UN: Guns fueling rape of children, women in war zones

UNited Nations — Actor and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Danai Gurira told diplomats Tuesday that finding a child to sexually abuse in a conflict zone can cost less than one dollar. She urged policymakers to curb the illicit flow of weapons as one way to prevent these crimes.

“Eighty cents. When was the last time you handled 80 cents?” the Zimbabwean American actor and playwright asked Security Council members.

“Paid for something that was all that it cost? It is not even enough to buy a packet of gum in this day and age, but it can buy you a child to rape at a so-called maison de tolérance in a camp for internally displaced people in Eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo].”

The United Nations recorded 3,688 verified cases of rape, gang rape and abductions in conflict zones in 2023 — an increase of 50% over 2022. About 70% to 90% of such incidents involved small arms and light weapons. Nearly all the victims were women and girls. Many survivors of sexual violence do not come forward, so the U.N. says this is just a fraction of the real numbers.

“The actors committing sexual violence at such high rates in Sudan, the DRC, Ethiopia or Haiti are armed to the teeth, flagrantly violating arms embargoes,” an angry Gurira said. “We hear so much about disruptions to the global supply chain, but the weapons keep flowing.”

Women and young girls suffered from rape and sexual violence at the hands of at least 58 state and nonstate armed groups in 21 conflict areas around the world last year, Pramila Patten, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told the council.

“We cannot condemn the perpetrators of sexual violence in our speeches while continuing to fund and arm them through our supply chains,” she said of the ease of access to weapons.

She said her office’s latest report highlights an “unprecedented level of lethal violence” used to silence rape survivors.

“In 2023, reports of rape victims being subsequently killed by their assailants surfaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar, demonstrating the need to strengthen forensic capabilities, investigations and accountability processes that ensure the protection of victims and witnesses,” Patten said.

She said those who assisted survivors often suffered retaliation.

“Armed actors threatened health care workers in Sudan, and reprisals against human rights defenders were reported in South Sudan, the DRC and elsewhere,” Patten said.

Niemat Ahmadi, founder and president of the Darfur Women Action Group, told the council that the year-old war between rival generals in Sudan has unleashed devastating suffering on women.

“Women and girls have been raped multiple times, sometimes in front of their fathers, husbands and sons in an effort to break their will and destroy their dignity,” she said. “These women and girls have no protection, no access to humanitarian or medical assistance, and nowhere to turn for help.”

She said with health care in a state of collapse and humanitarian aid obstructed, it is very difficult for survivors to access reproductive health and other critical services.

“We hear that there are less than a dozen obstetricians and gynecologists left working in Khartoum,” Ahmadi said. “Further, the fear of retaliation for speaking up has made it impossible for many survivors to come forward.”

Fears are growing of a new battle in Sudan’s war, with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) reportedly either close to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur where their rival Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are positioned, or already inside its eastern and northeastern neighborhoods. More than 800,000 civilians are in the city.

After the council meeting, Ahmadi told VOA that if an attack happens, the result will be “devastating atrocities,” because the people have nowhere to escape.

“I hope that policymakers, member states of the Security Council, the United States government, will take a step to exercise pressure over the warring parties to stop the attack on El Fasher and stop the attack in Sudan and Darfur everywhere, so vulnerable people can receive humanitarian assistance,” she said.

In the early 2000s, Darfur saw large-scale ethnic violence, crimes against humanity and genocide when Arab “Janjaweed” militias targeted the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic African groups. The Janjaweed fighters are part of the RSF.

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