Comment: Rape as a weapon of war

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The Independent Culture
"THEY CAME into the village and put everyone in a warehouse. They took 20 women for two days and two nights during which they were raped continuously and then returned to the warehouse half-dead." So spoke one witness of the actions of Serb soldiers that took place recently in Kosovo.

Such tales are harrowing. But they are not unique. The use of rape as a weapon of war has been documented down the centuries and throughout the world. It is a common feature of war against a civilian population, and of political or ethnic persecution. During the occupation of Nanking in 1937, Japanese troops were reported to have raped thousands of women. During the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, Pakistani troops were reported to have raped more than 200,000 Bengali women. For Americans in the Vietnam War, it was a routine method of demonstrating their contempt for the people of Vietnam. But although it is one of the commonest features of 20th-century brutality, it has also been one of the most hidden.

In Bosnia, women supported other women to speak out about their rapes to counsellors, journalists and lawyers, in the attempt to lift the lid off women's hidden suffering and to bring their rapists to justice. And today such tales are heard not just from women fleeing the violence in the Balkans, but from women fleeing political and ethnic persecution all over the world.

One solicitor that I spoke to last week, Dan Wilsher, who works with over 100 asylum cases every year, estimates that 50 per cent of the women whom he meets, and are applying for asylum, have experienced rape as part of persecution in their home countries, whether they come from Africa, from the Middle East, or from Europe.

It may be common, but for every woman who experiences rape, it is a unique experience: uniquely terrifying; uniquely traumatic. Last week, I went to a meeting at the House of Commons organised by Women Against Rape and Black Women's Rape Action Project. I will never forget the women who stood up to give their testimonies about what had happened in their home countries and why they were applying for asylum here. Speaker after speaker, often with tears running down their faces, described what it meant to them to struggle to a place of safety. "When I say the word rape," said one tall Kenyan woman, with tears standing in her eyes, who had been raped as part of her torture while held in police detention for political activities, "I hope that every woman in this room will think about what it means. I can stand here today, but it took me nearly seven years to talk about my experiences."

No one can read the tales of Kosovar or Bosnian women and the violent rapes carried out by Serb soldiers, often group rapes, often carried out over many days, often in front of their children or parents or husbands, without wanting them to find safety and protection. We should feel the same about all the other women who struggle to our shores having experienced rape at the hands of soldiers and police, in detention camps and prisons. But the way that the British government responds to female refugees who have experienced rape is exactly the same as the way it responds to most refugees - it harasses them, forces them into desperate poverty, detains them, and even deports them.

When Jack Straw and Tony Blair look smug as they welcome a trickle of refugees from Kosovo into the country, remember how they have treated other refugees. Remember the vulnerable women whom they have forced to live on vouchers of pounds 3 a day, or on nothing at all. Remember the words of Sharon Musoke (not her real name) who was traumatised by rape and torture in her home country, Uganda, and then further traumatised by her treatment in Britain. "When my appeal was turned down my benefits were stopped. I was left to starve. That brought back memories of starvation in the detention centre where I was raped in Uganda."

Up until now, the record of this government in dealing with refugees who are rape survivors has been appalling - one of its greatest humanitarian failures. While other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have gender- specific guidelines for processing asylum claims, including the provision of female interviewers for female refugees, and training on the specific persecution that women face, this country has never put in place any such measures. So an experience like that of Isabel (not her real name) from Kenya, is common. "I was interviewed by young men on arrival. My young son was in the room. I couldn't say a word about such things." In such an environment, almost all rape survivors stay silent on the central experience that they are fleeing.

Dr Stuart Turner, who works at the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London with refugees from all over the world, told me that in his experience: "Rape stands out from every other experience of violence. It leads to a very specific avoidance response. The rape victims that we see tend not to speak for a very long time about their experiences, maybe for many years. That is partly because of their genuine fear of rejection by others, and also because of their deep feelings of shame and trauma." But as Dan Wilsher says: "There is no system here that takes into account why women might not come forward with such a story immediately. The authorities take the attitude that if the full story isn't told at once, on entry to Britain, their whole story must be a pack of lies."

And now the way that refugees who are rape survivors will be treated by the government will become infinitely worse. One measure that the new Immigration and Asylum Bill will put in place is the power to disperse refugees forcibly throughout the country. At the moment, the only way refugee rape survivors can begin to find the support that they need is to access specialist groups, and those are almost all based in London. Joanna (not her real name), a Kenyan woman, works with an association for women in her community. Gradually, it became the place where these women could begin to talk about their experiences of rape. "It took years for many of them - it terrifies them, it shakes them, just to speak about it. After a long, long time, maybe they would say one little word, and then they would go away, and then they would come back and say a little more." Joanna herself was supported by the London-based Black Women"s Rape Action Project. "If there had been dispersal then - it would have been a nightmare. It would have silenced me completely. I think I would have died without speaking."

The bill will also restrict the grounds on which refugees can appeal against initial rejections. Yet rape survivors frequently find that they must fight all the way through the legal process before their applications for asylum are accepted. This is because immigration officials find it hard to accept that rape is commonly used as political or ethnic persecution. Stephanie Harrison, a barrister who works with asylum-seekers, told me: "The authorities are reluctant to accept that rape constitutes persecution. If they do accept that rape has taken place, they tend to believe that it is just about men's sexual desire."

Sharon Musoke"s application took six years, as she went through every possible stage of appeal, all the way to judicial review. "If the bill had been in place by the time I arrived in Britain," said Sharon, "I would have been deported three years ago to the place where I had been raped and tortured." "Two years ago," said Joanna, "my first appeal was rejected. I would have been deported. The same people who did all that to me are still there. I would be dead, but no one here would know about that. When this bill goes through, I think many, many women will be killed."

Women Against Rape, Black Women's Rape Action Project, 230a Kentish Town Road, London NW5, 0171-482 2496