Mali conflict is latest to employ forced marriage as tool of war

By — June 4, 2013

Saran Keïta Diakité painted a dismal reality for women in Mali in a speech she gave to the UN Security Council in April. As Diakité, a lawyer and president of the Malian branch of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, explained: “The Islamists perform religious marriages in order to escape the clutches of international criminal justice.”

Militant Islamist groups now control entire swaths of the country. Chief among them has been the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg militant group made up in part of former soldiers of the Libyan Army, and the Islamist rebel group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

“They carry out a form of ‘marriage’ so that, at night, you can be treated as a sexual slave,” Diakité said. “During the day, you are there to serve tea to the men and attend to their every need. This is why I always say that what’s happened in Mali is unprecedented.”

Appalling as these crimes are, however, they are by no means unique to Mali.

A mother and child in an unofficial refugee camp in Banibangou, Niger, after having fled Mali in July 2012. Violence against women in Mali's conflict includes sexualized enslavement under the guise of forced marriage—a tactic used in conflicts such as Burma and Sierra Leone as well. (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)

Militant groups in many conflicts—among them Burma, Cambodia, Rwanda, Liberia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone —have practiced systemic sexual enslavement of women and girls under the guise of “marriage.”

In Burma, where sexualized violence against women has occurred over the span of several decades, the Network for Human Rights Documentation found that many victims “reported being forcibly conscripted by the military into situations of sexual slavery where they are repeatedly molested over an extended period of time.” Refugees International reported in 2003 that soldiers may have used rape “to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization.’ ”

Tens of thousands of men and women in Cambodia are believed to have been forced into marriage with strangers under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. A 2012 documentary called “Red Wedding” tells the story of women forced into marriages as part of Pol Pot’s plan to grow the Cambodian workforce, and of how Khmer Rouge soldiers were ordered to rape their new “wives” on their wedding night.

“After the wedding ceremonies, the couples were sent off to consummate their marriage in a designated hut,” Deutsche Welle reported in 2011. “Khmer Rouge cadres would stand nearby and listen. The couples who refused to have sex would be taken away for ‘reeducation.’ If they continued to refuse to consummate the marriage on the second and third nights, they would be executed.”

Forced marriages also featured in the conflict in Sierra Leone, after which, in 2004, it was first recognized by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) as a crime against humanity, distinct from sexual slavery. When, a few years later, in 2009, the court handed down its first convictions related to forced marriage, lead prosecutor Stephen Rapp said it had “filled a gap in international humanitarian law.”

In a 2012 article in the Canadian Journal of Human Rights, academic Annie Bunting describes how, using expert evidence, the SCSL “found such forced conjugal association to be part of the widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population in Sierra Leone.” It was the duration and “domestic” nature of forced marriages that differentiated them from sexual enslavement—despite that they were de facto little more than enslavement, with no agency on the part of the woman. Women forced into these “relationships” were not only stigmatized, but viewed as responsible at least in part for the crimes of their new “husbands,” the UN’s IRIN news service reported in 2009.

Beyond forced marriages, conflict also can lead to “survival marriages,” which appear to be occurring in Syria and within refugee areas in surrounding countries.

The economic realities of life in the Syrian refugee camps and communities are such that parents are often complicit in the marriage of underage girls, literally selling their daughters into wedlock—sometimes to foreign men—in the hopes of protecting them from a worse fate, whether that is poverty or rape. However, the World Health Organization says that girls who marry before the age of 18, especially to a much older man, “have a greater risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence than those who marry at an older age.”

The scarcity of resources for many of these women has left them financially trapped in a cycle of violence. And the concept of “forced” is debatable—is a 15-year-old girl “forced” into marriage if she’s too young to consent but smiles and nods her way to the wedding?

Since Mali’s descent into conflict, stories have surfaced of widespread sexual enslavement and forced “marriages” performed by Islamist militant groups. The ongoing conflict in northern Mali, and the resulting flight of government officials, has left women increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. According to a recent piece in by IRIN, there have been more than 2,785 cases of sexualized and gender-based violence registered with the UNHCR since the military coup of March 2012.

While the militant group MNLA has reportedly committed acts of rape and sexual violence against women, the MUJAO has forced women to marry them.

Bloomberg News reported in January on an incident in which a 15-year-old girl “was forced into marriage to Abdul Haqim, a military commander for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.” According to Bloomberg, UN investigators said that she was raped for months by other fighters, then released when she became pregnant. A local journalist told IRIN that such situations have been common: One man may have forced a woman to “marry” him, but, in the end, “many men participated in the marriage.”

As in Burma, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone, challenges for the forced wives in Mali will not disappear at the conflict’s end. Women will have to navigate a deeply rooted culture of victim-blaming, stigma, and ostracism, as well as the possible perception that they are responsible for their so-called husbands’ crimes.

Despite all this, these women may not experience a totally clear-cut sense of victimhood.

Within the larger structure of war, writes Human Rights Watch, women forced into wartime marriage experience an “enormous internal conflict.” Chris Coulter, author of Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers, writes that in Sierra Leone forced “bush wives” said they felt “lucky” to be with their militia husbands. Others were even in “loving relationships” with their captors after the war, Coulter told WMC’s Women Under Siege.

As Human Rights Watch states in a paper on Rwanda’s conflict, the same was true for forced marriage there. On the one hand, Rwandan women whose “husbands” took them by force and raped them usually “despise the man,” HRW writes. Yet on the other, these women “also realize that without the protection of this very man (who in many cases murdered the rest of the women’s families), they would most probably be dead today.”

Whether beneficial or not, that women in such a vulnerable context as war are not usually given a choice on whether to enter into a “marriage” with a man has been made clear over and, unfortunately, over again.