Skip to main content

Women in the Crossfire

The wars in Libya and the Congo highlight the vexing problem of rape as a military weapon

Published in: The Mark

Iman Obeidi became famous in March when she burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and accused Libyan forces of raping her. She was quickly taken by authorities, but eventually found her way to Qatar to seek refugee status in the West. Last week, Qatari authorities inexplicably sent her back to Libya. She has since begun the process of moving to the U.S., where she will apply for refugee status. Her story has highlighted a growing problem - the use of rape as a tool in war zones. [Note: This interview took place before news broke that Obeidi is headed to the U.S.]

THE MARK: Why did Qatar do this? Why would it have sent Iman Obeidi back to Libya?

LIESL GERNTHOLTZ: We don't know very much about why they've chosen to do that. What we do know and understand from various contacts is that she had been granted refugee status and she was in the process of being processed through UNHCR's standards mechanism. So what should have happened is she should have been transported to a receiving centre in Romania. ... I understand that she had indicated a preference to go to the U.S., the U.S. had indicated a willingness to receive her, so what should have happened at the receiving centre was that that process should have been completed and then she would have been transferred to the U.S.

So she was in transit in Qatar. I believe she was scheduled to get onto a plane at 2 o'clock in the morning to go to Romania, and before that could happen she was taken by Qatari guards at the airport and put onto a plane back to Benghazi. This was apparently over her own objection and the very strenuous objections from the U.S. diplomat who was there, as well as the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].

I have no idea why the Qataris would have done this. They have a fairly tight relationship with the National Transitional Council [which controls parts of eastern Libya]. We don't have any information on why they have chosen to do this, but clearly it's in contravention of international law on refugees and obviously just an incredibly cruel thing to do to somebody who's experienced what Iman has gone through.

THE MARK: There have been so many of these reports coming out of Libya and they've all been saying that rape has been used intentionally as a tool of war. Why would anyone use rape as a tool of war? What does this achieve?

GERNTHOLTZ: It's really one of the most effective ways of victimizing and terrorizing communities. It's not just the rape of women, but very frequently when it is used as a tool of war the rapes are perpetrated in public so you shame both the woman, and you emasculate and shame her husband and her father and the male members of her family. And particularly in a place like Libya where family honour is very important, you really undermine these incredibly important values for these communities. If you think about what happened in the [Democratic Republic of Congo] and in Bosnia, these are not rapes that are happening behind closed doors; they are rapes that are very much about subjugation and dominance of the whole community, not just of the women and girls who have been raped. So it's a really effective way of damaging communities.

THE MARK: From Moammar Gadhafi's standpoint, does he really think that he can regain his authority by ordering his mercenaries to do this?

GERNTHOLTZ: I can't really comment on that, but what does strike me is that one of his sons ... said - in the early stages, when there was still a possibility that he was going to leave - that we will fight house by house, drop of blood by drop of blood, etc. So clearly for him this is not a heart-and-mind struggle. For Gadhafi this is a struggle for power and to win, and if he has to kill his own population, then he has shown himself completely willing to do so.

THE MARK: I've been hearing about this problem in the Ivory Coast and in the Congo as well. In terms of this problem, where are the worst places in the world, what should have priority?

GERNTHOLTZ: It's hard to say where the worst places are. The place that has really galvanized the international community was the Congo, because you have had thousands and thousands of women who have been raped. I think the extent and the magnitude of rape in the conflict areas in the Congo is staggering, just staggering. But it was a feature of the Balkans conflict - you had the rape tents in Bosnia, and there not only was it about rape but there were very specific strategies around impregnating women, which was also about shaming them, giving them children of rape, giving them children of the victors and the oppressors.

But this has been a feature of many, many conflicts. We have stuff on our website now about Côte d'Ivoire. We documented several rapes in that region during those few months when Laurent Gbagbo was clinging to power. It is a problem in many conflicts. Libya is key because there has been a lot of anecdotal evidence, but there's stuff that we don't know enough about. We don't know the extent to which the rape may be a systematic policy, that soldiers have been given instructions to rape, or the extent to which this is just opportunistic on the part of soldiers who are not particularly disciplined and well-trained.

