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RCOG World Congress 2015: guest blog series

Blog 14 April 2015

When women become victims of war, by Dr Mark Slack, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK.

There are no winners in war. The role of the soldier is well chronicled with tales of valor and fortitude.

But victims of war are frequently civilians and their stories are less well known. The plight of women cries out for attention. Women are often left alone at home during wartime without sufficient means to provide for their family, and in occupied zones women may become victims because of their gender. Rape has been a feature of warfare throughout history. It is seldom committed solely for sexual gratification, rather as an instrument for ritual humiliation of the vanquished or to ensure dominance over the defeated. The ancient saying, “To the Victor the spoils go,” seemed to justify the systematic rape of female captives.

Wartime rape is not confined to history. Military conflicts of the 21st century have been punctuated by rape in numbers as large as ever before. Entire communities suffer the ravages of gang rape and sexual slavery. The response of the international community to such atrocities has been remarkably silent.

Many centuries ago the Roman philosopher Cicero denounced rape in his writings, urging soldiers to observe the rules of war since obeying the regulations separated the "men" from the "brutes". But it was only in 1998 that the United Nations (UN) defined rape as a crime of genocide under International Law, and in 2008 declared sexual violence a war crime. It was only as recently as 2013 that a UN resolution demanded the complete and immediate end of all acts of sexual violence by all parties in armed conflict.

Far greater publicity needs to be given to this subject. Only an intolerance of rape in peacetime coupled with a desire to outlaw the practice of sexual violence against women will foster attitudes that will serve to prevent these crimes being committed during warfare. This coupled with the introduction of new laws will go some way to ridding the world of this atrocious crime.