War and armed conflicts have always been seen as inherently a man’s world. However, it should be noted that armed conflict also harms women. While women do not make up a majority of combatant casualties or fatalities, women nonetheless are often victimized and injured. According to the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that around 80 million women are currently sex trafficked around the world and at least one hundred million women are missing or have been displaced in part due to armed conflict.
, Violence in armed conflict tends to focus on women, centering around their sex, gender, and perceived normative social roles within society. While many women who are assaulted are wives and mothers, the often sought virginal youthful woman does not escape the savagery. Even though rape is recognized as a weapon of war and is condemned under the Rome Statute, it is difficult for the International Criminal Court to enforce the law. Frequently, it is the lack of documentation due to the usual chaos associated with armed conflict that makes prosecution a serious challenge. Despite this, women continue to be seen as the “sexual spoils” of war. This has persisted for decades — if not centuries. The sexualization of women in conflicts shifts the dynamic between men and women to that of sexual coercion for survival. While rape in war is an occurrence that is not well documented, estimates suggest that it is common. For World War II in Europe estimates range between one hundred thousand to two million women affected.
Such violence tends to result in internal damage to young women’s bodies, such as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, miscarriages, and unwanted pregnancies. Yet, this victimization doesn’t solely start and end at bodily harm. Loss of bodily autonomy turns to shame for victims and survivors of war rape. A mentality towards women who have been assaulted often turns to anger and disgust. When the conflict is ongoing or even has ended many men regard those women as whores, sluts, and traitors. The victims are unfavorably compared to women that have managed to avoid being assaulted. In such cultures, these women have remained “true” and “pure” compared to these sexual assault survivors that have been “sullied” or “dirtied” by foreign men.
Unfortunately, widespread views shaming women lead to a society of “honor” which demeans survivors. Some societies uphold women as this standard of either purity or deviance. While women who are chaste, modestly dressed, and wait until marriage to have sex are made into the pinnacle of what the average woman should act like, and those that don’t are entirely demonized. This has been well documented by Serap Cileli, author of the book “We Are Your Daughters, Not Your Honor”. Cileli documents how a young Ecuadorian stated bluntly, “The honor of a man lies between the legs of a woman.” She then recounts the life of a young Pakistani man who killed his wife and her younger sisters who said that he believed, “the younger sisters would do what their eldest had done, so they should be eliminated.” When asked for a motive the suspect then stated that, “We are poor people. We have nothing else left to protect but our honor.” This mentality of shame and honor can be further compounded, as recounted by journalist Elisabeth Bumiller in her report of the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. When interviewing a young married woman who was held hostage by Serbian forces and who claimed that she was not raped. Yet, upon returning home to her husband he wanted no association with her. When asked why the man stated rather simply, “I know that when women get on their hands there is no chance of escape.” He then goes on to claim that the only reason why she is claiming nothing happened to her is that, “It is not a story one would dare to tell” before adding that, “I don’t hate her, but the story is right before my eyes. I feel very cold towards her. Kissing her is like kissing a dead body.”
The brutalization of women has been documented since World War Two. Japan’s campaign in Southeast Asia led to atrocities in China and the Koreas, just to name two countries. Girls as young as fourteen years old were transported from one country to another to act as prostitutes for soldiers. Raids, public rapes, and sexual enslavement in villages and cities led to cultural anger and disgust that has not faded to this day. Additionally, during the Bosnian Genocide, many women found themselves compelled to commit suicide due to the shame they felt because of Serbian soldiers raiding and raping women, sometimes in front of their children.
Brutalizing women isn’t a facet of war that has been abandoned in the 21st century. In the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, there is a contemporary and lived experience of rape and shame for many young women and girls. We are hearing about Russian soldiers in Ukrainian towns raping and assaulting entire families in that ongoing and tragic war. While the United Nations and NGOs intervene in regions of conflict to protect civilians, many contract soldiers and other fighters block aid, making it difficult to access areas to assist and evacuate women.
It is obvious that measures to better protect women and girls in conflict zones need to be provided. More can still be done in ensuring these women get the safety and bodily autonomy they deserve in order to improve their quality of life. A focused and well-funded effort to document the brutality so that perpetrators can be prosecuted and, hopefully, their punishment can serve as a deterrent in future conflicts.
By Mikyla Bethune, Development Intern
Unknown. Women Still Suffering in War Zones, Special Representative Tells Security Council, Highlighting Unmet Global Commitments to Victims of Sexual Violence. United Nations. 14. Apr. 2021. https://press.un.org/en/2021/sc14493.doc.htm
Unknown. Women and Justice: Topics: Sexual violence and rape. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/women-and-justice/topic/sexual_violence_and_rape
Unknown. Women and Justice: Topics: Forced and early marriage, Forced sterilization, Gender violence in conflict, International law, Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement, Trafficking in persons. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/women-and-justice/topic/gender_violence_in_conflict