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The Strategic Use of Rape as a Weapon in War and Ethnic Cleansing

An excellent research paper by Kristy Reddick - Spring 2008

Throughout the countless wars of human history, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been perpetrated against citizens by advancing soldiers and occupational military forces. While in the past, rapes and other sexual aggressions have been considered as random occurrences taking place in the "fog of war", increasing evidence may prove to debunk this social myth, especially in cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The opportunistic rape and pillage of previous centuries has been replaced in modern conflict by rape used as an orchestrated combat tool, (Smith-Spark, 2008) used to humiliate and demoralize individuals and cause ruinous rifts between spouses, extended family members and whole communities.

A consensus concerning the strategic use of rape and other forms of sexual violence is growing among members of human rights groups, aid agencies and independent journalists. I intend upon utilizing data provided by these sources to debunk the social myth that the rapes being committed in contemporary armed conflicts are random, uncoordinated events to which the affects are not considered by the perpetrators.

International Law Regarding "Crimes against Humanity" and Rape
Although the phrase "crimes against humanity" was coined in 1907, the crimes falling within its scope were left largely unspecified until the 1945 charters of the International Military Tribunals for Germany and Japan defined such crimes as "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population". The Tribunal charters were left deliberately vague to permit the evolution of the term and inclusion of a wide range of violations. (Gingerich, 2004). During the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, an initiative called for the special protection of woman "against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault" . The United Nations defines rape as "...a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive" and has stated that like torture, rape in times of war is specifically prohibited by treaty law, (The United Nations, 1998).

The Woman's International League for Peace and Freedom expresses the belief that rape should be considered a method of warfare when armed forces or groups use it to "torture, injure, extract information, degrade, intimidate, punish or simply destroy the fabric of the community" (Cross, 2008).

Evidence of Mass Rape and Sexual Violence in Contemporary Wars and Conflicts Involving Ethnic Cleansing
The extent to which mass rapes and sexual violence has been used as a method of warfare and in conflicts involving ethnic cleansing is staggering. Due to a variety of social and cultural forces which prohibit many victims of rape and sexual violence to report their cases, the exact numbers of civilians who have been brutalized can not be known. However, documented accounts of rape and the data provided by numerous surveys conducted throughout the last 20 years provide a startling glimpse of the scope of affected populations in conflicts occurring in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In a co-authored report intended for the International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, Mendy Marsh and Jeanne Ward site the following data provided in a November, 2005 IRIN/OCHA report;

By 1993, the Zenica Centre for the Registration of War and Genocide Crime in Bosnia-Herzegovina had documented 40,000 cases of war-related rape.

Of a sample of Rwandan women surveyed in 1999, 39 percent reported being raped during the 1994 genocide and 72 percent said that they knew someone who had been raped.

An estimated 23,200 to 45,600 Kosovar Albanian women are believed to have been raped between August 1998 and August 1999 during the height of conflict with Serbia.


Based on the outcomes of a study undertaken in 2000, researchers concluded that approximately 50,000 to 64,000 internally displaced women may have been sexually victimized during Sierra Leone's protracted armed conflict.

Of a sample of 410 internally displaced Columbian women in Cartagena who were surveyed in 2003, 8 percent reported some form of sexual violence prior to being displaced and 11 percent reported being abused since their displacement.

Currently in Sudan, the widespread incidences of rape may be viewed as a weapon of war employed by the Janjaweed militia in conjunction with other efforts to devastate, displace, and destroy the tribal peoples of the Darfur region. In May of 2004, Amnesty International delegates collected 500 testimonies of woman who had been raped in the context of the conflict. However, the testimonies collected, combined with the reports of sexual violence collected by the UN, independent journalists and non-governmental organizations in Darfur, indicates beyond doubt that the occurrence of rape and other forms of sexual violence is widespread, (Amnesty International , 2004). Physicians for Human Rights notes that during 1998 and 2003, an estimated 33 percent of the women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were raped in the ensuing conflict, including up to 80 percent of woman in any given community. The International Rescue Committee estimates that for every rape reported, 30 are not, (Gingerich, 2004). Reporting from the Eastern Congo in November of 2007, journalist Chris McGreal stated;

It is not only the scale of the rape [in the Congo] that is significant but the brutality that often accompanies it. Hospitals have treated women who have had guns, sticks and tin cans thrust into their vaginas after being raped. Armed men have also cut babies from the bellies of pregnant women after raping them, (McGreal, 2007).

