A THUS far little publicised aspect of the sickening brutality visited on the Rohingya in Myanmar has come into the open — the sexual violence against women and girls by the Myanmar soldiers.
These depredations, including gang rape, forced public nudity and humiliation and sexual slavery, which also resulted in the death of many victims, further hastened the minority community’s mass exodus to Bangladesh.
It took a visit by Pramila Patten, a special representative of the UN secretary general, to the camps in that country where some 610,000 Rohingya have taken refuge, and the stories she heard there, to shed light on this aspect of the crisis.
Her observations, she said, suggested that the women and girls had been “systematically targeted on account of their ethnicity and religion” and that many of the attacks could be described as “crimes against humanity”.
Sexual violence has long been used as a weapon of war.
While men and boys can also be targeted, it is most often women and girls who bear the brunt of this vicious tactic.
War in any case often goes hand in hand with the abeyance of norms of civilised behaviour.
But sexual violence, often used as a deliberate strategy, denotes something more.
Aside from the terrible physical and psychological impact on those directly subjected to it, it humiliates, terrorises and dehumanises an entire community, reducing it to a commodity at the mercy of man’s basest instincts.
In a patriarchal society, the effects are even more far-reaching.
Pregnancies as a result of rape serve to weaken the integrity of the targeted ethnic group and break down social bonds in a way that can make it difficult for the community to recover.
As such, this form of violence is a particular feature of ethnic cleansing campaigns, where the objective is not just to subjugate but obliterate the other side.
In the last two decades alone, there have been a number of such conflicts: Bosnia, Sudan and Rwanda to cite but a few.
Before the ongoing Rohingya crisis began, the most recent examples include the atrocities of Boko Haram in Africa and the sexual slavery of Yazidi women and girls in Iraq by the militant Islamic State group.
Fortunately, there is increasing recognition of conflict-related sexual violence as a war crime, including a UN resolution to that effect.
But while bringing the perpetrators to justice is vital, the international community must also devise mechanisms to support the victims.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2017