Saturday, 21 June 2008

Rape as weapon

Mass rape as a deliberate tactic of war is something not often spoken about. But it happens in many countries and wrecks the lives of many thousands of women - and girls.

Military commanders know systematic rape can be more intimidating and destructive than conventional weapons. It terrorises whole communities, wiping out resistance and support for combatants.

It also attracts less attention because there is no pile of bodies and the victims are often too ashamed to say anything about it.

Up till now world leaders have done disgracefully little about it, treating it simply as a side-effect of war, as petty crime, or as typical male behaviour they can't control.

But the United Nations Security Council has now voted unanimously to classify rape as a weapon of war. And it is setting up an inquiry into how widespread it is and how to tackle it.

Attempts are being made to get the US Senate to take the issue seriously too. It needs to be recognised universally as a war crime and dealt with accordingly.

Military mass rape is common in African countries but has also occurred in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The rape capital of the world is said to be eastern Congo, where in some areas three quarters of women have been raped.

It can do far more damage than weapons, producing rejected children, widespread disease, and individual and communal trauma. And the assailants avoid the potential death and injury of traditional warfare.

The victims are not even combatants but innocent civilians who may want nothing to do with local conflicts. They are simply pawns in a battle for power.

Now that world leaders are recognising this routine brutality, there is hope it can be reduced and with it the appalling human toll.

Thanks to Nicole for flagging this up on her own blog.

Photo: Anti-rape protest in Liberia, West Africa. The message reads: "Do not give in to fear, sadness and danger. Do not give up. Report violence cases"


I start a new job on Tuesday - at another charity which I'd better not identify. So posting and commenting may be a bit erratic until I've got the new routine sorted out. But I'll be visiting you all just as often as I can!


  1. Well done Nick, that's an excellent post on a terrible and sad subject: If you don't mind I'll reference it on my own blog.

  2. Thanks, BB. Yes please use it any way you want. The more publicity on this issue the better!

  3. Wonderful job Nick. You've started a nice little chain. I had a conversation about this topic with a female and a male friend and they each had very different takes. The male friend felt that at least these women were still alive...and he meant that with all the sympathy in the world. He felt that if they could bring themselves to overcome and speak out, then they could turn tragedy into something good. But I don't think he could see that for some women, rape is a fate worse than death - an act of terror. That is exactly how my girlfriend saw it. She said that death would be preferable to living with the memory of being raped. I'm doing a follow-up post based on this conversation in the next day or so.

    Perhaps the American government isn't too interested in talking about this topic because then we'd also have to discuss acts of sexual violence committed both within and by our own military.

  4. Women as commodity, disempowered and valued only because of their sexuality. This is a horrific issue and runs so deep, Nick. Every rape affects all the children of the woman, her husband, her sisters, her mother. Suicide is often her only way out of the condemnation and judgement of her family and her own hopelessness. Bosnia was so affected by this along with Africa.
    I agree with the Aga Khan who is funding education for women the world over: The only way out is to educate the impoverished women of the world and empower them so that this, along with other fem-crimes will never happen again.
    We don't heal by dealing with the end result, by then it is far too late, we deal with the damaged mysogynistic system first.
    thanks for the post Nick.

  5. Nicole - The two different takes are interesting, and unfortunately very typical. Very hard for some men to understand just what rape does to a woman. At least they're still alive! I can only cringe. And to think suicide is preferable to the memory of rape is really sobering. But it's true that the more women speak out, the less it's going to happen.

    And yes, the wall of silence helps the American military to deny the sexual violence in their own ranks.

    www - As you say, rape affects not only the woman but her friends and family, and for some distraught women suicide is the only answer. A proper education for all women and some real power in society is indeed the best way to stop it happening.

  6. Not much else to add really Nick other than total agreement. Rape has always been an act of aggression and violence yet it's treated as a sexual crime and often fobbed off as better than the alternative. It's getting people to speak up in a climate of conflict that's going to be the tough call especially in war torn African nations.

  7. Baino - Absolutely, it's treated as a sex crime although it's always more to do with power than sex, a classic way for men to terrorise women and gain control over them.

  8. Your post was excellent, but your comment in response to Baino said it all perfectly.

    Thank you for posting on such an important subject (yet again)!

  9. FG - Thanks. Well, I like to post about issues that other people ignore. And by God this one needs some serious worldwide attention, when the media can bring themselves to stop obsessing with the latest misbehaving celeb and look at some real news.

  10. Thank you for bringing our awaress to this painful issue.

    And all the very best in your new job, Nick.


  11. Thanks, Hulla. The more people who know about this barbarism the better.

  12. So glad you posted this. It's a horrible, horrible act, perpetrated against women of all ages and girls too. It makes me sick to think about the horrors women in some places are enduring because of the atrocities of war.

    Hope your first day goes wonderfully.

  13. Difficult to add more than what's been said already. There's a teribble urban myth in some African nations that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. As a result many women are raped and infected - the mind boggles.

  14. Liz - It's quite sickening. Conventional warfare is bad enough without war being used to justify mass violence against women.

    Quicky - Yes, I'd heard that nonsense about virginity curing AIDS. There are plenty of other myths about AIDS still flying around despite all the scientific evidence.

  15. They played Condi Rice's speech a few times on the CBC and I kept thinking, too little too late you evil bitch.

  16. Medbh - Well, better late than never I suppose, though the task of reducing, let alone ending, mass rape in war is still a daunting one.

  17. Nick ~ It was heartbreaking at the time when I was still living in Turkey, to see that a lot of Bosnian girls gave their babies for adoption. They were Muslim and the babies were the product of rape by Serbian soldiers - just (!) following orders of their insane commanders. What I don't understand is, how can a man be aroused simply because his commander ordered the rape of an innocent girl / woman. I don't condone war, but it's one thing to be at war as soldiers of a country, it's another to engage in a violent sexual act, taking the dignity of a woman. I think a lot of people said at the time they prefered death to suffering at the hands of these monsters, which subsequently led to 9 months of carrying a baby only to give it away, because it would remind them and their families of the shame for years to come. I don't understand the mentality of the perpetrator as much as I fail to understand the Muslim mentality of shame. Not her fault, not the baby's fault.
    What is happening in Africa is no different, if not even more violent and outrageous.
    Great piece of writing Nick.

  18. GayƩ - You're right, rape itself may be invisible but nine months pregnancy certainly isn't and as you say can lead to crippling shame and ostracism if your culture is unsympathetic. I'm afraid men can be aroused by just about anything, unlike women who are more motivated by love and romance. But personally I also find it astonishing that men could even think about sex in those circumstances.

  19. My first year in college the public schools in Boston, MA were being integrated. Everyday, parents said goodbye to their children without knowing if a mob would overturn their bus, if they would be spat upon or beaten. The Boston police did little to protect the kids.

    On my campus the black and white men were angry about what was happening in the city around them. They took to raping the young women. Blacks raping whites and whites raping blacks. As a woman it taught me a powerful and sad lesson about how little the personhood of a woman is valued by many men.

    Always something stimulating to find here. Thanks.

  20. Gayle, that's a terrible story. Particularly the fact that the men were just using women to vent their rage and frustration. As you say, it shows how little respect many men have for women.

  21. This is a ghastly subject that has been covered up for much too long. It's encouraging that the UN is finally beginning to address it, but so disheartening that human beings can treat each other that way.

  22. Heart - Yes, it was about time the UN flatly condemned the practice instead of ignoring it and hoping it would somehow go away.