Systematic Rape as an Affective War Strategy to Destabilize Communities and Families

Systematic rape is often carried out by fighting forces for the explicit purpose of destabilizing populations and destroying bonds within communities and families. In these instances, rape is often a public act, aimed to maximize humiliation and shame, (Marsh, 2006). Reports from the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia indicate that rape not only served as a "reward" to soldiers, but was also used as an "instrument of terror" and to "impregnate...destroy or dilute culture,...torture,...and dehumanize" woman, (Gingerich, 2004).

As noted by Mendy Marsh and Jeanne Ward, wartime rape may serve to discourage "resistance by instilling fear in local communities or in opposing armed groups. In such cases, women's bodies are used as an envelope to send messages to the perceived enemy. Particularly in conflicts defined by racial, tribal, religious and other divisions, violence may be used to advance the goal of ethnic cleansing". Reporting on the ensuing violence in the Eastern Congo, Chris McGreal noted in a November 2007 article for the UK based Guardian that it is widely believed by aid workers that rape is being used by the Mai Mai traditional militia and the renegade Tutsi soldiers known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda to break civilian support for rivals or punish "undesirable" ethnic groups. McGreal interviewed Augustine Augier, an administrator with the medical aid charity Medecins sans Frontieres at the Rutshuru hospital in the eastern Congo. Augier explained that countless women and children are raped in village attacks by soldiers or combatants with an intent to "terrorize communities into accepting their control or to punish them for real or supposed links to opposing forces" (McGreal, 2007).

When a war aims to include the ethnic cleansing or annihilation of a particular group, systematic rape could arguably be deployed to manipulate norms of honor, chastity, virginity, femininity, masculinity, loyalty, marriage, and kinship, (Cross, 2008). Thus women who have been raped or are victims of other sexual transgressions often are faced with the destabilization of their families and ruination of their marriages. As is the case in most African cultures, a married woman who engages in sexual relations with a man other than her husband is seen as "unclean" and deserves to be ostracized from the family unit, regardless of incidences of sexual coercion or rape. Women that are victims of sexual violence are often seen as bringing "dishonor" to their husbands. In turn, husbands are justified within the context of cultural norms to abandon their wives or even kill them in order to salvage the family's reputation, a so-called "honor killing", (Marsh, 2006). Fear of rejection or reprisal silences many rape victims from documenting the transgression.

The Devastating Affects of Rape and Sexual Violence upon the Victim's Health

Sexual violence against women in war and its aftermath can have almost inestimable short and long-term negative health consequences. As a result of the systematic and exceptionally violent gang rape of thousands of Congolese women and girls, doctors in the DRC are now classifying vaginal destruction as a "crime of combat", (Marsh, 2006).
Mendy Marsh and Jeanne Ward site HIV/AIDS as one of the most devastating physical health consequences of rape and sexual assaults occurring in contemporary wars and ethnic conflicts. In a study conducted in the year 2000, it was found that of 1,000 widows of the Rwandan genocide, 67 percent of rape survivors were HIV-positive. In the same year, the United Nations Secretary-General concluded, "Armed conflicts ... increasingly serve as vectors for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which follows closely on the heels of armed troops and in the corridors of conflict", (Marsh, 2006).

Rape can have other severe consequences for a woman's physical health, including the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, massive internal trauma, miscarriages, infertility, and incontinence. Raped woman often must deal with an unwanted pregnancy and may opt to abort or abandon the child due to horror and stigma under which he or she was conceived. Many women choose to accept and care for these children born of rape, at the risk of rejection from their communities or blame for the misfortune of the family. The child may have no real surname or worse be stateless and have no social standing or inheritance rights in communities where the paternity determines the child's name and nationality, (Marsh, 2006).

The physical and mental distress suffered by victims of wartime rape results in agonizing and enduring psychological trauma and severe depression. John Holmes, a journalist with the Los Angeles Times commented in his recent article Congo's Rape War that "sexual violence is an affront not only to the body but to the soul and dignity of every woman assaulted" (Holmes, 2007). A Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide spoke of the lasting scars of the transgressions she endured and the violence she witnessed in an interview with the Human Rights Watch. During an attack, Hutu militia men gang raped and beat her unconscious. When she awoke, she witnessed the brutal murder of all the people around her. Her testimony exemplifies the persisting and acute pain experienced by conflict victims the world over:

I regret that I didn't die that day. Those men and women who died are now at peace whereas I am still here to suffer even more. I'm handicapped in the true sense of the word. I don't know how to explain it. I regret that I'm alive because I've lost my lust for life. We survivors are broken-hearted. We live in a situation which overwhelms us. Our wounds become deeper every day. We are constantly in mourning, (Marsh, 2006).


