by Claudine Wright
For many of us “sex” can be a loaded and often uncomfortable word. Depending on our upbringing we may approach the topic of sex with joy and openness, embarrassment or fear, and we may experience more than our fair share of hang-ups when the topic is broached. But for hundreds of thousands of women the world over, sex has only the darkest of meanings—unmitigated horror, years of lingering physical pain, and night terrors too awful to describe. These are the women who have been subjected to one of the most brutal of crimes—rape as an act of war.
For much of the world’s history, “raping and pillaging” were the normal and expected actions of the victors in a conflict, the reward, however ignominious, for a battle well fought. But it is only in relatively recent times that the raping of women has been actively used as a sanctioned weapon of war. It is a particularly effective one.
But how did sex, which at its most basic is a natural procreative act, devolve into a weapon of mass destruction? Psychologists maintain that rape, despite its sexual component, has very little to do with sex, but everything to do with power, dominance, and control. Traditionally, men have held all the power in society. Females in most cultures, especially deeply patriarchal ones, were considered chattel, property, second class citizens. A woman’s virginity, chastity, and sexual “purity” were sources of pride for her father, when she was young, and later, ownership, for her husband when she got married. To rob a woman of what was cherished most was to rob her of her worth, her standing in her community. So how better for a conquering army to show its absolute dominance over the conquered than by “defiling” its women?
The History of Mass Rape
The history of rape as a war tactic during, is a particularly sordid one. It has been estimated that more than 80,000 women were raped by the Japanese Army in what came to be known as “The Rape of Nanking”. As many as 200,000 Korean and Chinese women were forced into brothels as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Red Army soldiers are alleged to have raped two million women during the years and in the aftermath of World War II. Two hundred thousand Bangladeshi women were raped by the Pakistani Army in 1971; twenty thousand Bosnian women by the Serbian Army between March 1992 and November 1995; five hundred thousand women in the 1994 Rwandan conflict, and today, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 200,000 women have been raped during the country’s decades-long civil war, giving the war-ravaged
country the dubious distinction of being the “rape capital of the world.”
Chad, Sudan, Liberia, Somalia, Uganda, and numerous other hotspots around the world all have their own depressing statistics. The rationale for using rape as a war tactic are many: arming a militia is expensive—much less ammunition is needed if a man carries his own “ammunition” with him, or can easily make one from a pointed stick; it is “safer” than engaging in armed conflict—fewer dead soldiers to retrieve and bury; it effectively
demoralizes the women as many are physically devastated, and feel shamed into silence, and it emasculates the men, many of whom are forced to watch as their wives, sisters, and daughters are violently assaulted.
But what is being done on behalf of these women and the millions of children who have been born to them?
The World Responds
In her August 2009 trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pledging 17 million dollars for funding for survivors of sexual violence, stated to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, “We believe that there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many, and that there must be arrests, prosecutions, and punishments.”
In her August 2009 trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pledging 17 million dollars in funding for survivors of sexual violence, stated to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, “We believe that there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many, and that there must be arrests, prosecutions, and punishments.”
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000 which in part “calls on all parties to armed conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and all other forms of violence in situations of armed conflict.” The resolution also “. . . emphasizes the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute
those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes including those relating to sexual violence against women and girls, and in this regard, stresses the need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions.” Further, the resolution, “calls upon all parties to armed conflict to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements, and to take into account the particular needs of women
and girls. . .”
The systematic act of rape was recognized as a war crime by statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998. The statute further stated that the Court had the power to create ad hoc tribunals. This ruling led to the creation of the courts that successfully prosecuted soldier perpetrators in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. An even further-reaching ruling was achieved when the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda found that the
rape of Tutsi women constituted torture when it was performed "by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other persons acting in an official capacity."
The Fourth Geneva Convention also provides for protection for women against sexual violence: “women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitutions, or any form of indecent assault (Article 27), but most women will never have their stories told, will never see their attackers punished. The majority of the women who have been attacked live in some of the most troubled and
impoverished areas of the world. Many are uneducated and do not know that there are organizations that can help them. Even when they are aware of agencies that can offer help, the internalized shame they feel and the ostracism they experience from their communities make them reluctant to step forward to seek aid. Not to be underestimated also is the tremendous psychological burdens that these women will carry for the rest of their lives. Many have borne children as a result of the rapes, and are forced to balance the double bind of the natural love of a mother for her child, along with revulsion from the act from which the child was created. It is not an easy cross to bear.
Supporting the Women
The pressing needs of women who have been raped include medical, psychological, and financial support. Many United Nations NGOs, local church-and women-led support groups have stepped in to fill the void. Many well-known international agencies, including the Red Cross, provide services for women, but these efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to the massive need. Many of these women have been pushed out of their communities, and have banded to live together in makeshift villages, raising their children and trying to eke out a living and repair their lives.
Even though we are thousands of miles removed, there is a lot we can do to help these women. First, we can educate ourselves about the problem and then take action as we can see fit or are able to. Following are links to organizations and additional information that will help to point us in the right direction.
HOW TO HELP
Prosecuting Rape As A War Crime: Speaking the Unspeakable
This is an in-depth, well-researched and annotated article on the social, cultural, political, and psychological aspects of rape as an act of war.
One Woman's Story
This article tells the story of a Congolese woman, Fatuma Kayengela, who dared to stand up to the rapists of her daughter and defy the traditional mores of her society by forming a support group.
This link to Oprah Winfrey’s Web site will give you a list of actions you can to help a survivor of rape.
HEAL Africa assists survivors of sexual violence. Over 100 counselors are responsible for identifying incidents of sexual violence, providing confidential psychosocial support to survivors and conducting appropriate referrals so survivors may access all available services to assist them during their recovery process.
The General Referral Hospital of Panzi (GRHP) is located in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The hospital provides treatment for the survivors of sexual violence and surgical repair for women suffering from fistulas of the urogenital tract.