Rape in Israel, Ukraine and other war zones: more and more voices are being raised to denounce sexual violence against women in countries at war, a crime that has always existed and is prohibited by international law but rarely punished.

Israeli police announced on November 14 that they were investigating sexual violence, including rape and mutilation, allegedly perpetrated by Hamas men during the deadly October 7 attack.

As for Ukraine, UN investigators said in March that Moscow was behind a wide range of war crimes after the Russian invasion, including rape and other sexual violence.

Violence is a “military strategy” and a “deliberate tactic to strip victims of their humanity,” UN Special Representative Pramila Patten said in October 2022.

Today, on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a conference of associations is being organized in Poland to discuss the support to be given to Ukrainian women, victims of these abuses attributed to Russian forces.

“The rape of women as a means of attack destabilizes the entire social fabric, it destroys a community,” Richard Matisse, president of Gynecology Without Borders, told AFP.

The association trains health professionals abroad to care for women, particularly in cases of sexual violence.

“Children born from these rapes also represent a problem of imbalance for society,” adds this gynecologist.

Care of victims

Women are the primary victims of sexual violence in times of waron different continents and in different eras, especially during the colonial conquests of the 19th century and during the two world wars.

“Rape in times of war has been forbidden for centuries, but armies do not necessarily enforce this prohibition,” Fabrice Virgili, a historian and director of research at the CNRS, told AFP.

And he notes that this ban was enacted to maintain discipline among soldiers, not to protect women.

“After the genocide in Rwanda (1994) and the war in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), we have paid special attention to the events of sexual violence in every conflict: there is the idea that it is necessary to punish the perpetrators and provide care to the victims “, explains himself, who co-edited the project “Rape in times of war”.

This idea was particularly promoted by Dr. Dennis Makwege, award-winner Nobel Peace Prize 2018for his action in favor of female victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As for the potential criminal consequences, “the law is a substantial response, but it is not yet up to its mission,” lawyer Celine Bardet told AFP.

Problem of evidence

Rape is defined as a “war crime” in the 1998 Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

However, “we still struggle to include sexual violence in indictments, often due to a problem of evidence, because there are only testimonies,” adds this expert.

With her association called We Are Not Weapons of War, she created an online tool to collect testimonies from victims in multiple languages. A “web alert application” allows photos and videos to be stored on “a highly secure server”, to “document reality on the ground”.

The association is “working to develop” this tool in Israel to collect contributions, especially from witnesses or forensics, linked to the October 7 Hamas attack.

In France, more than 20,000 people, including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is far left, and singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, signed a petition calling for the Hamas attack to be recognized as “mass femicide”.

“Many civilians lost their lives, but women were not killed in the same way as the rest,” underlines the text launched by the “Words of Women” association.

Testimonies cited by the AFP speak of “pelvic fractures” and shooting in the genitals.

“They were attacked, because they were women, in their genitals, it’s serious,” Maya, an activist who did not want to give her name, told AFP. She will participate in a demonstration in Paris on Saturday with a group to “commemorate” Israeli women, “victims of femicide.”