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Yesterday, the International Criminal Court announced that the Gaddafi regime would be investigated for the use of mass rapes during the ongoing conflict in the country. The investigation cannot come quickly enough. The shocking and high-profile report of the gang rape of Iman al-Obeidi by the Gaddafi army is illustrative of the emerging pattern of gender-based violence by both Gaddafi’s army and rebel forces alike. The allegations are not isolated but instead, widespread and brutal and, even, as one report shows, documented on mobile phones.
Libyan women are not the only group at risk in the current conflict. Rape continues to impact women in refugee camps along the country’s border. Last week, a chain of violent reactions occurred after an attempted rape of an Eritrean refugee who fled Libya and was living in a camp in the Tunisia desert. The reprisal attacks have left 1,500 refugees without homes.
Rape is now fully recognized as not just a devastating effect of war but a systematic military strategy used across actors and contexts. In the case of Libya, we see examples of opposing armies and militant groups using both widespread and systematic rape as a military tactic to subjugate communities through the humiliation of their women. We also see “opportunistic” rape where civilians exploit the chaos of the conflict. Across the typologies there is a clear pattern emerging in the country. Yet, there is still a low level of international response.
Despite the many tools that UN Security Council Resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1960 provide, the recent events in Libya show us that huge gaps still exist in our ability to prevent and respond to sexual violence. The reason is that the prevention of rape and other types of gender-based violence is not just a function of policy but behavior change as well. Without ground-level prevention and behavior changes, these aforementioned UN resolutions -- which many activists have fought so hard for -- will mean little to women and girls in need.
Iman al-Obeidi was one high-profile survivor who dominated the headlines after she burst into a Tripoli hotel to try to tell reporters her story. After she was deported from Qatar back to Benghazi last week, UNHCR made the right choice to step in and move her to safer ground in Europe. This shows that refugee status and protection, correctly applied, is one tool to combat sexual violence. Another win for the UN Refugee Agency is the recently created gender-based violence hotline for refugees living in the camps, which is staffed by women. But action must go much further still – including enhancement of security for women in the camps in the Tunisian desert , data collection on patterns of victimization (and vulnerabilities), and a guarantee that reintegration plans when refugees return home are gender sensitive.
Refugees and displaced women are greatly at risk for rape and sexual violence due to the fact that their lives are disrupted by instability. Mitigating those risks means monitoring the needs, rights and access of women and victims of SGBV and advocating for improved protection and prevention both in Libya and the world.