The Cheapest Weapon Known to Man: A discussion with war correspondent Christina Lamb about the use of rape in conflict

June 23, 2022

Rachel Sheary

Christina Lamb is no stranger to a difficult story. The chief foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times has just returned from reporting on the war in Ukraine. With thirty years of experience working in conflict zones, Lamb has seen and heard some of the most horrific stories imaginable. She has dedicated much of her journalistic career to documenting and reporting on conflicts all over the world - from Iraq and Bangladesh to Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was never the bombs and bloodshed that interested her most, but the female experience of war:  

I always really focused on what happened to women in war,” she tells me, “I always thought it was much more interesting than the fighting, more interesting to know how people live when a war is going on and how they survive - and that's usually the women. But there's also a dark side to what happens to women in war, and that is the use of sexual violence and brutality against women as a weapon.”

Lamb refers to this as ‘the cheapest weapon known to man’ - a tactic deployed in many conflict settings as deliberately as an artillery strike. While reporting in conflict zones over the years, she noticed a pattern - the systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of war, often with the intention to humiliate, oppress, occupy territories and carry out ethnic cleansing. She also noticed that the issue was not being reported on by the mainstream media or considered by human rights organisations.

The scale and ubiquitous nature of the issue shocked her: In the 90’s, an estimated 25,000 women were raped during the Bosnian war. During the Rwandan Genocide, up to half a million women and children were raped over the course of 100 days. Thousands of Yazidi women were taken as sex slaves In Iraq in 2014 while the men were killed. In Nigeria the same year, tens of thousands of women were abducted, raped and taken as ‘bush wives’ by Boko Haram. In 2017, the Burmese army and Buddhist militias rampaged through Rohingya villages, burned crops, murdered the men and gang raped women while their children watched.

“I couldn't understand why this was happening so much,” Lamb explains, “and also why nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. So I started researching it - not with the intention of writing a book, actually, just to try and understand. Really, I was angry. I couldn't understand why in the 21st century, something like this could be happening on such a scale.

Lamb turned her research into a bestselling book - Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women. Spanning twelve countries and five continents, the book recounts the horrifying testimonies of the female victims of some of the most brutal wars in recent memory, amplifying voices that had previously been unheard and experiences that had been ignored. This lack of interest in the female experience of war is likely part of the reason why there have been so few convictions:

“There's no doubt that rape is the world's most neglected war crime,” Lamb says, “The International Criminal Court, which was set up more than 20 years ago, has only prosecuted one person successfully for war rape, and yet in that time, I would say tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in conflicts around the world. So it's become more and more common.” 

Finding a solution to this issue is not an easy feat. Gathering testimonies from victims who have experienced these atrocities is extremely challenging, and bringing the perpetrators to justice is near impossible. When she first began documenting the issue, Lamb noticed that no guidelines existed for journalists - often the first point of communication for victims of sexual violence in conflict - on how to speak with them in order to avoid retraumatization. Alongside other journalists, experts and organisations, she has worked to develop these guidelines to give journalists the tools they need to collect and share these stories, while conducting interviews in the most considerate way possible. 

The sad reality is that most of these women and girls never get to tell their stories - much less receive the care they need to recover from the extreme trauma they have experienced. According to Christina Lamb, the future for many of them is uncertain at best: 

“In a lot of communities, women and girls who have been raped in war are then ostracized by their community,” she explains, “or kicked out and forced to find a living outside. Sometimes they even end up becoming prostitutes because they have no other alternative. That is so sad - people becoming victims over and over again.”

Fortunately there are organisations working systematically to not only counteract this tendency of revictimization, but provide rehabilitation and the potential for justice. The Mukwege Foundation and its sister organisations Panzi Foundation USA and Fondation Panzi RDC work globally to connect survivors and support them on a path to recovery. The Panzi Method is a four step system created to give victims the best chance of rehabilitation by providing medical aid, psychological care, financial assistance and legal aid. According to the organization, victims rarely follow through with the fourth step (legal aid). The organisation is based on the work of Dr. Denis Mukwege - a Congolese gynecologist and women’s rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his global efforts to end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Mukwege spent years trying to garner support from the international community to develop a reparations fund for survivors of war rape, but in his own words, ‘everyone clapped and nothing happened ’. He spent his Nobel prize money on creating the fund himself. 

The issue of rape as a tool of war is still as relevant today as it has ever been. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February this year, there have been multiple reports of rape carried out by the Russian armed forces against women and children, as well as several reports of Ukrainian refugees being taken advantage of in the countries where they have sought refuge. Lamb suggests that if it is possible to take anything uplifting from the news coming from Ukraine, it is that the media coverage and international attention given to this aspect of conflict has increased massively, highlighting the need for more research, documentation and convictions.

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