In the early years of the 21st century, peace builders and peacemakers began noticing something surprising in conflicts in Central Africa: Both sides suffered unexpectedly few casualties among combatants. While there was no indication conflicts were lessening — in fact, they were often increasing — fewer and fewer soldiers on each side were dying.
A horrific explanation emerged. Few combatants were dying because fewer combatants were fighting each other. Instead of equally well-armed and sometimes well-trained soldiers attacking each other, violence was increasingly being directed against civilians, that is, non-soldiers. The strategy is demonically effective: attack those who cannot defend themselves. Soldiers are spared, populations are demoralized, if not exterminated, and the conflict is won by default and at a relatively low cost to the victor.
In this strategy, women become a primary target. Especially in developing countries, women are not trained in battle and, in most societies, they are unarmed. Since boys, even the very young, are often forced into the army, civilian women and girls are the most vulnerable.
However, the evil of this tactic sinks to still greater depravity and demands our attention.
In traditional societies, where women are allotted a subsidiary role, the primary task of women is reproductive — to produce the next generation of workers, doctors, leaders and, of course, soldiers. In cultures that place great importance on the reproductive function of women in society, there is often great stress placed on virginity. Often, virginity is not only a precondition but an absolute requirement for marriage. In this view, women who are not virgins are not marriageable. In some societies, unmarriageable women are shunned by and even expelled from their families with nowhere to go; they have no chance at a livelihood. If the women of a society become unmarriageable, that society is one or two generations from extinction.
Rape, in fact, becomes a form of genocide. If the women of a society become unmarriageable, that society is one or two generations from extinction. This is well-known and is a consciously articulated strategy. Al Jazeera reports how a girl in Tigray asked her attackers why they were raping her. Their response was, “You did nothing bad to us. Our problem is with your womb … A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.”
Rape in times of war, then, is not a crime of “passion.” It is cold-blooded, calculated, slow genocide.
The problem is not an isolated one. The U.N. paper “Sexual Violence: A Tool of War” notes the following statistics on rape as a weapon of war: 100,000 to 250,000 women were raped in Rwanda (1994); 60,000 women in Sierra Leone (1991-2002); more than 40,000 women in Liberia (1989-2003); up to 60,000 in former Yugoslavia (1992-1995) and 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1998.
It is also happening closer to CNEWA’s world. In northern Iraq, ISIS used rape and sexual slavery against women, mostly Yazidi but also Christian. In Ethiopia, where CNEWA has a long history, there are reports of women being systematically raped in the conflict in Tigray. It has reached the point that Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the DRC, stated: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”
It is hard to imagine the horror rape victims go through. It was recently reported that in Tigray even women religious — sisters — were victims of rape. While that is truly horrifying and a terrible crime, at least we can hope those sister martyrs have a community in which they can find healing and support. The girls and women victims of rape are at times expelled even from their own families and have nowhere to go. Yet what is astounding is how recently rape was considered, in effect, simply another spoil of war! While there were untold cases of rape in both the European and Asian fronts during World War II, rape and sexual violence were not among the crimes prosecuted when the war crimes and crimes against humanity tribunals were set up in Nuremberg and Tokyo (1945-1948).
The U.N. started to take note of the systematic and strategic rape of women only in 1992, with the civil war in Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994) declared rape to be a war crime and a crime against humanity. Since 2000, with UNSC Res/1325, the U.N. has paid greater attention to sexual violence and, specifically, rape as a tactic of war. These developments are all surprisingly recent.
Slavenka Drakulic has written extensively on the war crimes in the Balkan conflict and perhaps describes it most accurately at its evil core: “Rape is a kind of slow murder.”
It is important to be aware of this horrible phenomenon — to be educated about where it is happening and to be aware of those organizations that are helping these tragic victims. CNEWA, for instance, funded a mobile clinic in Iraq, near Dohuk, that cared for women raped by ISIS fighters.
We also need to advocate according to our circumstances for stricter international laws and sanctions against rape as a weapon of war.