by

Rape, Sexual Exploitation, and War

When men go to war, the women get injured.  Sad, but it is true.  Women and children have long been the collateral sexual victims of war.   The international criminal prosecution of General Ratko Mladic at the Hague should remind us about the victims off the battlefield.  Too often they are overlooked.

Remember Rwanda?  Humanitarian organizations reported that nearly half a million women were raped during the Rwandan genocide.  In remarking about the rapes in Rwanda, Judge Navanethem Pillay reminded the world that “from time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war.”  She and her fellow judges wanted to make clear, “rape is no longer a trophy of war.”  That bold condemnation of war rape caught my attention.

Rape is a crime against humanity, but such brutal sexual assaults only became recognized or prosecuted as such after the genocide in Rwanda and rampant sexual torture of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb soldiers and paramilitary groups.  In Bosnia, even the police participated in the gang rapes of women and girls.  Many of the rapes took place at a facility next door to police headquarters.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found that rapes were used as an “instrument of terror” and served as a form of enslavement.  According to the ICTY, it was a “hellish orgy of persecution.”  Muslim women were not the only ones violated in the former Yugoslavia.  Estimates of mass rape vary widely from 20,000-50,000 cases during the era of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia.   Even at 20,000 that is too much horror to stomach.

Although rape has been a prevalent tool of war for millennia, September 2, 1998 marks the first conviction for rape as a crime against humanity.  The case was brought against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former Mayor of Rwanda, who was also convicted of genocide for inciting Hutus to kill their fellow Tutsis.  Over 800,000 people died in that genocide.  A few years later, three Serbs were convicted for rapes committed during the war in Bosnia by the ICTY.  Surely, they alone had not committed the 20,000 rapes, but their prosecution was symbolic and in the right direction.

According to the ICTY, “What the evidence shows, are Muslim women and girls, mothers and daughters together, robbed of the last vestiges of human dignity, women and girls treated like chattels, pieces of property at the arbitrary disposal of the Serb occupation forces, and more specifically, at the beck and call of the three accused.”

That was a decade ago.  Now come the “Virginity Tests” in Egypt in an effort to quell the political protests of women.  Enough already.

According to Amnesty International, at least 18 female detainees in Cairo were forced to undergo virginity tests and threatened with prostitution charges.  These women were beaten up and subjected to electric shock treatments.  Some have received suspended criminal convictions.  Women in Egypt are beginning to speak out about this.  But, this is not their burden alone.  Men must also speak out against these indignities, because achieving a true democracy cannot happen with women as political subordinates or sexual victims of the state.

Violence against women should be recognized as violence against the state and its civil and political ambitions, because it undermines trust between citizens and their government. Amnesty International officials said the virginity tests degrade women.  No one would disagree with that.  That is the function of rape.  But we should keep in mind that rape, sexual exploitation, and virginity tests, which are also a form a sexual violence, also degrade men and the countries in which they reside.

Return to Top