A war on women

Greetings from a war zone that’s not Iraq. And not Afghanistan either.

I’m checking in from West Africa, where I’ve been working with women in three neighboring countries, all recently torn apart by civil wars: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Surely you remember these conflicts. Liberia’s war came in three successive waves, lasting from 1989 to 2003. Sierra Leone’s war started in 1991 when guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, trained in Liberia, invaded their own country. The war drew many players and lasted a decade, until January 2002. In Ivory Coast, the civil war began in 2002 when northern rebels attempted a coup to oust President Laurent Gbagbo; after international intervention, a treaty was signed in 2003.

Today, we’ve been told, these countries are no longer war zones. Accords have been signed. Peacekeeping forces are on duty or close at hand. The United Nations and international aid agencies are assisting “recovery.” Some arms have been surrendered; some refugees have returned from exile.

But although Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast are now officially designated “post-conflict zones,” which sounds vaguely hopeful, in reality they are so fractured, so traumatized and, especially in the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone, so devastated and impoverished that they cannot be said to be securely at peace. Sierra Leone has replaced Afghanistan as the lowest-ranked country on the United Nations’ index of human development, which measures literacy, health and poverty. Like Afghanistan, it is a nation of widows.

Of all those who suffered in the West African wars, it was civilians who suffered the most. Specifically targeted and terrorized as a tactic of war, they were displaced, exiled, abducted, assaulted, tortured, wounded, maimed and killed. And of all the civilians who suffered, none suffered as disproportionately as women. Today, millions of women in these three West African countries are still struggling to recover; for them, the wars aren’t really over at all.

To understand why, consider this description from Amnesty International last March of the least of the West African wars, the relatively short civil war in Ivory Coast:

“The scale of rape and sexual violence in [Ivory Coast] in the course of the armed conflict has been largely underestimated. Many women have been gang-raped or have been abducted and reduced to sexual slavery by fighters. Rape has often been accompanied by the beating or torture (including torture of a sexual nature) of the victim. ... All armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity.”

The Amnesty International report documents case after case of girls and women, ages “under 12" to 63, assaulted by armed men. A more recent and thoroughgoing report by Human Rights Watch records the rape of children as young as 3. During the civil war, women and girls were seized in their village homes or at military roadblocks, or were discovered hiding in the bush. Some were raped in public. Some were raped in front of their husbands and children. Some were forced to witness the murder of husbands or parents. Then they were taken away to soldiers’ camps, where they were forced to cook for the soldiers during the day and were gang-raped at night, in some cases by 30 or 40 men.

Many women were raped so incessantly and so brutally -- with sticks, knives, gun barrels, burning coals -- that they died. Many others were left with injuries and pain that still linger, long after the war. Many still find it hard to sit down or stand up or walk. Some still spit up blood. Some have lost their eyesight or their memories. Many contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.

Next door in Liberia, by the time fighting ended in 2002, 1.4 million Liberians had been displaced within the country. Almost a million others had fled. In a country of 3 million people, that’s one in three citizens gone. At least 270,000 people died. And here again, the easy targets were women. A World Health Organization study in 2005 estimated that a staggering 90% of Liberian women had suffered physical or sexual violence; three out of four had been raped.

On a visit I made to Kolahun, in Lofa County, where fighting had been heavy, one woman showed me her scars: a series of parallel horizontal ridges starting just below one ear and moving down, toward the throat. A guerrilla fighter in the army of Charles Taylor -- the charming, American-educated sociopath who became president of Liberia and is now facing trial for war crimes -- had locked this woman against his chest and slowly, inch by inch, laid open the flesh of her neck in ribbons of blood.

But that wasn’t all. Taylor’s men had broken all the fingers of her left hand so they now point backward at seemingly impossible angles. They slammed her back so forcefully with rifle butts that one leg and one arm are now paralyzed. She can only walk by leaning on a homemade wooden crutch.

