during the weeks of violence surrounding the referendum on East Timor's status in August 1999. At this writing, over 100,000 refugees remain under militia control in West Timor, where violence, including sexual violence, by militia continued. The Indonesian government's failure to disarm and disband the militia undermined its claim that it would bring perpetrators of violence to justice. However, the attorney general's office, in cooperation with U.N. civilian police, conducted an investigation into the violence and in September 2000 published a list of nineteen suspects whom they plan to charge with various crimes, including rape.

The ranks of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and asylum seekers continued to swell in 2000, as large numbers of people fled conflict and persecution at home and sought refuge elsewhere. The UNHCR reported that, in 2000, twenty-two million refugees and displaced persons were under their protection or receiving assistance from them. Women who fled their homes in search of sanctuary from violence too often found themselves confronting yet more sexual and physical violence as refugees. For example, numerous Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees living in Guinea were physically and sexually attacked by police, military, and civilians, following an inflammatory address by President Lansana Conte of Guinea. On September 6, 2000, the president accused the refugees of supporting rebels responsible for cross-border attacks on Guinea's territory. Thousands of refugees in the capital, Conakry, were then rounded up and many women and adolescent girls as young as fourteen years old were sexually abused, often by multiple attackers. As of late-October, the Guinean authorities had neither acknowledged nor investigated the attacks on refugees.

Even in post-conflict periods, women's human rights were not protected. Kosovar women confronted discrimination and a steep rise in domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and abductions following the war. The government ignored blatant discrimination against women. Women widowed by war feared the loss of their children due to an Albanian custom requiring the children to be handed over to the deceased father's family. Women's rights activists throughout the province fought to draw attention to discrimination against women in the postwar environment and sought political representation in the interim government. Women's efforts did yield a U.N. regulation mandating that at least 30 percent of each political party's top fifteen candidates must be women. But most activists felt that little had been done to combat discriminatory practices that relegated women to the traditional homemaker role.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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