We have not documented it sufficiently to be able to say one way or the other, and the International Commission of Inquiry reports by the Human Rights Council that came up a couple of days ago also said that they've heard of rape but they also have not been able to document it sufficiently. And that's not surprising in a country like Libya, where it's a deeply stigmatized thing to be raped as a woman, where families don't want to talk about it, and so on. I'm not surprised that women are not coming forward to talk about it.

THE MARK: Are there actual laws dealing specifically with this problem?

GERNTHOLTZ: There are. In the International Criminal Court statute, rape is part of the definition of war crimes. There's a resolution of the UN Security Council, 1880, which recognizes that ... systematic rape in conflict is now something that the Security Council has a mandate and an obligation to investigate. Certainly over the past five to 10 years, the international community has begun to pay some serious attention to rape in conflict and the need to respond to it and ultimately to try to prevent it.

THE MARK: What has been done so far to address and prevent this problem? What can be done about it?

GERNTHOLTZ: I think prevention is really a long-term project. Preventing sexual violence in conflict is also about preventing violence against women in general, and that is about education and so on. But I think specifically around conflict, the issue is to ensure that there is absolute accountability both on the part of individual perpetrators and along the chain of command.

What we have pressed for is prosecution of perpetrators - and there has been some success in the Congo - and then also making sure that individual commanders of units or battalions are held accountable for not disciplining individual soldiers who are implicated in rape. So accountability is a very important part of prevention. Obviously if soldiers know that there are going to be consequences, it may act as a deterrent. We know that in the Congo, soldiers acted with such impunity around sexual violence because there was no mechanism there to stop them or hold them accountable, and that's what led to so many thousands of women and girls being raped.

THE MARK: A recent study indicates that nearly two million women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been raped, and it appears that this rape epidemic is spilling over from conflict zones into daily life. Have you seen any evidence that this phenomenon of rape in wartime could actually translate to a more rape-prone society?

GERNTHOLTZ: We don't have evidence of that, but that is just because it's not something we've investigated. But I could imagine circumstances where it's not only the rape but it's the impunity that would encourage [rape in] non-conflict areas. This country has been at war for such a long time that many of the systems have broken down, the criminal justice system doesn't function as well, you have large numbers of people living in poverty, you have large numbers of kids who are out of school. You have really a cauldron there of factors that I could see could create a society that may be more rape-prone.

THE MARK: It all seems to come around, no matter how we approach this topic, to the issue of women's rights. There seems to have been real advances, at least on the surface, in the wake of the Arab Spring. What is your take on it? Are things getting better in the Middle East for women?

GERNTHOLTZ: I think that there has been progress made for women in some places. Egypt and Tunisia are two examples where there have, over the past five to 10 years, been definite improvements around women's rights. But I think that there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done, both in places like Saudi Arabia - where you just don't have any framework for women's equality - and in places in like Tunisia, where you do have a better legal framework. There it's around making sure that the laws and policies are properly implemented.

So I think there are huge challenges, and I think that one of the tests for these new and emerging democracies in Egypt and Tunisia will be the extent to which women's equality forms part of the new democracy - the extent to which women's rights will be seen as important, will be seen as part of what needs to change, that resources will be committed to improving women's rights. I think for me that's going to be one of the most important tests. But there's a lot of work to be done in the Middle East.

I am really heartened by the many images I have seen coming out of Yemen, coming out of Syria, very iconic images in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Bahrain, of women who are very much part of the struggle for democracy and freedom. So the stereotypical image of Middle East women in veils hidden behind all this black cloth is really being challenged by these images of women in the forefront of the marches, standing shoulder to shoulder with the men, taking a leadership role.

THE MARK: Is there anything we in the West can do to help?

GERNTHOLTZ: I think one of the most important things from a women's rights perspective is, firstly, to have solidarity with the women's rights leaders because in many respects these organizations are still fragile, they're still new. We need to encourage ... governments to make sure they're investing a lot of money in many of these countries as they come towards democracy. We need to make sure that some resources are being given to bulk up civil societies for women, that we are empowering women leaders, that we're educating the new generation of young women, and that we make sure that resources are in place for girls' education to stop female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Most Viewed