February 8, 2012 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace

Women Under Siege

A new website illuminates women's experience of sexualized violence in conflict.

Credit: Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita

Credit: Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY -- In May of 2011, a new study revealed the epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was even worse than previously estimated: nearly four women raped every five minutes. The year before, feminist icon Gloria Steinem had been poring over the manuscript of a new anthology, a galley copy of a book called Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, and growing more and more outraged by the page. Another book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power, compounded her anger.

As someone who knows a good bit about women’s history, why, she wondered, hadn’t she heard about these crimes before?

Silence stands vigil around the crime of sexualized violence, hiding its true extent. While few people would hesitate to report a break-in to the police, surviving rape still carries a stigma. In the United States, for example, most news organizations currently do not identify survivors of sexualized violence in crime or court reporting.

Steinem reached out to the Women’s Media Center, a group she co-founded with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, and with a grant from philanthropist Bonnie Schaefer, launched Women Under Siege, a new website dedicated to raising awareness about sexualized violence against women in conflict. By documenting and tying together historical and contemporary accounts and analysis of how rape has been used as a weapon of war, the site highlights patterns of violence and makes it clear that women who have survived sexualized violence are not alone.

As Steinem told Lauren Wolfe, the project's director, “For instance, a woman survivor of brutal rape in the Congo is rejected by her family, but learns she’s not alone or at fault from the story of a Jewish woman who survived rape and the Holocaust only to be shunned as if she had collaborated. Each example illuminates another.”

Wolfe, an award-winning journalist who had previously reported on sexualized violence against female journalists for the Committee to Protect Journalists, came on in September of last year. She solicited contributions from photojournalist Lynsey Addario, reporter Lara Logan, academic researchers Karestan Koenen and Tia Palermo, and others. Detailed analyses by country and conflict draw out linkages across history and geography, but also illuminate the particulars of each situation.

“By looking at rape as a weapon of war in specific situations, you can really learn where to take action,” said Wolfe. “In Darfur, women are often raped when they go out to farm to feed their families, because there’s not enough food rations available in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. In that case, we need to increase food aid, so women aren’t forced out to go farm. In some cases, it can just take turning the lens a little bit.”

Addario, who contributed several photographs and a personal essay describing her experience working in the DRC, used her lens to bring readers closer into women’s lives. Instead of shooting in a documentary style, she created an intimate series of portraits for a 2008 project called Congo Women. In her essay, she notes that she was surprised at how many women came forward to share what they had experienced.

“I think women there recognize that it’s important to get the word out, and that these are publications that are coming out overseas, so their images are not going to be seen, say, in their villages,” Addario said. “And for those of us who have the good fortune to live in places where we don’t face conflict every day, it’s up to us to speak to these issues if we care about them.”

Palermo, an assistant professor of public health at SUNY Stonybrook contributed an essay on the logistical and ethical challenges to establishing reliable statistics on this issue. She co-authored the attention-grabbing study released in May that found nearly two million women have been raped so far in Congo, a figure she hoped would mobilize resources and get people thinking about the issue. Because as distant as that conflict – and as astronomical as those figures – may seem, she said, it’s important to realize that rape is something not unique to Congo.

“You can see it in different regions across the world, but the recent Centers for Disease Control report, which found that one in five women in the U.S. is a victim of rape or attempted rape, brings it home even further,” she said. “It’s important to put everything in context, and bring these numbers back home.”

While the numbers can often overwhelm, Wolfe stressed that there’s nothing “inevitable” about the violence women experience in conflict.

“Violence is not natural in conflict; rape is not a natural occurrence,” Wolfe said. “There are indigenous cultures where rape was not a part of their warfare.” Rather, it results from gender inequities that are part of everyday life, which are often exacerbated by war.

“If we can focus on equality -- equality in the home, equality on the political and social level – we can put an end to what Gloria calls ‘supremacy crimes.’”

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.