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Rape as a weapon of war

Rape has now been accepted as a war crime by the UN

I must admit that though I'd noticed the ruling, I hadn't though to mention it until now.

I suppose it's because I take it as given that as women, we all know that it's women and children who suffer the most in war. You can't protect yourself, you can't protect your children. The threat of sexual violence only adds insult to injury, and it is women, worldwide, and in all times, who have borne the brunt of it.

Most of us are lucky to have grown up in nations at peace. But I still know many women who've been raped. Raped by fathers, brothers, boyfriends, strangers.

Rape exists in every nation even in peacetime, but its use as a weapon of war should be no surprise to anyone who's read Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will. I have always remembered (though I paraphrase) General Patton's order concerning his own men: "In spite of my most diligent efforts, there will undoubtedly be some raping...and I want the offenders brought to me so that I can see them properly hanged." He was as good as his word, too - expeditiously trying and executing four American troops in Sicily who had raped Italian women.

Patton knew his history, and he knew that the story of conquest is indivisible from rape. But it was Brownmiller who made it clear that rape is not committed by retreating armies (too busy saving their skins) nor, generally, by front-line troops (too busy winning the battle). It is those who follow that cut a swathe through defenceless womanhood worldwide - the second-line Russians marching into Berlin, frustrated grunts in the Vietcong-infested jungle, irregular troops, militias, marauders and skirmishers of every description, in every war, everywhere, at every time.

In my lifetime, Americans have raped the Vietnamese wholesale, Pakistanis have raped Bengalis, Serbians have raped Bosnians, Israelis have raped Palestinians, and on it goes. The current world focus is on the Janjawiid militias, who are terrorising the women of Darfur, but in the most recent wars, militias raped virtually ALL the women in Liberia, while to this day, the women of the Congo are fair game for every soldier on every side, even those in the uniforms of peacekeepers.

As far as rape in warfare goes, the younger the victims the better (little girls are the best), and the more public the crime, the more effective it is - preferably gang-based, preferably in front of the men, preferably resulting in children of another colour, so that the entire fabric of society is shattered. There is no more certain way to plunge a nation into chaos than to pollute its women. So wholesale was the rape of Bengali women in the Bangladesh war that the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared all such victims 'heroines of the state' to prevent them being ostracised or killed by their own families.

The adoption of resolution 1820 in the Hague will do nothing to stop rape in war, but it is at least a step in the right direction and let us hope that it leads to the crime being seen for what it is - a political strategy used by the unscrupulous to create conflict and disorder for generations to come.

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British Parliament does us proud

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill passed resoundingly yesterday, paving the way for improved genetic research

Despite the attacks of the God-botherers, who tried to sneak in a cut in the abortion limit under the wire of the embryology bill, Parliament saw sense on every count yesterday.

* The abortion limit remains at 24 weeks, despite attempts by right-wingers to cut it to 20 or even 12.

* Lesbian couples and single mothers need not now take the 'father's' view into account when seeking IVF.

* Embryos may be produced by implanting human DNA into animal eggs to produce hybrid embryos that can be used for stem cell research.

* And parents may choose a specific embryo to tissue-match a new baby to an existing child who has certain genetic disorders.

The whole thing was a triumph for reason and science over religion and knee-jerk emotion.

The move to cut the time limit on abortion had virtually no support in the UK outside religious pressure groups and the right-wing tabloid press. The population did not want a change, according to polls; the medical evidence was heavily against it since very few foetuses survive under 24 weeks (some 40 per cent die shortly after birth and the remainder are mostly very handicapped); the Health Minister Dawn Primarolo was in favour of keeping the limit at 24 weeks; and so were both heads of the major parties. Parliament was given a free vote so that Catholics and other religious minorities could vote according to conscience, but thankfully the move to cut the limit was defeated by around two to one.

In the UK, it should be noted, nearly 90 per cent of abortions take place within 12 weeks in any case - this, in spite of the fact that abortion on demand does not actually exist in the UK (which it does here in France). In the UK, a pregnant woman still has to prove that the birth would be detrimental to her physical or emotional health, or that the foetus would be handicapped, and obtain the consent of two doctors - in this regard the country lags far behind most other countries in Europe but luckily there are moves afoot to liberalise the legislation.

Furthermore, in the UK 68 per cent of abortions take place very early - inside nine weeks and only one per cent of abortions take place after 22 weeks. The 'problem' of the 'epidemic' of late-term abortion simply doesn't exist. It was not an issue that needed to be dealt with.

Many women do not know, incidentally, that around one in three women has an abortion during her lifetime, and that in the UK at least, as many abortions are carried out on women over the age of 50 as there are on girls under 16. We would do well remember in our steady middle age that it is not all irresponsible teenagers who end up in the club after a night on the tiles, but pre-menopausal and menopausal women who take their eye off the ball because we think we're past it.

The Bill's side-issues of 'Frankenstein siblings' and rabid lesbians jamming the IVF clinics to have fatherless babies were thankfully simply kicked into touch. What utter bollocks all this was. The British public, a libertarian lot, don't really give a stuff about who shags whom, as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses, and if lesbians want to be parents, better good lesbians than bad heterosexuals - there are plenty of those about, after all.

The major portion of the embryology bill, however, is a real breakthrough for science, and in the absence of human eggs to experiment on should hopefully furnish our researchers with usable stem cells long into the future. The embryos will be destroyed after 14 days, just as with human embryos. The move brings the prospect of a cure for some terrible diseases much closer, including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal atrophy, Parkinson's and Huntingdon's Chorea (which killed my great-aunt and is currently killing one of my cousins).

In tandem, scientists will pursue the possibililty of adult-generated stem cells. Although the substantial reverse-engineering required for this currently renders the results too unreliable to use, it does at least lack any controversy at all, unlike the hybrid embryos, the prospect of which seems to make some people very queasy.

Waris Dirie found safe

Somali women's rights activist found safe after going missing for three days

blog imageWaris Dirie, former supermodel and Bond girl, has been found safe after going missing in Brussels - good news on what is International Women's Day.

It must be a relief for everyone who knows her that she's turned up because - like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is under death threat - she is a campaigner against female genital mutilation.

Dirie has already moved city once to avoid an obsessed stalker who broke into her home twice and physically attacked her. And only last week, another former model and campaigner against female circumcision, Guinean-born Katoucha Niane, was found dead in the Seine. Thankfully there are no signs of foul play in that case and it appears to have been an accidental drowning.

Dirie underwent the procedure of circumcision at the age of five and considers herself lucky to have survived - her sister and two cousins did not. In 1997, she was appointed by Kofi Annan as Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. She also holds France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur and is author of several books about her life and about female circumcision - Desert Flower, Desert Dawn and Desert Children.

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