Armies At War Use Rape as a Weapon 

As the NATO Peacekeepers and relief workers have been sifting through the rubble of war-ravaged Kosovo, the evidence they're not finding are secreted stories of the rape and torture of Kosovar women by Serbian troops.  It is becoming evident that these women are hiding their shame behind denial in a process that both protects the guilty and denies the innocent a chance of  healing.

In a culture that prizes female virginity and fidelity, Muslim women face divorce and abandonment if they are raped.  The shame associated with such an attack is so great that many women declare they would rather die than live after a rape. Despite the unconfirmed reports of rape camps in the town of Pec and at an army camp near Djakovica, not a single woman said in interviews that she was raped by a Serbian soldier.  But reports of others being raped are numerous. This poses a serious problem for human rights organizations as they attempt to collect the information needed to convict Slobodan Milosevic of war crimes under the rules set up by the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.

Rape as a tool of war is not new. Marauding armies have always used rape as a means of controlling the minds and bodies of those they sought to conquer. In countries such as Bosnia, Kuwait, Somalia, Peru, Liberia, Rwanda and Indonesia, women pay dearly for civil and national wars.  Rape enables the victors to demoralize their prey, further asserting their power over the foreign "other."  It is this "otherness" that is stressed during warfare—it grants humans the right to destroy human life in the name of protecting the security of the motherland.  The invasion of women’s bodies is another consequence of the masculine privilege that extends from this warfare.  But, instead of death, it leaves behind a permanent legacy of suffering and sense of failure long after the battlefields have quieted.

This legacy of suffering is not just the plight of countries at war. Studies estimate that one in every three U.S. women face rape or attempted rape at least once in their lives. Of those raped, 61 percent are under the age of eighteen. The incidence of rape is so great that Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala has declared, "We must recognize violence against women as a significant social problem."

And this problem may be larger than estimated. Experts assume that less than half of all rapes are reported to authorities due to, among other things, the fear of not being believed.

For a woman identified as Jennifer W, this fear was justified. After being raped by a man she met on the Internet, Jennifer W. faced ridicule and disbelief when she tried to report the crime. The police went so far as to threaten Jennifer W. with criminal prosecution should her claims turn out to be unfounded. Her rapist eventually admitted to his crimes, but not before first raping a 17-year-old in a separate incident.

This account underscores the war being waged on women at home. Not only does rape subjugate and injure a woman, but her fears of further prosecution and ridicule serve to silence her when she would speak out. The silence of Kosovar and U.S. women speaks to a greater need, a need for international and domestic support for rape prevention and education.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) is an international agreement committed to ending violence against women. It seeks to ensure that women share the same economic, cultural, social and political rights as men.

Although the U.S. was among the countries responsible for drafting this agreement, it is not among the 162 countries that have ratified CEDAW.  Senate leadership repeatedly refuses to allow debate on CEDAW.  In order to begin to rectify the crimes of war and insure that future violence doesn't take its toll on the world’s women, people in this country must use their political weight and urge the Senate to discuss and ratify CEDAW.

On a domestic level, the bi-partisan Violence Against Women Act of 1999 (VAWA) is an omnibus package designed to re-authorize and enhance the programs begun by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.  Many of the programs initiated by VAWA 1994 will expire in 2000.  Among the vital services that current VAWA programs provide: law enforcement and prosecution grants to combat violence against women ( including provision of victim services, assistance to state courts and law enforcement agencies); the National Domestic Violence Hotline which assists up to 10,000 callers a month; and funding for the training of law enforcement, social and medical workers and many others on the front-lines helping victims. If VAWA is allowed to expire, these and other key strategies to reduce violence against women will come to a halt or face reduced funding.  Congress must be encouraged to pass VAWA 1999 now that members have returned from their recess in August.

Rape and other forms of violence against women will follow both our nation and others into the new millennium.  Ratification of CEDAW by the Senate and passage of VAWA 1999 will continue to send the message that such actions are unacceptable and will work toward a new vision for the future.

Return to Fall 1999 National NOW Times
 Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW