Thursday, October 25, 2007

The War on Women

Maria Shuluba, 53, was raped by armed men near Bukavu, Congo, in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of a rape epidemic--one of the aftershocks of a war that ravaged the central African nation.

"With women I have no problem. With women, one threw a clog at me and I kicked her here [pointing to the crotch], I broke everything there. She can't have children. Next time she won't throw clogs at me. When one of them [a woman] spat at me, I gave her the rifle butt in the face. She doesn't have what to spit with any more.'"--Israeli soldier, describing his treatment of Palestinian women during the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear, they are done to destroy women.”-- Dr. Denis Mukwege, Gynecologist in South Kivu Province, Eastern Congo.

...kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.-- Numbers 31:17-18 (King James Version)

This week two UN officials spoke out on the prevalence of gender-violence as a tactic of warfare. “The woman’s body has become a battleground and it seems to be taken for granted that this should continue,” Rachel Mayanja, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, said at a press briefing at UN Headquarters. Mayanja stresed that member states needed to take up the issue of rape and war and address it head-on.

A recent NY Times article documented the rape epidemic that has gripped the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where women are "being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen" in that war-torn region. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in the South Kivu Province alone. Some think this may be "just a fraction" of the total amount across that vast and troubled country. The main perpetrators are thought to be roving gangs of young men, mainly Hutu refugees who themselves had participated in the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The victims say their attackers come at night, often killing men and dragging women off to be gang-raped or held for weeks, or months, as sex slaves. The sheer brutality of these attacks, in which foreign objects may be forced into the victim's bodies, has left thousands of women both physically mutilated and psychologically scarred. Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver has termed this sexual terrorism and torture that has gripped her homeland as Femicide. "They are destroying the female species in Congo," she warns.

The women of the Democratic Republic of Congo are no strangers to suffering, having endured a war that raged on from 1997-2004. Women and girls were often attacked by soldiers under varied flags, seeking to pillage or demoralise the communities that happened to get in their way. Some 4 million Congolese would die in what some called 'Africas First World War.' The majority of those victims would again be women, and children, who did not die from wounds inflicted by soldiers but rather starvation and disease--yet another way war seems to unfairly persecute along gendered lines.

This disproportionate toll on women thru war extends beyond Congo. In Darfur mass rape has become a common tool of conquest for Janjaweed militias. Women there have to either go out in large groups, or under the protection of African Union peacekeepers. In Rwanda, the rape of Tutsi women was a tactic of genocide endorsed by the Hutu militia. In the last conflict that ravaged Bosnia, Serbian military and paramilitary used systematic rape to terrorize Bosnian and Albanian Muslim women as a form of "ethnic cleansing."

And while such attacks on women during war are usually blamed on more undisciplined armies of poor nations, they not without their counterparts in the more "developed" world. The rape of girls and women was used as an unofficial tactic by numerous American soldiers in Vietnam. During WWII, the Germans carried out systematic rape in regions they conquered, and the Russians would seek retribution through the rape of masses of German women when they took Berlin. The Japanese kidnapped perhaps hundreds of thousands of Korean, Chinese and other Asian women to be held as sexual concubines for their soldiers. Today, even among what some consider the most sophisticated army in the world, incidents of rape are not uncommon. In 2006, 5 US GIs stalked, gang-raped, murdered and then burned the body of a 14-yr-old Iraqi girl. Other charges of rape made by Iraqi girls and women against US occupation soldiers date back to 2004. In the midst of war, even US female soldiers find themselves at risk, forced to travel in groups to the latrines or not go out at night for fear of rape by fellow soldiers.

Documenting the history and landscape of sexual violence in warfare isn't hard. It can be found in the Old Testament, where women could be promised as victories of war. Much of the ancient world--from the Egyptians to the Romans--saw this as the normal course of warfare. From the Crusades to the Conquistadors to colonization, rape and the abuse of women have remained a facet of warfare. Why it happens however, is much harder to answer. Is it the existing patriarchal norms that pervade much of the world, to some degree or another, that make women just another commodity--a species of property to be destroyed and/or humiliated in order to further injure one's enemies? Is it the chilling spectre of genocide, where the very reproductive rights of women and the communities they belong to can be savaged with an impunity that scars far longer than napalm or cluster bombs? Or perhaps, is it that war itself is a violent enterprise that cannot be made more humane with policies and restrictions, and will always result in the most horrific expressions of brutality in the quest for power and dominance?

I'ts never easy trying to find sense in the seemingly insensible, to find reason for man's inhumanity towards man--and woman. So instead we try to find ways to control the chaos that war produces.

As reported in the International Herald Tribune, this past week UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon warned that violence against women in the wake of war had reached "hideous and pandemic proportions." The UN Security council has taken up the matter, and has demanded an end to the use of rape and sexual abuse in warfare. The council issued a statement following a meeting on the implementation of a resolution adopted in 2000 that called for the prosecution of crimes against women and increased protection of women and girls during war. It also demanded that women be included in decision-making positions at every level of peacemaking.

Commendable, but troubling when one recalls that the UN's own peacekeeping troops have been charged with sexual abuse and exploitation in the past--most notably in Liberia and Haiti. Addressing this, the UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, stressed that the UN had taken a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual exploitation and abuse by its more than 80,000 peacekeeping troops.

"While rape is used as a weapon of war in situations" like Congo and Darfur, Guéhenno said, "addressing this war crime requires going beyond political compromise, power and resource sharing agreements....combating rape and other forms of sexual violence calls for concerted, robust and ongoing action on the part of both national actors and also the international community at every level of engagement."

With the focus on the issue--for the moment--let's hope action follows up all these meetings, resolutions and words. For if as the saying goes, "War is Hell," then for women it a torment that no word aptly describes. As Rachel Mayanja put it, "Sexual violence in conflict, particularly rape, should be named for what it is: not a private act or the unfortunate misbehavior of a renegade soldier, but aggression, torture, war crime and genocide."


Leen Hintjens said...

May I use this photograph for a painting? Who is it by? Thanks

Leen Hintjens said...

May I use this photograph for a painting? Who is it by? Thanks

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