Rape is used around the world as a weapon of war. This is the message conveyed by Richard Matis, obstetrician-gynecologist and specialist in reconstructive surgery after sexual mutilation. A member of Gynecology Without Borders (GSF) since 1999, the doctor based in Armentières (Hauts-de-France) travels the world with his association which has become “a humanitarian branch dedicated to women's health”. The NGO's first intervention is in Mali, to support access to care for pregnant women.
It was in Macedonia in the refugee camps, during the Kosovo war, that GSF denounced the violence against women in the refugee camps. During missions to repair fistulas in Burundi, then in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Doctor Denis Mukwege (Congolese gynecologist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, nicknamed “the man who repairs women”), GSF discovered the extent of the sexual mutilation in a war situation with war rape. Since then, the use of this weapon has not diminished, as indicated by the terrifying stories emanating from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, after its occupation by the Russian army.
Update: The Gynecology Without Borders association has intervened in many countries at war (Mali, Kosovo, Syria, etc.). Are you present in Ukraine?
In times of war, rape is sometimes considered as an isolated incident. Why do you defend talking about rape as a weapon of war?
Because it’s a weapon of war! It’s strategic! Rape does not depend on the social category of the soldiers. It's a war strategy. The systematic rape of women completely destroys society. When soldiers, in a city, a village, a community, rape all the women, this obviously causes trauma. There is a strategic desire to effectively destroy the social fabric of the enemy. Women who have been raped then have children from those rapes. This completely disrupts a society.
Is the use of rape encouraged by certain military hierarchies?
War rape is sometimes organized by belligerents to destroy the enemy. Within armies or even in isolated rebel groups, as is the case in Congo where there is no necessarily established hierarchical structure.
Rape was a weapon of war, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. What about in Ukraine?
I have no precise idea of what is happening in Ukraine. Like in Kosovo, I didn't witness anything, I just knew it happened. What we know is that rape is a weapon of war.
Now, I do not distinguish between what is happening in the DRC, in Yugoslavia or in Ukraine. It's the same principle. It's like shooting a rifle or grenades, or setting mines. Previously, war rape may have been less structured, but it was already part of the strategy. During World War II, it was considered “collateral damage.” Today, we are aware that this is not just collateral damage caused by chance. It's a strategy. We have only progressed in knowledge, but war rape has been around for a long time.
How can we combat war rape?
By trying to avoid wars. In all wars, there is war rape.
A bill was tabled in March 2022 in the Senate, aiming to have rape recognized as a war crime. Do you think that the legislative aspect could constitute a means of protecting civilians from rape as a weapon of war?
Making rape a crime against humanity could indeed be a political weapon. But in practice, it remains difficult to act to protect women against war rape. There are probably conventions, but they are not respected.