We Can’t be Surprised at Rape in War - Rape is Part of War

19/6/2024

Trigger warning: mentions of conflict, invasion and genocide, violence, sexual violence including sexual harassment, assault and rape.

When we hear about sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape happening in conflict situations, people are (rightfully) horrified, but also surprised. Really, we should not be surprised at all, because it happens all the time.

Whilst I should be running The Egalitarian, Spike Report and the Safe Place Project, I’ve decided to write a short piece in honour of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The aim of this piece is to stop the surprise when we hear reports of sexual violence happening during war, invasions and genocide. Sexual violence is a tactic in conflict, not an accident or something that happens on the side as a consequence of war. I’m focussing this piece mostly on war rape, which is used tactically by states, militaries, militias, gangs and terrorist groups for many reasons, which I’ll unpack a bit later. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual torture is also rife in conflict situations.

To give some context on who I am and why I’m writing this piece; I’m a certified geopolitics nerd, and I completed my International Relations MA in September 2023. Whilst I don’t miss academia in the slightest, I severely miss researching and writing about global politics (especially conflict) from a feminist perspective. I wrote every essay and my dissertation on feminist topics, and zoned in a lot on sexual violence in conflict. Before we get any further, I really do want to offer a content warning about what’s coming up. This topic is incredibly heavy, triggering and dark. Take breaks if you need to!

I want to give a brief overview of some examples of war rape to persuade people of the notion that we should be cautious of any perspective that says that sexual violence did not happen during a conflict situation. And the next time you might bring up a feminist perspective on war, invasions and genocide, if someone tries to question you, maybe you’ll be able to bring up one of these examples to further validate your point.

Where is War Rape Happening?

There’s so many different examples of war rape and sexual violence in conflict in the past, but I thought I’d zoom in on some conflicts where it is happening right now.

Israel / Gaza 

The conflict on everyones’ minds currently is the situation in Gaza, where both sides are accused of committing sexual violence against the other. On October 7th 2023 when Hamas broke through the borders into Israel, attacking and kidnapping Israeli military and civilians, they sexually targeted women to rape and mutilate them, with witnesses reporting gang rapes of women both alive and not alive. 

Obviously, Hamas disputes these allegations. 

On the other side, experts report evidence of Israeli Officials carrying out rape, sexual assault and sexual humiliation against Palestinian women in detention.The panel of experts can prove at least two instances of rape and suggest it will be some time before we know the full extent of the sexual violence that has occurred. 

Obviously, Israel disputes this.

Ukraine / Russia

In 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine as part of Putin’s attempt to return Ukraine back to where he thinks it belongs; within Russia. Reports of mass rape by Russian state soldiers and the Wagner Group private military company (essentially there to serve Putin’s global goals) became apparent pretty quickly after the invasion first began, although access to data and statistics is difficult when conflict is ongoing. For example, eight months into the invasion, UN experts verified more than 100 cases of rape or sexual assaults in Ukraine. The UN Security Council documented 53 male victims of sexual violence, 31 female, one girl and one boy in 2023

The true extent will be much higher as we know sexual violence is massively under-reported generally, never mind in conflict situations. 

Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s territory and ethnicity is not an accident, nor is it something that has happened on the side of the military campaign. It’s clearly part of the military strategy to dehumanise and terrorise the Ukrainian population in the hopes they will surrender to Russia. Sexual violence is so clearly a part of the strategy - rape is reported against detainees being held captive, during invasions of Ukrainian villages and areas and whilst occupying Ukrainian areas. There are reports of men being raped, mass rapes of villages, gang rapes and threats to rape. This is a campaign of sexual violence. Not to mention that the Russian Army has been equipped with Viagra to assist them in their crimes against humanity. This is not the first time that Viagra has been used to assist in sexual violence - Colonel Gaddafi gave his troops supplies during the Libyan civil war in 2011. 

Obviously, Russia denies any war crimes taking place in Ukraine.

