The International Criminal Court made legal history in February 2002, when it ruled in what has become known as the’rape camp‘ case that the systematic rape of women in the town of Foca constituted a crime against humanity. In Slavenka Drakulić’s book They Would Never Hurt a Fly – War Criminals on Trial in the Hague she describes the reaction of the defendants Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovač, and Zoran Vuković to their sentencing:
They heard their sentences and were visibly devastated by the ‘injustice’ done to them. Twenty-eight years, twenty years, twelve years for reape, while real murderers were getting much less in the same court? Was that justice? There were many other men in Bosnia doing even worse things to women. Why them? Why were only the three of them being so severely punished? Looking at these three men, I could tell that they would serve their sentences regretting only that they had been stupid enough to get caught or been tricked into surrendering
Convicted of war crimes their reaction as displayed in the court betrayed a common belief: that rape – and remember, in the case of Foca many women were repeatedly raped over a period ranging from several days to several weeks, in camps setup precisely for that purpose – is simply an unfortunate by-product of war.
Refusing to accept that belief, various groups of activists and courageous survivors (in conflicts ranging from the ex-Yugoslavia through to Guatemala and beyond) are actively campaigning to put an end to the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Recently the Women’s Media Center (founded in 2005 by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem) has set up a project called Women Under Siege to educate about the problem (with a wealth of material including testimonies from survivors of conflicts from Bosnia through to Darfur), and to campaign for legal, diplomatic, and public interventions to ensure that international bodies like the UN and international tribunals do all that is possible to halt the use of sexual violence as a weapon.
Gloria Steinem explains the project’s origins: “Two important books lit a match to what was already a long-standing concern. First, Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel sent me a manuscript of their anthology called Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. I didn’t know them and they were only asking for a quote, but once I read it, I was outraged. Why had it taken 65 years to reveal these facts? Why were they ignored at Nuremberg? If we’d known, might it have helped prevent rape camps in the former Yugoslavia? Or rape as a weapon of genocide in the Congo?
“I got in touch with the authors and asked if the Women’s Media Center could help by making these connections. Our first panel linked scholars of the Holocaust with women’s current experience in the Congo. It was a big learning moment for us all.”
“Then I read At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power, by Danielle McGuire. It roots much of the civil rights movement in the massive sexual abuse of black women. For instance, Rosa Parks was investigating a gang rape of a black woman by seven white men in Montgomery, so the bus boycott was more a result than a cause. Black women’s resistance to sexual assault helped fuel the movement.”
The Project’s director, award-winning journalist Lauren Wolfe, was kind enough to respond to questions from TMO about the project
TMO: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the Women Under Siege Project?
Lauren Wolfe: I came on as director in September, fresh off of my extensive investigation of sexualized violence and journalists at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I was senior editor. I wrote “The Silencing Crime” in June, for which I interviewed more than 50 journalists around the world about sexual assault and rape.
TMO: The project talks about the widespread use of sexualised violence as a tool of war – what kind of evidence is there for this? It’s a common argument, for example, that rape is a terrible byproduct of war and the breakdown of society that it causes, rather than a systematic tool for waging war.
We’ve seen that sexualized violence is used both haphazardly, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in an organized way, ordered by the state, as it may be right now in Burma and likely was in Guatemala. In Rwanda, there was a government-organized propaganda campaign that incited sexualized violence against Tutsi women, for example.
TMO: The project shines a light on the sexual violence that occured during the Holocaust something which is discussed rarely (relatively speaking). Would you agree that this element of the Holocaust has been downplayed, and if so why do you think that is?
Absolutely, it was downplayed. As I wrote in my Holocaust analysis: “Faced with horrors on a scale not experienced by humanity before, Holocaust rape survivors have specifically said they felt that what they’d suffered was too small to mention in that context.
“It’s not just the women who downplayed their sexual exploitation—scholars have often relegated these stories to footnotes, choosing to tone down these experiences, whether because of shame that their mothers, grandmothers, or whoever close to them were raped, or because they chose instead to focus on stories of triumph and hope. Some scholars have been reluctant to use victim testimonies in their construction of Holocaust history, favoring “official documents.” This is problematic because Nazi documentation on rape is scarce or nonexistent. Also, the shame of Jews raping Jewish women in the camps or ghettos may have been a difficult truth to accept within the community.
“Another way that women suffering sexualized violence during the Holocaust has been erased is through a “heroic” retelling of events: Historians have been eager to emphasize the ways in which women resisted rape and “held onto their dignity”—exhibiting “moral, heroic, or noble behavior.” Survivors may feel pressured to present their experiences through the lens of heroism.”
TMO: Systematic rape has been recognised as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court; the UN in 2008 passed an important resolution stating the sexual violence in conflict zones is a matter of international peace and security; many military codes already deal specifically with rape during war time; and yet, as your website points out, widescale sexual violence is still occuring in conflicts throughout the world (for example in the Congo). Doesn’t this all suggests that the aim to end rape as a tool of war is an idealistic rather than achievable goal?
Passing resolutions is a good first step. Now we need to get specific forms of peacekeeping, prevention, and healing into the field. We need to change cultural attitudes—widescale disrespect of women is a constant contributing factor to rape in conflict. In general, the lower a country is on the Gender Equality Index, the higher the levels of sexualized violence. But it’s not just on the conflict level that attitudes need to change. The UN has made strides in its acceptance that women are suffering terribly on a global scale, but lack of funding to areas like UN Women suggests that some people on our shores are not necessarily entirely open to the urgency of this problem.