Breaking a Conspiracy of Silence

A young woman beginning to cry as she enters her husband’s homestead and symbolically says goodbye to her family, rural Swaziland, August 2006; photograph by Krisanne Johnson

This past July, a little over a year after the United Nations Security Council finally declared rape a crime of war, the parents of Taraneh Mousavi, a twenty-eight-year-old beautician from Tehran, received a call from an anonymous stranger. The young woman had been missing for weeks, ever since she’d attended a post-election rally at the Ghoba mosque; it was rumored that she was being held by Basiji militiamen. The caller said that Mousavi had had “an accident,” and was in the hospital with “tears in her womb and her anus.” Mousavi’s parents rushed to the place where she was supposed to be, but she wasn’t there. They still have not found her—or her body.

UN Resolution 1820 expressly foresaw the situation that Taraneh Mousavi found herself in on June 19, one year to the day of its adoption. ” Noting,” it says,

…that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.

There are many ways to define war, just as there are many ways to violate a woman’s body.

It would be naive to imagine that a string of tortuously constructed sentences issued by an organization whose own “peacekeepers” have been implicated in the rapes of girls and women in Sierra Leone, Congo, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Cambodia, and Bosnia, among other places, would reverse or forestall a practice that dates back to the Mongols, and likely before them. Indeed, as the playwright Eve Ensler wrote in The Washington Post the day that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was supposed to issue a one-year assessment of the resolution, rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where girls as young as three are systematically brutalized, has actually doubled and in some areas tripled in that time. As she pointed out, “The girl children born of rape are now being raped.”

Ban’s report, when it was finally released, was full of recommendations to gather

more and better data to enhance our understanding of the various forms of sexual violence in conflict and its aftermath, including its magnitude, nature and risk factors; the profile and the motivation of perpetrators; the consequences of this violence; and the effectiveness of programmes and prevention strategies.

It urged

State and non-State parties to armed conflicts to ensure that civilian superiors and military commanders use their authority and powers to prevent sexual violence and punish crimes committed by subordinates, failing which they themselves must be punished.

Still, as toothless as all this reads, UN Resolution 1820 was a small step toward ending what Jan Egeland, the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.