Rape as a War Strategy
Rape is a powerful strategy, used to create trauma and insecurity, during conflicts. A combination of gender ideologies, traditionally accepted gender roles and gender power relations help to understand sexual violence during conflict. Besides women, men and boys are also survivors of sexual violence—both as victims and as ‘forced perpetrators’. Gender in Sweden reports from a seminar with Dr. Denis Mukwege, human rights activist and an interview with Maria Stern, Professor in Peace and Development Studies.
Rape is strategically used in methodological, widespread and systematic manners during conflict. In methodological manner, a collective number of women are raped in public to demonstrate authority and power. In widespread method, a massive number of women are raped in a very short time span. Systematic method involves raping everyone, regardless of age and gender.
This is how Dr. Denis Mukwege, human rights activist, awarded gynecologist and founder and director of Panzi General Referral Hospital, described his experiences on working with survivors of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo. He did this during the seminar Women as Targets in War and Actors in Peace Process hosted by Gothenburg University on October 17th.
Dr. Denis Mukwege has actively worked to provide mental and physical support for the survivors of rape in Congo through Panzi Hospital. His work also opened global discussions on the topic and helped to place the issue of sexual violence in conflicts on global political agenda.
– The immediate consequences of rape are creating insecurity and trauma, forcing the locals to leave the village, reducing population, destruction of economic capacity within the society, and destruction of social fabric, he said.
After Dr. Mukwege’s presentation, the seminar was followed with a panel discussion in which Dr. Mukwege, Maria Stern, Professor in Peace and Development Studies at the School of Global Studies (SGS) and Researcher in Security Studies, and Marie Berg, Professor Associated with University of Gothenburg Centre for Person-Centered Care (GPCC) participated. Gender in Sweden has talked to Maria Stern about the theme of the seminar.
Rape as a weapon of war
Maria Stern problematizes the dominant use of the phrase “rape as a weapon of war”, explaining that it has become a universalizing catch-all phrase. According to her, the term remains unexplained in most cases.
– “Rape as a weapon of war” refers to the use of rape for strategic purposes, says Maria Stern.
She says that a combination of gender ideologies, traditionally accepted gender roles and gender power relations all help to explain and understand sexual violence during conflict.
Discourses around heterosexuality and forms of masculinity are important in understanding the rationale behind rape.
Maria Stern mentions that, in addition to causing harm to those directly affected by it, conflict-related sexual violence often deconstructs a community’s social fabric through dominant gender ideologies within the society.
– In most communities, girls and women are considered as carriers of family and community’s honor and “pure” name. Men; on the other hand, are considered symbols of “strength and power” and are responsible for “protecting” women. Rape as a weapon of war targets, men’s role as protectors and women’s role as carriers of a community’s name and honor, she says.
Maria Stern explains that rape can also be seen to denote a failed masculinity because “real men” are not supposed to rape while in this case, soldiers cannot live up to the ideal image of masculinity. Although rape is portrayed as a form of masculine hegemony, ironically it can also be seen as harming the ideal image of manhood.
– Rape as a weapon of war can be seen to target biological reproduction. In some cases children ‘born of rape’ are stigmatized as being ‘enemy children’. In some cases, brutal sexual violence also harms women’s reproductive system and leads to sterilization. The inability to produce offspring can be considered as a failed form of femininity, she adds.
The victims of sexual violence
Women and girls are often considered as the immediate victims of sexual violence during a conflict. However, limiting the victims of sexual violence to only women and girls is an oversimplification: men and boys are also survivors of sexual violence—both as victims and as ‘forced perpetrators’.
– In some instances in warfare, soldiers are commanded from above to rape women and to engage in acts against their will. Many combatants suffer from trauma after engaging in acts of sexual violence. In such cases, it is impossible to draw a clear line between perpetrators and victims. Understanding such complexities is essential if we are to include everyone’s sufferings in the global agenda, establishing accountability and in addressing the challenge.
To prevent sexual acts of violence during conflict, it is necessary to include everyone’s suffering in the political agenda and establish post trauma support for soldiers. Initiatives that help soldiers to return to ‘normal’ community life are important. And similar to the initiatives for female rape victims, it is crucial to provide post return counseling for soldiers.
The use of rape as a war strategy is a well-calculated decision in the battle field. While it can weaken the enemy in some cases, Maria Stern asserts that it can also lead to counterproductive results in some other situations.
– Sexual violence and other forms of violence against civilians hinder efforts to win the support of the local population, says Maria Stern.
According to Maria Stern, involving more women in the negotiation table and peace process is important.
– Integrating women’s voices in decision making is vital to peace building efforts. To have inclusive peace, you need to take everyone’s views into account. Women are political subjects as much as men are, and should be heard,. It also helps to highlight rape and other forms of suffering that women experience during conflict.