Myanmar 

For decades, there’s been a genocide happening in Myanmar (formerly called Burma). The majority Buddhist country’s army has been committing ethnic cleansing against the minority Rohingya Muslim population, which escalated when the military cracked down in 2017. Reports show soldiers raiding villages and committing mass rape and sexual assault against Rohingya women and girls in the internal Rakhine State. Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 survivors of rape who have fled to Bangladesh since these operations began, and two thirds had not reported their rape to authorities or humanitarian organisations. All but one of the victims had been subjected to gang rapes involving 2 or more perpetrators. In 8 cases, women and girls reported being raped by 5 or more soldiers. Many victims reported having to witness the killing of their family members, including children, whilst being raped

Obviously, Myanmar’s authorities have rejected the allegation that the military has committed sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.

Where has War Rape Happened?

This is a non-exhaustive list of conflicts where war rape has been reported, I’d recommend looking more into these (but take your time, it’s heavy stuff) to get a full perspective of the prevalence of sexual violence in war, invasions, genocides and ethnic conflict:

  • Bosnia (Serbian forces committed mass atrocities including mass rape, and UN peacekeeping forces face allegations of rape - 1992-1995);
  • Germany (the Soviet Union committed mass rape during the final invasion - 1945);
  • Vietnam (rape was committed by US and South Korean troops as well as Vietnamese combatants - 1954–1975);
  • Liberia (militias committed mass sexual atrocities - 1989-2003);
  • Rwanda (both sides committed horrifying sexual violence during the genocide - 1994);
  • Afghanistan (sexual violence was committed by the Taliban and the US Army - 2001-2021);
  • Iraq (sexual violence was committed by the US and UK Armies during the occupation as well as ISIS - 2003-2021);
  • Libya (Colonel Gaddafi’s Army and rebel groups used sexual violence to inflict terror on the population and opposing forces - 2011);
  • Yemen (Government and rebel forces have been committing mass rape - 2011-present);
  • Syria (rape was used as a tactic during the civil war by the Free Syrian Army, pro-Assad government forces and ISIS - 2011-present);
  • Haiti (many gangs are committing sexual violence - 2018-present);
  • Tigray Region in Ethiopia (the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries established rape camps - 2020-2022);
  • Sudan (various militia groups are committing sexual violence - 2023-present).

This is just a small number of examples that show that rape and sexual violence is a tactic, rather than something that some ‘bad apples’ happen to commit during conflict.

Why is War Rape a Thing?

Understanding why sexual violence is so prevalent allows us to really see how conflict directly causes war rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual torture.

  1. The power argument 

We all know that sexual violence is a demonstration of control, power and coercion by taking away someone’s right to consent. Conflict is inherently about winning power over someone, a nation or a group of people.

  1. The territory argument

Conflict is about fighting over territory, and the land, resources and people within that territory. If you’re willing to kill people for that territory, then the people within it are already dehumanised. Claiming territory for your own without consent is part of war and invasions, and women (who are typically objectified) are seen as part of that territory.

  1. The genetics argument

Seen more in ethnic conflicts like in Bosnia and Rwanda, rape has been used as a tactic to ‘contaminate’ the gene pool of the enemy ethnicity. Between 25,000 and 50,000 women and girls are believed to have been raped by Serbian forces, and nobody knows how many children were born as a result. But the removal of a race can be done through the rape of those capable of bearing children. This has been called ‘genetic imperialism’.

  1. The terror argument

Conflict brings out a hatred of the other side, where terror is seen as the best tactic to force surrender. This is why there are so many instances of brutal rape, rape with weapons and gang rape which all aim to terrorise the enemy into submission and limit disobedience.

  1. The humiliation argument

Raping the enemy is a way to humiliate not only the direct victim, but the enemy group as a whole. Hence why so many rapes are carried out with witnesses from the same group - not only are the perpetrators able to humiliate (as well as many other things) the direct victim, but it is an act of power designed to humiliate everyone.

Sexual violence in conflict is not an accident or coincidence, it’s engrained in the very idea of war, invasion and genocide. The only way to stop sexual violence in conflict is to stop conflict altogether. We have to make sure that conversations on peace making and activism against conflict includes highlighting the prevalence of sexual violence in these scenarios. The very nature of war, invasions and genocide actively encourage sexual violence against the enemy.

If you’ve been affected by this piece, feel free to reach out to us on social media and we can chat. You can also find external support organisations here.

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