Rape as a weapon against Rohingya

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THROUGHOUT history women and girls have suffered disproportionately during war and civil strife. Men locked in combat often view the other side’s women as part of the spoils or offering the most effective way to humiliate their enemies or wound their pride.

Thousands of women were abducted and raped during India’s partition in 1947. The nightmare was repeated during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971. During the 2002 Gujarat riots, rape was not the only thing women suffered. Some pregnant women’s wombs were ripped open, their fetus extracted and flung with a sword. Tamil women and girls had to suffer unspeakable cruelties including rape and sexual assaults at the hands of security forces during Sri Lanka’s final war against LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

What is happening in Myanmar is the latest act in a horror play. This Buddhist country has declared war against its Rohingya Muslim minority, saying they are illegal immigrants from the Indian state of Bengal (the eastern part of which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971). An estimated 700,000 Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar security forces last fall.

More and more evidence is piling up to show

that widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to the military’s effort to terrorize the community. The number of women who fell victim to a systematic campaign of rape runs in thousands. They ranged in age from 13 years to 35, came from villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Almost all said the perpetrators were men in uniform.

Survivors have described sexual violence being used as a “calculated tool of terror” to force the Rohingya to flee and dissuade them from ever returning. Human rights activists who listened to the wrenching accounts from women and girls wonder whether any one of them ever would like to return. This in spite of the fact that in a few weeks, annual monsoon rains will drench every part of Bangladesh including the Cox’s Bazar where Rohingya live making it the world's largest refugee camp in the world.

Nobody knows the exact number of women and girls who became pregnant as a result of rape. The social stigma surrounding rape in conservative Asian societies may prevent many women and girls from coming forward even if it is to seek medical help. The Bangladesh Health Ministry in 2017 put the number of pregnancies among Rohingya refugee women and children at 80,000 with rape being the likely cause of many of them. The first priority must be to move all these expectant mothers, rape victims and others, to sites less vulnerable to floods and rains.

Certainly, the long-term challenges facing these women are daunting. Social attitudes must change if they are to be welcomed back into the community. That will take time. Meanwhile, immediate steps should be taken to save lives for which the overcrowded camps should have basic health-care services. Bangladesh needs all kinds of help from the world community.

Equally important is holding those responsible for these horrendous crimes accountable. Given Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s reprehensible attitude toward the Rohingya, we can’t expect her government to take any action against security officers responsible. After all, her party still harbors a lawmaker who argued that soldiers could not have committed mass rapes, because Rohingya women are “very dirty.” A minister in the Rakhine state where most of the Rohingya live said no security forces would think of raping women who are “unattractive.”

This means there should be an international campaign to have those responsible hauled into court at The Hague. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has recognized the specific impact of armed conflict on women by criminalizing sexual and gender violence. This is necessary to restore the dignity of the victims and put an end to impunity to those who indulge in such crimes wherever it may be.


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