Clinton Condemns Use of Rape, Sexual Violence in Libya Conflict

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are using rape as a weapon of war. In a statement released Thursday, she says the United States is “deeply concerned” about reports of “wide-scale” rape in the Libyan conflict. Citing the International Criminal Court’s findings and the case of Eman al Obeidi, she called for an impartial investigation.

Clinton’s condemnation is a good excuse to re-visit this fine piece of reporting by TIME contributor Karen Leigh. In a bracing dispatch from Benghazi last week, Leigh described how sexual violence had seeped into the conflict:

The female doctors at one of the larger hospitals here can tell you stories — of corpses of violated women stripped and strewn on the streets of frontline Ajdabiya; of the women afraid to leave their homes in Brega; of the 13-year-old Misratah girl gang-raped by soldiers who burst into the family’s living room, forcing her father to watch. “She kept screaming,” one doctor says. “Just screaming and screaming, ‘Daddy, don’t look!’ ”

The doctors, who are in their mid-20s, are stationed in the emergency room of one of this rebel stronghold’s most sophisticated hospitals. They talk for hours about the rape of women. But it’s only stories. They have never met a victim.The medics don’t deny that others in the hospital may have treated rape victims. But they say the stigma of sexual assault runs so deep in Libyan culture that the raped are virtually forced into social exile, unable to wed, a humiliation to their entire family, choosing to remain silent rather than to give voice to the crime they have suffered. “We hear these stories all the time. From our friends, from our neighbors,” one doctor says. “They are passed along every day. But the women are too scared to come forward themselves.” The number of stories whispered in the halls of this hospital has increased exponentially since the start of Libya’s civil conflict.

What’s worse, Leigh observes, is that survivors are scared to get help. “For them, the implications of rape are that they may not be able to fit back into society,” a doctor told her. “The fear of this happening to them is what’s keeping them from talking.”

To the extent that her statement gets people talking about sexual violence, or eases the stigma faced by survivors, I’m glad Clinton spoke out. I hope, too, that she’ll continue to do so, using this case to highlight the prevalence of sexual violence and its links to militarism and war. Systemic sexual violence may be taking place in Libya, but this is not a ‘Libyan’ problem — it’s a global one. And, by recognizing the common roots of violence, we’re better able to fight it.

(For more about militarism and rape, I recommend Helen Benedict’s writing on sexual violence in the U.S. military.)