UNITED NATIONS (CNS) — Sexual violence against women is one of history’s great silences. It is a crime against humanity, happening on an unfathomable scale and has become a systematic, dramatically underreported tactic of conflict, said Archbishop Bernardito Auza.
He spoke at a March 22 event to mark the 60th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations was joined on a panel by Catholic women who work with victims of violence in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Holy See mission sponsored the discussion on Women and Girls: Victims of Rape and Other Forms of Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Auza said the Catholic Church is present and runs a network of institutions to provide essential health care and support in most of the areas of conflict. He said Catholic organizations and agencies also “promote programs aimed at preventing such violence and ensuring women’s dignity and effective role in society while addressing the deeper causes of violence against women and girls.”
The nuncio said direct targeting of non-combatants was formerly considered off-limits in warfare, but “that essential ethical frontier has been getting ignored and in many cases mocked.”
He said various armed groups are now intentionally targeting non-soldiers as part of a concrete strategy to humiliate and terrify innocent women and girls by rape, sexual assault, torture and human trafficking. In addition, women and girls are “bought and sold or even given as gifts or trophies to warring soldiers.”
Since the early 1990s, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have characterized rape and sexual violence against women and girls in violent conflicts a crime against humanity alongside torture and extermination, Auza said. In a 2015 report, the UN secretary-general detailed 19 countries in which such violence is used as a systematic tactic.
Auza described the “unfathomable scale” of violence. “Between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1,100 rapes are being reported each month and hundreds of thousands since armed conflict began.
“Boko Haram is raiding whole schools and ISIS (Islamic State) is openly ‘selling’ Yezidi and Christian women and girls as young as 8, ‘giving’ them to ISIS fighters as gifts, and using them as a recruitment strategy in its propaganda materials,” he continued.
“All violence against human life is terrible, but sexual violence is designed to debase, dehumanize, and demoralize women, girls and their families in a unique way,” he said. “This violence has long-term, even lifelong, traumatic effects of women and girls in terms of the stigmatization and exclusion that often follows.”
Sister Mary Angel Acayo, a Little Sister of the Immaculate Heart from Gulu, Uganda, described cultural practices that support sexual violence against women and girls among the Karamojong people of northern Uganda.
Acayo said rape is considered an acceptable practice among the Karamojong after a boy or man identifies a girl as a potential wife. Describing it as “marriage through rape,” Acayo said, “He can take her at any time without her consent. It can be an ambush when she goes to fetch water or firewood. His friends hold her down. Boys consider their marriage to begin when they have sex.”
If a girl reports the rape to her family, she is beaten, and she has to marry the boy because if she does not, her family is denied a dowry, Acayo said.
Northern Uganda is a stronghold for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist group fighting in several African countries. Acayo told the chilling story of Grace, a girl who was abducted at age 14 and held for six years by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She was abused, enslaved and forced to train as a soldier. Other girls who refused were hacked to death in front of them, she said. Grace became pregnant. She and her child were rescued by government troops during an ambush and brought to a community centre where Acayo treated her.
Grace completed her education and works at a secondary school. She was scheduled to be a panelist at the UN event, but was unable to get a visa.
Acayo said the Catholic Church and other organizations provide counselling, education and training to empower girls and women and reduce dependency. She also works with community elders to try to sensitize them against rape.
According to Acayo, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu prevented sexual assaults on children by repeatedly staying overnight with them in a retail area known for human trafficking.
Marie-Dolorose Kafanya, a nurse and executive secretary of Women Involved in the Promotion of Integral Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recounted horrifying stories of sexual slavery and violent machete attacks against women and children during two decades of conflict. She said her organization, known by its French acronym FEPSI, takes care of the medical and psychosocial needs of survivors of sexual violence.
Pascale Warda, co-founder of the Iraqi Human Rights society, a scheduled panelist at the UN event, was stranded in Istanbul. Rev. Roger Landry, attache at the Holy See Mission, read her profiles of Christian and other minority women and girls targeted for violent abuse by members of the Islamic State. They were beaten, tortured, raped and used as commercial commodities, he said.
Auza said the Holy See ardently supports essential efforts to ensure justice to women assaulted in conflicts.
The multifaceted approach incorporates “effective investigation and documentation leading to consistent and rigorous prosecution of those who carry out these degrading crimes,” he said. It also seeks to “protect and strengthen women and girls who are targeted for this crime, help end the silence and continue to increase recognition of rape as a tactic of war, and focus on the root causes of sexual and other violence in armed conflict in order to prevent future violence,” he added.
Auza announced the Holy See Mission will make grants to five organizations working to counter violence against women.
Landry told Catholic News Service several Catholic foundations offered funds anonymously through the Path to Peace Foundation to keep the spotlight on issues raised in three current and upcoming Holy See Mission conferences related to the status of women.
In addition to funding travel for speakers, monies will be allocated to organizations that are helping victims and working to change the culture, he said.
Copyright (c) 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops