Sexual Violence and Conflict

“The National Human Rights Commission has found 16 women, primarily victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by the State police personnel in Chhattisgarh [carrying out anti-Maoist operations in the state] even as it awaits the recorded statement of about 20 other victims.

The Commission has observed that human rights of the victims have been grossly violated by the security personnel of the Government of Chhattisgarh for which the State Government is vicariously liable.

…It may be recalled that the Commission initiated suo motu proceedings on the basis of news report published in the Indian Express dated 2nd November 2015 under the caption “Bijapur: “Policemen raped women, indulged in loot”. It was reported that women from five villages Pegdapalli, Chinnagelur, Peddagelur, Gundam and Burgicheru had alleged that State Police personnel had sexually harassed and assaulted more than 40 of them and gang raped at least two in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. It was also reported that belongings of many villagers were destroyed, stolen or scattered by the forces passing through the villages.”
-Press Release by NHRC, dated 7th January,2017

The WSS (Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression) issued a press release stating that in doing so, the NHRC has validated their assertion that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war by the security forces in Chhattisgarh against the tribals in the area.

Cases of mass sexual violence in conflict-ridden areas are not unheard of. However, rape remains one of the most underreported and inadequately prosecuted war crimes of all time. Even the Old Testament in the Holy Bible illustrates the use of rape in warfare. There are instances where the Allied and Axis armies during World War 2 used rape as a means to demoralise their enemies and terrorize populations. Historically, sexual violence in warfare is documented as a widely used strategy.

But why is rape such an effective ‘weapon’ of war? Weapons are tools designed to inflict hurt and damage upon the adversary. A weapon can be considered potent if it takes advantage of physical, psychological or structural vulnerabilities of the target and has long-lasting effects, including making the target vulnerable to further abuse that would lead to defeat. Rape does exactly all of that, and works in favour of strategists, because it is, so to say, ‘inexpensive’.

Cynthia Enloe, a feminist writer best known for her work on gender and militarism, writes,
“If military strategists (and their civilian allies and superiors) imagine that women provide the backbone of the enemy’s culture, if they define women chiefly as breeders, if they define women as men’s property and as the symbols of men honour, if they imagine that residential communities rely on women’s work – if any or all these beliefs about society’s proper gendered division of labour are held by war-waging policy makers – they will be tempted to devise an overall military operation that includes their male soldiers’ sexual assault on women.”

Sexual violence has the capacity to damage the cultural fabric of a community because of the emphasis on the purity of women in every culture. Not only that, it is also considered to send across a message to the men in the community, as to how they were incapable of protecting the women. In several instances, women are raped by soldiers with the purpose of impregnating them, to further their operations of ethnic cleansing and ensuring that the woman has a baby of the ‘superior race’. Sexual violence weakens the social structures of a community, as families of the women who have been raped often ostracize or disown them, adding to the psychological trauma of the victim. The women, if not killed, are often left to fend for themselves and are forced to  live in poverty.

While most of the recorded victims of sexual violence are women, there are several instances where men are also raped and this serves different purposes in the socio-cultural context. Since submissiveness is associated with femininity, men are raped to make them feel emasculated or to ‘homosexualize’ the jitnae victim and to induce a sense of masculinity in the perpetrator. The men who are raped are also marginalized and socially rejected.

The Human Rights Watch report on the subject begins by stating that though widely committed, sexual violence is seldom denounced and viewed more as the ‘spoils of war’ than a violation of humanitarian law. It goes on to say that rape has been widely mischaracterized by people in military and political power as isolated instances of a private, ignoble act by the occasional soldier and has (ironically) been accepted because it is so commonplace. Hence, sexual violence is said to be employed when it serves the military objectives of warfare and makes ‘strategic sense’.

The victims of sexual violence face a lot of medical, psychological and socio-economic trauma which does not receive adequate attention and treatment partially because they are ostracized and also because these instances take place in conflict ridden areas where people do not have access to such facilities. However, there are several organisations like Doctors Without Borders try to provide treatment to the victims of sexual violence in the form of medicines for sexually transmitted diseases and treatment like psychosocial counselling to help alleviate the trauma.

Such large scale violence against particular targets throws light on the perception of gender roles across cultures and draws attention to the vulnerabilities of communities in terms of perceptions of honour, respect and purity, especially for women.
While researching this article, I found a common tone across some articles and papers that considered the use of sexual violence in warfare inevitable. The plain language used to describe historical events felt crass and disrespectful. I understand that social research must not have any moral bias in its presentation; and therefore it is up to us readers to decode such text and consciously try to build perceptions that emulate the type of society that we wish to be part of.

Sexual violence is a serious human rights violation and an international war crime; it must be treated like one. Recent incidents like the mass molestation on New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru and the election of Donald Trump despite his public disrespect to women show that there is still a certain disregard for women’s rights all across the world. However, on the bright side, campaigns are being organised across the globe to send the message that people are no longer going to be divided in this cause. Marches organised by women in Washington D.C against Donald Trump’s comments demeaning women and minority groups received solidarity throughout the world. A march was organised in over 30 cities across India- the message sent out was that women are going to ‘reclaim the night’ and will no longer be scared of walking out in the street at any time. This campaign received a lot of support and attention nationwide and will hopefully help start conversations about sexual violence and women. It is also imperative that we ourselves start conversations about events like these and what they represent. Patriarchy and dominance are embedded very deeply in society, across social and economic strata. Awareness and stimulation to stand up against oppression are only the first steps in this long fight that we must all be a part of.

-Aditi

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One thought on “Sexual Violence and Conflict

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