TOPICS : Forced marriage a crime against humanity

Nearly a decade after Angola emerged from a civil war that killed half a million people, one image from my work there continues to haunt me: that of young women huddled in the shadows in rebel demobilisation camps. They all told the same story. They believed in the rebel movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its leader, Jonas Savimbi, and ran off to join the rebels. While there, they fell in love with a UNITA freedom fighter, got married, and had a child. Now, they had no interest in returning to their villages and families.

But it didn’t take much investigation to find out that these women had been kidnapped from their villages, forced into sex slavery, and were too ashamed to return to their villages. Despite the best efforts of international aid agencies to assist them, it was clear that most of their lives had been permanently shattered. The phenomenon of “bush wives” plagues many of the world’s conflicts. In northern Uganda, for example, an estimated 1 in 6 young girls in the war-affected region have been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The pattern has existed under a veil of silence. The abused women rarely come forward to challenge their abusers. Until recently, there have been no mechanisms within peace agreements for addressing these and other sexual abuses against women. Most peace agreements have been built on amnesties provided by the warring parties to each other. This usually means men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes against women.

But there is good news emerging from an obscure source: the Special Court for Sierra Leone. This court was set up to address war crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s murderous civil war in the ‘90s. It was previously best known for its courageous indictment of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at The Hague. Earlier this year, the special court ruled in a landmark case that the soldiers in Sierra Leone’s rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council who forced young girls into marriage committed a “crime against humanity.”

The decision to label forced marriages as a crime against humanity and the implicit threat of international prosecution has given important new impetus to the development and use of these mechanisms. The action of Sierra Leone’s Special Court is just a first step. The entire international justice system, including the International Criminal Court, must pursue the high-level perpetrators of these crimes. The UN and other international peace negotiators should insist on measures to address the phenomenon, including reintegration assistance and psychosocial counselling.

The UNSC has an opportunity to step up on June 19 when it debates the issue of sexual violence in conflict. It should use this platform to classify bush marriages as a crime against humanity. Only then will the bush wives in Angola and elsewhere be able to step from the shadows and reclaim their lives.

Steinberg is deputy president of the International Crisis Group