A U.S. Senate hearing focused on the use of rape as a weapon in armed conflicts, and what the United States can do to try to crackdown on the practice. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, opened the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing saying rape as a weapon of war is nothing new. He noted that in World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army raped an estimated 20,000 females, ranging from infants to the elderly, in the city of Nanking, China, in a one-month period.
He said little has changed since then.
"Mass rape has been a feature common to recent conflicts in Bosnia, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Rwanda and Sierra Leone," said Durbin. "It is not new or unique to these conflicts."
Durbin praised Yugoslav and Rwandan war crime tribunals for prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence.
But he said despite such developments, wartime sexual violence and the victims who survive it remain invisible far too often.
Doctor Denis Mukwege has seen the effects of rape in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. He is a gynecologist at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in South Kivu province.
"Generally, the victims are raped by several men at a time, one after another, in public, in front of parents, husbands, children or neighbors," he said. "Rape is followed by mutilations, or other corporal torture."
Doctor Mukwege said the victims often complain of physical, psychological and social problems, and can have sexually-transmissible infections, including HIV.
He said these women and girls are often rejected by their own family. He said such exclusion and isolation can worsen behavioral problems and in some cases, lead to suicide.
Karin Wachter, a senior technical advisor with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit humanitarian agency, says the systematic use of rape in war has many purposes - including ethnic cleansing and the domination of target populations.
"This form of warfare is tragically effective," said Wachter. "It destroys the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. It produces unwanted children, it spreads disease, and it leaves an imprint on the individual and collective psyche that is difficult to erase."
Wachter urged lawmakers support proposed legislation known as the International Violence Against Women Act, which makes violence against women a key priority in U.S. foreign assistance programs. The bill is sponsored by Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on that committee.
Kelly Dawn Askin, senior legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, called on Congress to strengthen U.S. laws to give more protections to victims of sex crimes and ensure that those responsible of such crimes neither escape justice nor find safe haven in the United States.
But Askin said more should also be done to try to change the culture that she suggested allows rape in wartime to continue.
"In addition to the physical, psychological and sexual harm inflicted by rapes, sex crime survivors often face severe ostracism, HIV-AIDS, or other sexually-transmitted disease, and serious reproductive harms," she said. "If the shame is placed on the perpetrators for their despicable acts, instead of on the victims, I am confident we would see a reduction in the occurrence of sex crimes."
Senator Durbin vowed to work with his congressional colleagues to ensure that U.S. laws hold accountable those who use rape as a weapon of war.