Rape as a weapon of war – plight of women recognised by the UN

Rape has now been accepted as a war crime by the UN. I must admit that though I’d noticed the ruling, I hadn’t though to mention it until now.

I suppose it’s because I take it as given that as women, we all know that it’s women and children who suffer the most in war. You can’t protect yourself, you can’t protect your children. The threat of sexual violence only adds insult to injury, and it is women, worldwide, and in all times, who have borne the brunt of it.

Most of us are lucky to have grown up in nations at peace. But I still know many women who’ve been raped. Raped by fathers, brothers, boyfriends, strangers.

Rape exists in every nation even in peacetime, but its use as a weapon of war should be no surprise to anyone who’s read Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will. I have always remembered (though I paraphrase) General Patton’s order concerning his own men: "In spite of my most diligent efforts, there will undoubtedly be some raping…and I want the offenders brought to me so that I can see them properly hanged." He was as good as his word, too – expeditiously trying and executing four American troops in Sicily who had raped Italian women.

Patton knew his history, and he knew that the story of conquest is indivisible from rape. But it was Brownmiller who made it clear that rape is not committed by retreating armies (too busy saving their skins) nor, generally, by front-line troops (too busy winning the battle). It is those who follow that cut a swathe through defenceless womanhood worldwide – the second-line Russians marching into Berlin, frustrated grunts in the Vietcong-infested jungle, irregular troops, militias, marauders and skirmishers of every description, in every war, everywhere, at every time.

In my lifetime, Americans have raped the Vietnamese wholesale, Pakistanis have raped Bengalis, Serbians have raped Bosnians, Israelis have raped Palestinians, and on it goes. The current world focus is on the Janjawiid militias, who are terrorising the women of Darfur, but in the most recent wars, militias raped virtually ALL the women in Liberia, while to this day, the women of the Congo are fair game for every soldier on every side, even those in the uniforms of peacekeepers.

As far as rape in warfare goes, the younger the victims the better (little girls are the best), and the more public the crime, the more effective it is – preferably gang-based, preferably in front of the men, preferably resulting in children of another colour, so that the entire fabric of society is shattered. There is no more certain way to plunge a nation into chaos than to pollute its women. So wholesale was the rape of Bengali women in the Bangladesh war that the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared all such victims ‘heroines of the state’ to prevent them being ostracised or killed by their own families.

The adoption of resolution 1820 in the Hague will do nothing to stop rape in war, but it is at least a step in the right direction and let us hope that it leads to the crime being seen for what it is – a political strategy used by the unscrupulous to create conflict and disorder for generations to come.

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