The following post is sponsored by The Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy (CRFP).
Kristina Arriaga, president of the Oxford Society for Law and Religion, spoke this week about war’s devastating impacts on women at an event in Washington, DC, hosted by the Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy.
War often entails terrible violence and crimes against women, and the wider the gender gap in a country is, the worse women are treated, she said during the discussion.
One of the reasons is that sexual violence is a weapon of war, she said. “Rape is a weapon even more powerful than a bomb or a bullet,” she said.
“These women are victims of the most atrocious abuse of power that you can imagine,” she said. In Eastern Congo, she said more than 200,000 women and children were raped during periods of conflict.
She said these rapes and sexual crimes often tear at the fabric of a society.
Women, if they survive, she said, rarely tell anyone, since they could be shunned from their families and their societies. If a woman becomes pregnant from a rape, her husband will often throw her out of the house, or become abusive towards her and the child.
More than 50,000 children have been born of rape in Eastern Congo, she added.
In Rwanda, where up to half a million women and children were violently raped, assaulted, or murdered, she said when peacekeeping troops arrived, things did not necessarily get better. Peacekeeping soldiers recruited girls in refugee camps for sex work, she said.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over the Sinjar Province in northern Iraq, they captured 3,000 Yezidi women, and sold them in open markets for sexual slavery, she said.
Women were sold 25 to 30 times within one year, she explained. A Yezidi gynecologist in Iraq told her that she met a woman who had tried to escape an ISIS camp with her friend. Her friend was beheaded right in front of her.
As in Congo, women who become pregnant are considered dirty and tainted, and their babies considered “evil.” Either they have to abandon their children, or leave their families, she said. “The women have no recourse.”
Women become victims of war in other ways, by stigmatizing and isolating them from society, Arriaga went on to say.
She said in Afghanistan, there are at least 2.5 million widows — many of them children who were forced into marriage early. As widows, they are seen as signs of bad luck. Since the vast majority of them cannot read or write, they are forced to beg on the streets.
She said religious freedom in a country helps women. “One of the most significant improvers of life for women in these countries is religious freedom.”
For example, she said, according to Sharia law, when a husband dies, the husband’s family takes everything, but if there is religious plurality in a society, there is recourse for a woman.
Arriaga also urged young people to educate themselves on these atrocities, so that they can lobby their policymakers, or perhaps become a lawmaker themselves.
“No life is worth living if it is not given to others,” she said.