Friday, January 4, 2008

Rape and the Limits of Law

As violence erupts in formerly stable countries such as Kenya and resurges in war-torn states such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008 is getting off to a grim start. Despite strides in criminalizing rape under international and domestic laws, women are still bearing the brunt of the surge of sexual violence that inevitably accompanies civil unrest. In Kenya, the Nairobi Women's Hospital reported a doubling of rape cases on December 31, with the hospital's CEO describing the assaults as "mainly systematic gang rapes" -- the archetype of a crime against humanity. But many rape victims are unable to seek treatment, let alone accountability, because of the security situation in Nairobi. In eastern Congo, a surgeon at Goma's Heal Africa hospital who repairs torn and damaged genitals of rape victims, reported that sexual assaults are increasing in the wake of intense fighting between government and rebel forces. Both sides are responsible for the rapes, with victims as young as 11 months old. While DRC law criminalizes rape, "victims often have little faith in the judicial system." In these cases, even though laws combatting rape are on the books, they have done apparently little to change the behavior of perpetrators or to ensure accountability for the victims. Another recent disturbing example, the case of Jamie Leigh Jones (pictured below left; photo credit), a 20-year-old Halliburton employee in Iraq who states that she was drugged and brutally gang-raped by several co-workers, shows us what happens to rapists and victims in the legal black hole populated by U.S. federal contractors in Iraq (described here by Laura Dickinson). Jamie's attackers have yet to be held accountable for this horrifying crime -- and she is not the only woman to charge federal contractors with sexual assault. While a strong rape law may not have changed the behavior of these particular thugs, the aura of impunity that surrounds American contractors in Iraq has undoubtedly contributed to the "cowboy" mentality that overvalues a dangerously chauvinistic masculinity. Although law can make strides towards deterring and punishing rape, without dismantling this aggressive mindset of war in favor of a gender-balanced perspective, I fear that the tragic stories we hear today from the DRC, Iraq, and Kenya are bound to repeat themselves. (photo credit top left and top right).

1 comment:

Diane Marie Amann said...

Legal History Blog has useful links to the Kenya crisis at