Targeting the "Norms" of Violence in Times of War and Peace

Efforts to punish the perpetrators of "crimes against humanity" within the context of rape as a weapon of warfare are continuously being undertaken by human rights organizations and the highest international criminal courts. In addition to this pursuit, many people involved in efforts to bring an end to the extreme sexual violence endured by woman and girls in unstable regions of the world are advocating the necessity of examining the societal and relational contexts in which violence against women and girls occurs. War may be seen as setting the precedent of widespread tolerated violence towards women. Ann Jones, a writer, photographer and current volunteer with the Gender-Based Volunteer unit of the International Rescue Committee states "the pattern of assaulting women, once adopted as a tactic of war, has become a habit with ex-combatants...civilians have adopted it too", (Jones, 2008). On the other hand, the extent to which mass rapes and other sexual transgressions are occurring during contemporary warfare may be attributed to the degree to which violence towards women is tolerated in some societies. In his report "Rape and HIV/AIDS in Rwanda", P. Donovan writes:

In a world where sex crimes are too often regarded as misdemeanors during times of law and order, surely rape will not be perceived as a high crime during war, when all the rules of human interaction are turned on their heads, and heinous acts regularly earn their perpetrators commendation. ... What matters most is that we combine the new acknowledgment of rape's role in war with a further recognition: humankind's level of tolerance for sexual violence is not established by international tribunals after war. That baseline is established by societies, in times of peace. The rules of war can never really change as long as violent aggression against women is tolerated in everyday life.

The Social Myth of Wartime Rapes as Random Occurrences is Debunked
The extent to which mass rapes and other forms of sexual violence have come to characterize modern conflicts and campaigns of ethnic cleansing indicates it's utility as an affective weapon of warfare. Evidence of the extent to which rape is used to destroy the lives of individuals and destabilize marriages, undermine families and devastate entire communities further signifies that it should not be dismissed as a random occurrence, taking place in "the fog of war" but is a brutal and premeditated tactic fully considered by its perpetrators.

It is my belief that efforts must continue within the International Criminal Court to prosecute soldiers and ex-combatants who have used rape as a war tactic. I fully support human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and aid groups like Medecins sans Frontieres in their efforts to advocate and provide support for the victims of conflict zones. I have an immense amount of respect for these groups and for independent journalists and volunteers who are working tirelessly to bring the world's attention to the strategic use of rape as a weapon of war.

Works Cited
Amnesty International . (2004, July 19). Darfur: Rape as a Weapon of War: Sexual Violence and its Consequences. Retrieved May 14, 2008, from Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR54/076/2004

Cross, I. C. (2008, Feburary). Women and War: Sexual Violence. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from Women's International League for Peace and Freedom: http://www.peacewomen.org/resources/Human_Rights/womenandwar08.pdf

Donavon, P. (2002). "Rape and HIV/AIDS in Rwanda". Supplement to The Lancet: Medicine and Conflict , p. 18.

Gingerich, T. L. (2004, October). The Use of Rape as a Weapon of War in the Conflict in Darfur, Sudan. Retrieved May 14, 2008, from PhysiciansForHumanRights.org: http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/report-2004-oct-darfurrape.html

Holmes, J. (2007, October 11). Congo's Rape War. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from The Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/new/opinion/la-oe-holmes11oct11,0,1470825,print.story

Jones, A. (2008, May 13). African Women Making Change. Retrieved May 14, 2008, from MotherJones.com: http://www.motherjones.com/cgi-bin/print_article.pl?url.html.

Marsh, M. &. (2006, June 21-23). Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls. Retrieved June 2, 2008, from UNFPA: http://www.unfpa.org/emergencies/symposium06/docs/finalbrusselsbriefingpaper.pdf

McGreal, C. (2007, November 17). Hunderds of thousands of women raped for being on the wrong side. Retrieved May 31, 2008, from guardian.co.uk: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/nov/12/congo.international/print

Smith-Spark, L. (2008, May). How Did Rape Become a Weapon of War? Retrieved May 14, 2008, from BBC News.com: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/4078677.stm

The Economist. (2007, December 6). War's Other Victims. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from Economist.com: http://www.economist.com/world/international/PrinterFriendly.fcm?story_id=10253410

The United Nations. (1998, December 10). The Prosecutor v. Anto Furundzija - Case No. IT-95-17/1-T . Retrieved June 2, 2008, from Judicial Supplement 1 - UN: http://www.un.org/icty/Supplement/supp1-e/furundzija.htm