Rice: Rape Shouldn't Be War Weapon

Condoleezza Rice says some warring factions use rape to subdue women.

ByKate Snow, Christina Romano and Imaeyen Ibanga via via logo
February 12, 2009, 12:10 PM

July 13, 2008 — -- Wartime tactics are often brutal, but in some conflict-torn regions, perpetrators add -- to the usual bombs, guns and beatings -- sexual violence against women.

The practice has become so widespread and visible that the United Nations Security Council took aim at the issue on June 19 when it demanded nations halt warring factions' violence against women, specifically saying rape was no longer a war by-product, but a military tactic.

"The unfortunate thing is that, in many parts of the world, in many conflicts, it has been made a weapon of war," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "It's meant to tear societies apart. It's meant to show who's boss, and I remember very well going to Darfur, and sitting in a refugee camp in a tent with women talking about the fact that they had been raped on the way to get firewood or to get water."

Rice is passionate about the issue and chaired part of the U.N. session that informed the 15-member council how the world now recognizes sexual violence during conflicts goes beyond individual victims to affect nations' security and stability.

Other international leaders echo her thoughts, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the problem "reached unspeakable and pandemic proportions in some societies attempting to recover from conflict," according to Reuters.

Some have questioned whether rape actually was a weapon of war, because the victims don't die, but Rice disagreed.

"In some ways they die, they die spiritually," she said. "They die in terms of their persona from then on, and it's really one of the worst things that you can do to a village or to its women."

The problem has become so severe that former U.N. peacekeeping commander Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert said, "It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict."

Rice agreed.

"In some parts of the world, that's absolutely true, because, of course, the women are unarmed and they're vulnerable," she said. "It's been an unfortunate circumstance in some cases that it's been peacekeepers that have turned on these women. And so, I felt very strongly that we needed to raise the profile of this issue."

Sudan and the Congo may have what are among the highest rates for wartime rape. ABC News' "Nightline" visited the Congo earlier this summer and met some of the 100 women per month who are assaulted sexually by rebels or government soldiers.

"Every day I was raped, sometimes up to 10 times a day," said 17-year-old victim Tumaini, who added that, because of the stigma attached to rape, she can never get married.

Besides the physical and emotional abuse associated with such a brutal act, the victims also have to combat socially entrenched attitudes about rape. Often, if a victim survives the horror, she will be shunned by her community and family. Those attitudes make it difficult for women to come forward.

"It takes enormous courage because it's a matter of great shame," Rice said. "It's really hard to talk about it."

Rice said part of the trouble is that, those raping the women feel like they'll be exempt from punishment.

"There was a sense that this was the kind of crime that was committed with impunity," she said. "If people think that they can get away with it, if they think that it's not taken as seriously as some other kind of crime against humanity, then it's not going to be punished, and it's not going to be deterred."

Rice added that, while some critics have said the United States' image has declined abroad, the nation can still take the lead on this issue.

"First of all, I think the reports of America's demise are a bit exaggerated," she said. "I sit in the chairs -- America's chief diplomat -- and I receive the calls that say, 'America, we need America to lead on this. Can America lead on this?' If America leads on this, then it will matter. ... Our leadership is still wanted, valued and needed."

Rice looks to future occupants of the White House to continue to raise awareness about the issue.

"I hope that the next administration and the next administration and the next administration will continue to raise the profile of this very important, very serious and very sad issue," Rice said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events