It happens on a walk to collect firewood, or in the dead of night asleep at home. Five soldiers against one woman in a secluded cornfield or in the center of town. A daughter raped in front of her family. A 2-year-old girl or a 90-year-old woman.

"Any time, any place, that’s what sex terrorism is about," says Lisa F. Jackson, a filmmaker who documented wartime rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during 2006 and 2007 in "The Greatest Silence." "It slams into women as they’re just living their lives.”

Machetes, rifles and grenades are common weapons in the arsenal of war. One less recognized, yet no less potent, is rape.

Rape against women is a routine instrument of war used to shred the fabric of the the village, the family and the woman's or girl's standing in her community, said Megan MacKenzie, who studies wartime rape at Victoria University in New Zealand and the at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University.

A Congolese rebel talks about raping women in "The Greatest Silence."
(Courtesy of Lisa F. Jackson)

Yet the issue is often overlooked by the press, she says.  In December 2009, more than 300 people were massacred, and women and children were forced into sexual slavery in Democratic Republic of Congo, but reports trickled out just this week, according to Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

The civil war in Sierra Leone — notorious for its brutal amputations — was notable for its crimes against women, yet too little attention was paid, says the United Nations journal "Africa Renewal."

In Sierra Leone, a conservative estimate says that around 250,000 of the women in this small West African country were raped during the civil war from 1991 to 2002. Sons were forced to rape their mothers at gunpoint. Family members were gathered and threatened with death if they didn't watch, and victims were told they would be killed if they cried. Some were forced into sexual slavery in Sierra Leone and other African nations.

Democratic Republic of the Congo is the latest spot on the war map to garner international attention for systematic rape. Since civil war broke out in 1998, more than 5 million people have died. Jackson estimates that more than 200,000 women and children have been raped and re-raped by government and rebel forces during the conflict.

“The walking dead,” Jackson calls them.

Read: Putting teeth in the fight against rape

Wartime rape is not limited to Africa. And it is not new. It has been reported in Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Japan, Cambodia, Chechnya, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Uganda, Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 1900s.

The "Rape of Nanking" was infamous for the horrific forced prostitution of Korean, Chinese and Filipina women during World War II by Japanese imperialists. The International Military Tribunal of the Far East estimates that 20,000 women were systematically raped over six weeks during the 1937 Rape of Nanking, following the Japanese capture of that city when women, including infants and the elderly, were kidnapped from their homes, gang raped and explicitly mutilated when stabbed with bayonets or pierced by a bamboo stick. 

Another 200,000 women were abducted and forced into prostitution as so-called "comfort women" in Japanese military brothels. Roughly 25 percent survived.

Seventy-three years later, the Rape of Nanking has been researched, documented and discussed in classrooms as one of the worst human rights abuses in history.  It remains a serious source of controversy in Asian foreign relations today.

However, the weapon of rape persists.

In Colombia, the threat of rape against women and their daughters has been used by rebels to displace entire communities. Colombian women who speak out in their communities are targeted as a way to “shut them up,” Jackson says.

Rape "is effective in creating terror in the population that you're moving into," says Marianne Mollman of Human Rights Watch. "It's effective in humiliation of the enemy. It's effective in breaking down the social fabric that could help in keeping together the society that you're trying to break up."

Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped by rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In her documentary, "The Greatest Silence," Lisa Jackson talks to both victims and rapists.
(Courtesy of Lisa F. Jackson)

Jackson, who interviewed admitted rapists in her documentary, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," says it is less of a calculated strategy of war.

To them, she says, “it’s a right…these women are barely human anyway.”

Corinne Dufka, a well-known researcher with the Human Rights Watch Africa Division, has interviewed many of the assailants.

“I needed sex and she was there,” Dufka recalls one high level combatant saying.

In Sierra Leone, about 90,000 girls between 15- and 17-years-old have HIV/AIDS, transmitted by their rapist, and in some cases, to the babies fathered by the rapist. Society is often unsympathetic. Men do not accept children of the rapist, says Mackenzie, and families will often slight the woman’s character. Some women marry their rapist to regain acceptance into their society.

Men are sporadic victims of men in conflict scenarios, as well.  Men who are raped are forever humiliated, Mackenzie says. They are seen within their cultures as reduced to the subordinate status of a woman, where he remains humiliated and debased.

In many parts of the world, rape casts a shadow over both its victims and their community. The impact is so profound that women from a neighborhood or region known for widespread rape have been stigmatized by being from that area.

In some Guatemalan regions, half the children bear the surname "soldier" or "terrorist" because the mother knows only that she was impregnated by a soldier or a member of an insurgent group. The child grows up with that scarlet letter attached to them.

"One can sort of imagine what that does to a society," says Mollman. "This is not something that is overcome within two years, three years, or five years. This is something that has a lasting impact."

But this is exactly the obstacle to holding global attention: Before one nation can be healed, another is in need, MacKenzie says.

"It's very difficult not only for the media but also for funders, big organizations, even researchers, to stay focused on an area [for] two, three, four, five, six years after a conflict. You just see their attention focused on another region of the world," she says.

Weak or absent prosecutions in many countries deter women from speaking out.

Eight years after a 13-year-old girl selling peanuts was raped in Sierra Leone — and her rapist identified by a passerby who intervened — the case remains undecided. The girl has been to court 13 times, Dufka says.

“People always ask me, don’t you think they should have education programs that teach boys to respect girls?” Jackson says. “I say you put a boy in jail for 20 years for disrespecting a woman…that sends a signal.”

In June 2008, the United Nations Security Council voted to classify rape as a weapon of war.

“There are lots of little pockets of people trying to bring awareness, but the darkness is so overwhelming,” Jackson says.

This report comes from journalists in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad. Student Louise Ward (Boston College) contributed to this report.

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