In the tiny village of Dougoumai, I met a woman people refer to only as “the sick lady.” As I came into her one-room mud-brick house, she managed to sit up with great difficulty, using her twisted hands to move her swollen, useless legs. Her sister says she was captured by a militia fighting against Taylor and was gang-raped repeatedly by 10 men. Nobody can say how long they kept her. They rammed their gun butts into her back -- evidently a common technique -- paralyzing her legs. They smashed her hands. She cannot hold anything or feed herself or comb her hair.

Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities surveyed surviving women in Lofa County, the center of Taylor’s operations. More than 98% said they lost their homes during the last wave of the war; more than 90% lost their livelihoods; more than 72% lost at least one family member.

In Sierra Leone, where terrorizing the civilian population was the main tactic of war, the violence against women and children was, as Human Rights Watch has reported, even more brutal. All parties to the conflict committed countless atrocities. Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers gang-raping old women, then chopping off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the living fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy soldiers betting on its sex. These crimes, which violate primal taboos, aim to destroy not just the individual victims but a whole culture.

During recent years, every kind of horror has been inflicted on girls and women in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast because they are female. If females were a particular ethnic group -- Albanians, let’s say, or Tutsis -- or if they espoused a particular religion, as did Bosnian Muslims, we would recognize what goes on as a kind of “gender cleansing” or mass femicide. But we don’t speak of crimes against women in that way. When did you last hear someone speak of “crimes against women” at all?

Interviewed for a TV documentary on mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a smiling guerrilla says he’s “made love” to many women. The interviewer asks if all the women were willing, and he laughs. He admits that many fight him, and he says -- still grinning -- “If they are strong, I call my friends to help me.” When the interviewer labels his lovemaking “rape,” the guerrilla insists that rape happens in wartime and that when the war is over, he won’t do it anymore.

Yet ending the wars in West Africa did not, in fact, end the violence against women. A study in preparation by the International Rescue Committee -- the organization for which I currently work as a volunteer -- and Columbia University’s School of Public Health found that well over half the women interviewed in two Liberian counties, including the capital city, Monrovia, had survived at least one violent sexual attack during an 18-month period in 2006-07, years after the conflict had officially ended.

That’s the little-known reality: The violence against women continues. Murderous aggression, not surprisingly, cannot be turned off overnight. Here in West Africa, as in so many other places where rape was used as a weapon of war, it has become a habit carried seamlessly into the “post-conflict” era. Where normal law enforcement and justice systems have been disabled by war, ex-combatants and civilian men alike can prey upon women with impunity, and they do.

It’s hard to know exactly how widespread the problem is; raped women and girls are normally too shamed by the crimes to report them. Most cases of rape are perpetrated by a member or friend of the extended family and are routinely “compromised” by a small cash payment.

But rape is now against the law in all three countries. Angry parents in this region of Sierra Leone increasingly report child rape to authorities. Here in Kailahun District, the place where the Sierra Leone war started and ended, women mobilized earlier this month to force the local magistrate to hear the case of a 7-year-old rape victim.

Domestic violence -- wife-beating, marital rape, emotional abuse, torture, economic deprivation and the like -- are also common and have escalated across the region, continuing the habitual violence of war.

This is ordinary post-conflict life for countless West African women. Yet in Kailahun District, women tell the story -- possibly apocryphal -- of an old woman who was huddled over her cook fire when a group of rebels entered her village. She was frying some tasty frogs. The rebels surrounded her, peering into the pot to see what she was cooking, and one of them said: “We are freedom fighters of the Revolutionary United Front. We have come to save you from the government.” The old woman -- unafraid -- replied: “Then you must go to the capital. The government is not in my pot.”

Women in Kailahun District tell that story over and over, and they laugh every time. They are so proud of that lone, bold old woman who told off those rebel men. That’s the spirit of survival, still alive in them -- though they must know that the rebels probably shot that old woman and ate her frogs.

Ann Jones, the author of “Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan,” works as a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee on a special project for its gender-based violence unit. A longer version of this article appears at