Anxiety, depression, lack of sleep and high blood pressure. These are the lasting effects on a woman’s health following an experience of sexual assault or harassment, according to a new study published earlier this month, with the results pointing to the need to address such incidents as “urgent public health priorities.”
Indeed, the scars of violation remain long after the dust of abuse has settled: from workplace harassment to wartime sexual violence, traumatic experiences are never truly brushed under the carpet despite the insistence of communities gripping the broom. If it takes a village to raise a child, it surely takes at least one to care for her mother.
The reality of victim support, however, rings with neglect.
Take the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), by way of grim example. According to the latest UN estimates, more than 8,000 rapes were reported in the conflict-ridden country in 2009; in the Kivu provinces alone, a staggering 160 women were raped per week. The cost to Congolese women, and their communities, has been devastating.
Long recognized as a tool of war by international monitors, and condemned by international law, wartime sexual violence has one purpose: “[the rapists] want to destroy a person,” says Congolese gynaecologist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege, “They don’t kill, they destroy.” That’s an accurate statement, as in excess of 57 percent of women raped during the war in Bosnia experience clinically relevant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even decades after the assault took place. There’s little reason to believe that things would be different in the DRC. And hence, the destruction isn’t limited to rape victims: without the provision of psychological care and socio-economic support for survivors, the claws of sexual violence will reach deep into the DRC for generations to come.
Amid a series of conflicts that have left the Congo on its knees for more than a decade, and killed as many as 6.9 million people, public health concerns are rarely given political priority. Even so, in a country where more than 5 percent of people live with HIV/AIDS, government efforts to address the epidemic cannot be left untied from incidents of sexual violence: the incidence of HIV among victims may be as high as 20 percent.
Worse still, Congo’s rapists often commit their crimes with impunity: many are government soldiers, and prosecutions are a virtual non-event. In many areas of the DRC, a lack of criminal courts in the vicinity of the crimes are just one hurdle faced by victims. Reports of being forced to bribe police officers to carry out investigations are rife, with some victims even forced to subsidize the ink and paper used to take down statements of their ordeals. Still, for those tasked with mammoth rebuilding efforts, there will be no future without justice.
Across the South Atlantic Sea, the women of Colombia are being similarly forced to play the role of survivor-turned-activist in the face of dismal justice efforts. In 2016, then-President Juan Manuel Santos victoriously announced the end to Colombia’s civil war: more than 260,000 people had died and 7 million displaced over half a century, and it was time for a new beginning. Being able to care for millions of people left psychologically scarred is as big as a yardstick for a country hoping to emerge from the violence as providing justice to the survivors of the civil war’s underbelly of sexual violence.
For many, however, reconciliation without justice is off the table. “If I have to die to speak the truth, I will,” says Vanessa García, a survivor of abuse endured after she was forced into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a child soldier. Allegations of sexual assault, rape, and forced abortion have been lobbed at militants on all sides during the war; the Special Jurisdiction for Peace court established by the 2016 peace agreement has already all but ruled out jail time for perpetrators.
Indeed, not all of Colombia’s women are onside. Victoria Sandino, a former FARC commander and self-proclaimed feminist, has recently been installed as a FARC senator. “I can assure you that it wasn’t a policy of the FARC to victimize its own women [during the civil war],” Sandino insists, “alternative sanctions” on those found guilty of wartime assault are the only route forward.
Victims and rights groups, meanwhile, are livid. “What happened to us is terrible,” García said. “[But] to keep quiet while they [the FARC] are in power and continuing to live their lives,” she continued, “it cannot be.” Once again, peace without justice is no peace at all for thousands of Columbian survivors.
Despite best efforts the world over to fast-track respective peace processes, calls for redress have proven to be resilient over time. Indeed, victims of sexual violence during the Vietnam War are still demanding that their voices be heard; the ramifications for the country’s foreign policy cannot be ignored.
During the Vietnam War, South Korea deployed more than 320,000 soldiers to the besieged communist state. As a result of the ensuing rape and sexual violence committed by South Korean forces, an entire generation of people living with mixed Vietnamese-Korean ancestry, the Lai Dai Han, continue to eke out an existence on the margins of Vietnamese society. Until their plight is recognized by the South Korean government, they will never enjoy the same peace extended to the rest of their countrymates.
Sexual violence is a black mark on communities across the world, and attempts to marginalize and silence victims’ experiences will only allow wounds to fester. Issues of justice and public health are a communal burden to bear, and it’s high time incidents of sexual harassment and violence were recognized as such.