It is a crime that is perpetrated against the most vulnerable members of the world's most broken societies - one that destroys the lives of its victims and rips apart the fabric of communities.
Sexual assault is increasingly being used as a weapon of warfare, especially in clashes that are tribal or ethnic in nature. For that reason, Jody Williams decided it is time the issue was confronted head on. "There has always been rape in war, yes," says Ms. Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work to eradicate land mines. "But using it specifically as a tactic of war seems relatively new and on the scale that we're seeing it in the Congo, in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Burma."
Ms. Williams, an American, was joined in Montebello, Que., on Tuesday by two other female Nobel peace laureates - Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Ireland and Shirin Ebadi of Iran - to talk about rape in conflict zones. They invited more than 100 women from around the world to join them, many of whom have experienced sexual violence.
"It's something we all feel uncomfortable talking about," Ms. Maguire said. "But we really have to face this as perhaps the worst form of violence next to actually killing someone."
What it does to victims
In April of 1992, Bakira Hasecic was at home with her husband and two daughters, aged 13 and 18, in their town of Visegrad in Bosnia when a knock came at the door.
It was Veljko Planincic, the local police chief, who was also her next-door neighbour and a fishing buddy of her husband. Also known by the nickname "Goodtimes," Mr. Planincic was an ethnic Serb and an Orthodox Christian. Ms. Hasecic and her family are Muslims. The attempts of the non-Christian Bosnians to establish independence from Serbia had left the neighbours at war.
Mr. Planincic arrived with 15 other men. Ms. Hasecic knew all but two of them, she said.
The men demanded money and she gave it to them. But it was not enough. They forced her 18-year-old daughter into a bedroom where, as the family watched in horror, one of the two men she did not know raped the girl before their eyes.
Mr. Planincic and others held a rifle at their heads and warned them not to move but Ms. Hasecic would not sit still. She ran to the bedroom and jumped on the back of the rapist. The attackers pulled her off.
"I cannot believe a human being could rape a neighbour, especially in such a small town where everybody knows everybody," she said, the tears forming gentle lines over the bridge of her nose.
As the man climbed off the daughter, he smashed his rifle butt into the girl's head, fracturing her skull. She survived.
But the family was held under house arrest and both Ms. Hasecic and the girl were repeatedly raped in the following weeks by the Serbs who occupied their village.
Ms. Hasecic's sister was even less fortunate. Her home was turned into a rape camp by the Serb forces and she died there after repeated sexual assaults.
"Gang rapes were used as a strategic weapon of ethnic cleansing," said Ms. Hasecic. ""Whatever they could kill, rape, plunder, they did it."
What it does to communities
Rape is a tool of ethnic cleansing: Forced impregnation dilutes ethnic bloodlines.
But it is also an effective method of causing the societal breakdown of an opposing tribe or clan. In Sudan, for instance, the Janjaweed Arab militia are "raping women of different ethnic communities to destroy the fabric of the community," said Jody Williams.
"If you rape one woman in a village, you are certain to destroy that family because the husband will, 99.9 per cent of the time, divorce her.
"If you rape enough women in that village, you destroy the society in that village. If you rape enough women in enough villages of a certain ethnic group, you destroy it."
It is easy, and it is effective, she said. It is carried out both with the tacit consent of military leaders and by men for whom the rules of society have been overwritten by the violent world they inhabit.
"Where the traditional values or traditional ways of treating each other as humans break down then people start to do things they wouldn't have done normally," said Ms. Williams. "And that is part of the horror of war that is frequently overlooked, ignored, not talked about because it's too uncomfortable."
Rape is a most effective tool when women traditionally do not stray far from their homes and their crops. It leaves them untouchable in the eyes of their society, outcast and alone.
And sometimes it leaves them pregnant with the child of the enemy, or with a virus like AIDS.