Archive for the ‘Rwanda’ Category

Rape as a Weapon of War

August 12, 2009

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she spoke out against the systematic rape of Congolese civilians by rebel groups and government forces.  The eastern Congo has recently been referred to as the “rape capital of the world.”  So far this year, an estimated 3,500 Congolese women and girls have been raped, and in the past decade approximately 100,000 have suffered the same fate (five million Congolese have been killed during the same period).  In the last few months, men have become targets for those committing sexual assault.

Mass rape in war zones is not unique to the Congo.  During the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, an estimated 500,000 females were victims of sexual violence at the hands of militants.  In the time period surrounding the end of World War Two, nearly a million women in East Germany were raped by Russian soldiers.  In the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, women and girls are being subjected to the same treatment.

Rape cases in the Congo and other unstable areas are often more heinous than typical cases of sexual assault in the West, which are undoubtedly horrible.  Militants frequently force husbands, fathers, siblings and children to watch their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers get raped; thus, relatives of the assault victims also suffer major trauma from witnessing the terrible event.  The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa adds to the suffering in that many assault victims are infected with the horrible disease.

It is obvious why killing (and often murdering) is an inherent part of war.  But some may wonder why and how rape would serve the political-military goals of warring factions.  Could it be that fighting men simply want sexual gratification after spending time apart from their wives and girlfriends, and that they are committing rape in a lawless environment simply to satisfy their personal desires rather than for political ends?  On some level that may be true, but given the systematic nature of the attacks it is clear that there is a strategic purpose underlying them. 

There are several reasons why combatants might adopt sexual assault as a method of waging war.  One is to terrorize civilians and thereby compel them to support the attackers and/or refrain from supporting their enemies; i.e., it is similar to classical terrorism except that sex is substituted for bombs and bullets. 

Another is to emasculate and demoralize potential enemies by making men powerless to protect their female relatives, or by raping the targeted men directly, and thereby traumatize them enough to make them unable to fight.  In places where homosexuality is a major taboo, such as the Congo, male rape victims become social outcasts, which adds to their humiliation (the alleged rape of imprisoned dissidents by Iranian officials would be another example of this tactic if the allegations are true).

An additional purpose is to degrade and to a certain extent dehumanize victims, thereby making it psychologically easier to use them as slave labor to facilitate military operations.  In the Congo, women are often abducted and, in addition to being forced to have sex with their captors, made to carry things like food, water and war materiel for fighters.

Satisfying their subordinates’ desire for revenge against enemies, real or perceived, is a reason why some commanders might encourage, or at least allow, their soldiers to rape women associated with their foes.  In this context, rape would be a perverse way of keeping up morale.

It was worthwhile for the Obama administration to draw attention to the atrocities occuring in the Congo.  However, it is unlikely that well-intentioned rhetoric will significantly affect the situation.  It is even less likely that the international community will commit enough soldiers and peacekeepers to bring an end to the raping and killing.  Hopefully the conflict in central Africa will be resolved by regional powers relatively soon, but given the complex nature of the war it will be difficult for them to do so.

Advertisements