Rape earns dubious distinction as a weapon of war

by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

ISLAMABAD — Before World War I, casualties of armed conflicts were largely limited to battlefields and the soldiers upon them. Combat doctrine and equipment favored flat plateaus, fields or deserts removed from civilian populations. Unless the action took place in a populated area, civilians seldom tasted the bitterness of war.

News then traveled barely faster than the armies themselves, delivering polished, mostly censored summaries of heroics from “the front” and easy-to-swallow capsule summaries of the number of solders killed in action. Thus, the true destruction and misery wrought by the advance, retreat or occupation by an army could be handily concealed from the eyes of the world.

World War II was a watershed in which the number of civilian casualties almost equaled that of combatants. Technological advances extended the boundaries of the battlefield. Nations learned to take their fight deep into their enemy’s territory to disrupt war industries and factories.

Yet even as the media has widened its reach, shocking the world with dispatches of massacres and death camps, horrifying war-related crimes against women continue blatantly.

Of the worst of these crimes is rape, a most barbaric weapon of war.

According to a report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross, titled “Women and War” and based on two years of research from 1998 to 1999, approximately 80 percent of war victims are women and children. This is mainly because military conflicts now more commonly engulf towns and cities instead of only frontline areas.

There are many in this world for whom the ravages of war – including arson, looting, murder and rape — are a way of life. These people have known little else than war all their lives, like their parents before them and their children (if they survive) after them. These generations of war face atrocities on a daily basis, and most of these go unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Tool of atrocity

While rape can be used to brutalize both sexes, it is usually committed against women during wartime — males are usually killed or captured. Ongoing conflicts in many countries, including Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo, have victims of war rapes running into the thousands.

In the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers raped an estimated 5,000 Kuwaiti women.

Reports reveal that both sides in the civil conflict in Colombia have horrifically attacked women. Hindu-Muslim clashes in the Indian state of Gujarat saw babies cut out of their wombs. In the conflict in Liberia, between 60 percent and 70 percent of women have suffered some sort of sexual assault.

Whether committed by an invading or militant force, rape is an effective weapon to punish, intimidate, coerce, humiliate and degrade. When committed against women, this inhumane act also punishes, intimidates, coerces, humiliates and demoralizes the men. Afghani, Iraqi and Kashmiri women have reportedly committed suicide to avoid being ravaged. Fathers have been known to kill their daughters themselves rather than suffer through their dishonor.

Rapes in Kashmir

In Kashmir, rapes became frequent when the government launched a crackdown against militants in 1990. Rapes by security personnel are more frequent now and used to degrade and intimidate the local people into submission. Several Kashmiri girls have jumped into the torrents of the Jhelum River, choosing certain death over the atrocities of these rapists.

These rapes in Kashmir occur usually during the search operations that are conducted by the Indian government to flush out militants, during which the security forces frequently engage in “collective punishment against the civilian population.” The punishments include frequent beatings and assaults and burning of homes. Rape is also committed during reprisal attacks, used as a ploy by to “extract information on the hideouts of the ‘militants.’”

Rapes in Congo

After the independence of Congo from Belgian authority, a mutiny caused irreparable damage to this mineral-rich area of Katanga, Congo. Prime Minister Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help in its time of need and the Security Council deployed nearly 10,000 troops to the area. And now an armed conflict, which resulted in 3 million people dead in combat involving armies of seven countries, is now coming to an end.

But the war has not ended for the women, who are still be victimized by the rebel militiamen. An estimated 40,000 women have been raped by fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past six years. This civil war has exposed more women to the atrocities of war than ever before.

In a briefing last Tuesday before the U.N. Security Council, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said the use of rape as a weapon of war was at its worst in eastern Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Egeland said the scale, prevalence and profound impact of sexual violence made it one of the most serious challenges facing those trying to protect civilians caught up in war.

Workers of Amnesty International have seen such brutal and horrific cases of rape as they have seldom witnessed before.

The brutality of these acts is tremendous and many victims, as young as nine have been killed in these acts of rape. The barbaric perpetrators are aware that they will face no charges and will get away with the most violent sex crimes during this conflict.

Rape is a more effective weapon of war than killing. Many victims say they would prefer death over life after being raped.

Unfortunately many rape survivors in DR Congo are HIV-positive, and although actual figures are not available, data suggests that between 20 percent and 30 percent are infected. “Screening is difficult as there is no policy for voluntary testing and it is practically impossible for HIV patients to obtain basic drugs including antibiotics,” Amnesty says.

“Women and girls are not just killed, they are raped, sexually attacked, mutilated and humiliated,” said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.

“By attacking the women you are attacking the honor of your enemy, you demoralize the men, you scare people into running away,” she said.

ICRC officials stress the importance of women’s role in bringing up new generations that “are more aware and capable of respecting laws and treaties.” That is one remedy to decrease such crimes from occurring. People with the respect for others, especially the women and young, will deviate from using such inhumane tactics like rape to win their point. There is a need to inculcate a respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in times of wars with the strength to be enforced by local governments to punish such offenders within their boundaries.

Unfortunately the miserable ordeal of the raped women does not end with the traumatic experience. Victims are vulnerable to similar acts by other people as well. And more often they are shunned by their communities, families and husbands for a crime they did not commit.

An international committee needs to be formed to place these women back into the mainstream of life with their own people around them so that their mental wounds heal faster and they can lead a better life than they are destined to otherwise.

Rape in combat

Although not universal, women are slowly taking their places alongside the men as combatants, getting posted to far-away, often hostile lands and facing the threat of rape from both the enemy if captured and from their male comrades.

Women soldiers are exposed to threats of rape within their own ranks, as was seen in Kuwait in the 1990s. At least 37 female service members came back scarred from their duty from Iraq, Kuwait and other overseas stations. These women had to seek civilian sexual-trauma counseling and other assistance to deal with their trauma on duty.

The worst part is that the authorities, as the rest of the world, don’t seem to consider these war rapes or on-duty rapes as serious problems.

These are war crimes even if they are committed against combatants and should be awarded with exemplary punishment to curb its use as a tool for intimidation or human degradation.