We Need to Talk About Sexual Assault During War

Rape and sexual assault are difficult subjects to broach, and there’s always a push and pull in the media and reporting outlets — to what extent must these topics be reported as news, and to what extent is the privacy of the victim paramount? It can also be difficult to report on sexual crimes and rigorously uncover the truth while remaining sensitive to the victim’s needs and avoiding knee-jerk victim blaming.

Another wrinkle in the reporting of rape comes when sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. When the United States discusses the merits of entering a country to aid one side or another in a fight, the topic almost never arises. For example, when deciding whether or not to enter Syria’s civil war, President Obama placed far more emphasis on the presence of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would force the U.S. to act — and none at all on the systematic sexual violence practiced for years against the women of Syria. Now, whether or not the U.S. should intervene is another matter entirely. But it’s important to remember that sexual violence is still on the backburner when it comes to these high-level discussions.

Sexual Violence as a Weapon

Syria is not the only country where rape and sexual assault against women are commonplace tactics as sectarian groups fight one another. Just recently in South Sudan, civilian aid workers were brutally raped by soldiers — while nearby UN peacekeeping forces did not respond to calls for help.

The Associated Press account of the attack is shocking — and far more graphic in its detail than is typical for newspaper stories of domestic rape. The story has been criticized for insensitivity to the victims and a disregard for their privacy, which begs the question: How should reporters raise the subject of militarized rape for discussion?

Without the journalist’s determination to hunt down the facts of this story and record eyewitness reports, the recent rapes in South Sudan would go unnoticed by the Western world — and would almost certainly continue unchecked.

Domestic Sexual Violence

It’s not only on foreign soil that women are at risk for sexual assault, of course. In the United States alone, 18 percent of women will be a victim of rape at some point in their lifetimes, and of those, approximately one third consider suicide as a result of the trauma. A certain percentage of these rapes occur to women serving in the military; most are perpetrated not by enemy forces but by their fellow soldiers or superior officers.

In these cases as well, rape and sexual assault goes underreported, both by women themselves and by the media. Yet without a more dogged determination to discuss these events, little change can be expected.

When rape culture and sexual assault as a weapon is normalized and accepted as something that just happens, armies will not be mobilized to stop it — whether abroad in Syria and South Sudan or here at home in the army barracks and college dorm rooms. Several high-profile cases this year have sparked discussions, but it isn’t enough. Perpetrators are still receiving lenient sentences and individuals are being forced off social media after facing threats.

We need to be talking about it — loudly and relentlessly — in a way that both protects survivors and honors them by refusing to stand by while sexual assaults continue, both here and abroad.

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