Sexual terrorism in Africa: a case of two crimes in one


Somalilandsun – The victim lives in silence; either too scared of reprisal or too ashamed to talk. Her physical scars may heal but the emotional ones are deeply buried. Her family is torn;

glad she survived the ordeal and desperate for justice, yet fearing victimisation by the perpetrators, the community and beyond. This is the portrait of an African who has endured a harrowing experience at the hands of men who rape in the name of religion. This is the portrait of an individual who has been the victim of sexual terrorism.

Some call it ‘rape jihad’, others opt for ‘sexual terrorism’ or ‘forced marriage’. Whatever one may choose to call it, when terrorism meets sexual violence it is two crimes too many. It is the use of sexual abuse to spread terror with the intention of controlling or manipulating the government or parts of a population. By intimidating and humiliating families, terrorists hope to exert influence over their targeted audience. Sexual terrorism is often classified as being gendered in nature, due to the fact that the victims are chiefly girls or women. In sexual terrorism, the rape or assault is part of a broader objective: to spread terror or send a message, a motivation similar to that found in the use of suicide bombings. The perpetrators justify sexual terrorism by claiming that the Prophet Mohammed sanctioned the rape of both non-Muslims (infidels or kafirs) and Muslims who do not adhere strictly to Islam.

In August 2013, a young mother in Somalia was kidnapped and raped by members of the terrorist network Al-Shabaab for being a Christian. The terrorists contacted the victim’s husband, warning him to convert to Islam. Human Rights Watch has released similar reports on a spate of child kidnappings in Somalia. The kidnapped children were trained to fight and used to protect the adult terrorists. According to the reports, the girls were forced to marry these ‘soldiers’ or face beheading, after which their heads would be sent back to their schools as a warning against insolence.

Jihadists in West Africa have acted in similar fashion. A 20-year-old girl was reportedly gang-raped by five men from the Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the city of Timbuktu. Her crime was failing to cover her head and face with a veil or hijab. This is one of many stories that have surfaced in Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali. In Nigeria, Boko Haram allegedly committed similar atrocities. According to reports, Boko Haram members in Borno State, northern Nigeria have repeatedly abducted women, forcefully married them, and infected them with sexually transmitted diseases. Al-Shabaab, AQIM and Boko Haram fight for strict adherence to Islam and the application of Sharia law.

The instances above are only a few of the accounts of sexual slavery, gang rape and other forms of sexual violence used by terrorists against women and girls in Africa. Many more have been documented.

Like other forms of sexual assault, responding to sexual terrorism requires criminal justice, medical, psychological and social initiatives. However, as stated above, in many cases the girls or women are too scared to come forward for treatment, which hinders efforts to tackle the problem. Despite this, some progress has been made.

For instance, in northern Mali, United Nations Women partnered with Malian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and established a project to assist some of the women and girls who had been raped or forced into marriages by the rebels. More than 1 000 women and girls have benefitted from the resultant medical and psychosocial assistance. In Somalia, efforts are underway to treat rape victims, and a rape crisis centre in Mogadishu called ‘Sister Somalia’ attends to their medical, psychological and social needs. Similarly, the government of Nigeria’s Borno State has begun improving the health services in order to effectively deal with the medical impact of rape, which includes HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies.

Responses to sexual terrorism have also taken the form of military engagement with the terrorists. In northern Mali, for example, the French-led armed intervention has disbanded much of AQIM. Nigeria has not had as much success: despite the fact that the Nigerian police killed several Boko Haram members, the country continues to suffer its onslaughts. Somalia still lacks the infrastructure and resources to address terrorism and depends largely on international and regional support to fight Al-Shabaab. Neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Uganda have provided military assistance, but the terrorist threat remains.

Noteworthy as all these efforts may be, they are neither sufficient nor holistic enough to specifically address sexual terrorism. One key reason for this is that rape victims are often too reluctant to identify themselves, for fear of violent reprisals and/or stigmatisation. For this reason, mass campaigns to de-stigmatise rape should take place across these regions and beyond. Campaigns such as these will not only draw further attention to the scourge but also contribute towards changing perceptions.

Another key reason why current efforts are insufficient is because the criminal justice responses are inadequate. As a result, rape victims may remain too scared to come forward. In addition, the absence of criminal justice responses will almost certainly mean that the offenders will continue to rape.

Uyo Salifu, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria