While opposition fighters struggle to tip the balance against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, a growing number of women living in rebel strongholds are allegedly being raped by members of the Libyan military.

June 9, 2011

While opposition fighters struggle to tip the balance against Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, a growing number of women living in rebel strongholds are allegedly being raped by members of the Libyan military.

The United States Institute of Peace’s Manal Omar, just back from Benghazi, says it appears to be a concerted effort by Qaddafi to disrupt the will of the opposition. Reports from inside Libya indicate that the recalcitrant leader’s soldiers may be using anti-impotency drugs and condoms to carry out a campaign of mass rape, and in some cases filming it with small cameras.

Qaddafi’s thinking may be to create such outrage within the opposition that the fighters abandon their posts and return to protect the women, many of whom are vulnerable living with their children in large encampments.

The rapes were initially blamed wholly on African mercenaries until it became clearer in recent weeks that Libyan forces were behind what could amount to thousands of rapes.

“It’s very clear that Libyans are raping,” says Omar, in a phone interview on her return to Washington after a five-day visit. Omar is director of Iraq programs for USIP.

The violence against women could take years to undo long after Libya is free, she says. Reconciliation, particularly on this issue, will take time and special care.

“The whole issue of reconciliation will be very hard,” Omar says.

Investigators for a United Nations panel in early June said they had found evidence that government forces had committed murder, torture and sexual abuses. The International Criminal Court may bring specific charges on the issue, even if some question whether there is an organized effort to rape women within the opposition. Libyan diplomat Mustafa Shaban has told the U.N. Human Rights Council that his government was the “victim of widespread aggression” and denies vehemently that his government is involved in organized rape.

But media reports by the BBC and others have highlighted Qaddafi’s use of rape in war. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly told the Security Council this spring of evidence of widespread raping of women within the opposition by Libyan forces.

In one instance reported by the BBC, two captured Libyan soldiers said they bust through the front door of a home, shot each family member in the leg before tying them up, and then took four women upstairs and raped them repeatedly. One of the soldiers said the women had already been attacked by as many as 20 soldiers who had stopped at the same house before. The soldiers said they were ordered and paid to rape the women.

Rape is a completely taboo phenomenon in a socially conservative country as Libya and widespread rape over a prolonged period could create a large population of women who would probably never marry, experts say. The opposition has continued their fight to free Libya from strongman Qaddafi, and their will is strong, Omar says, but the mass raping has had an effect. Rape brings such shame to its victims within the Libyan culture that it can tear apart families, and even communities. More broadly, this trend could have the potential to rip apart the very social fabric that sustains the opposition in their fight for freedom for Libya, experts say.

“Rape breaks the spirit, and people are scared to death of rape,” Omar says.

It is nearly impossible to tell how widespread the problem is, in part because few women confess to an attack as it brings them such shame. But between 300 and 500 cases have been reported by women’s groups, Omar says. Many more are likely to have occurred.

“People are telling me that thousands of women are being raped,” she says, “but in the current environment, it’s very hard to substantiate.”

As pernicious as mass rape is, there may be some reason for optimism, says Kathleen Kuehnast, director of USIP’s Gender and Peacebuilding Center. Three years ago this month, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1820 that makes the act of sexual violence a prosecutable act of war. That’s significant, she says, because now there is no ambiguity about the evils this crime imposes on a society, and it can’t be just ascribed to men behaving badly.

“That represents a huge shift since 2008 when 1820 was passed by the U.N.,” she says. “Up until three years ago, sexual violence was assumed to happen – that’s just what men do in war.” But now women are, at least on paper, protected under the resolution. How those prosecutions will precede in Libya, for example, remains unclear for now, she said.

Filming the attacks, as Qaddafi’s soldiers have been accused of doing, is another form of violence against the women, Kuehnast says. But video footage of soldiers raping women could be used against those individuals at some later date.

“It almost has an epidemic kind of quality to it and I think it needs to be taken very seriously at this point,” she said.

While the situation in Libya is still very uncertain, members of the opposition foresee a time at which they will need to begin building a new country and writing a new constitution. Omar said she spoke with individuals who now recognize the importance of taking lessons learned from other countries that have gone through the similar process. So-called constitutional comparisons have value even if the countries and the circumstances in which they find themselves are totally different, says USIP’s Jason Gluck, senior Rule of Law adviser.

“I think the questions are very familiar,” he says. “Through the constitution-making process, the people and the leaders need to reach consensus about the nature of the nation, questions about identity and values. How they’ll resolve those questions will be different in each country, but the fundamental questions will be the same.”

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