The War on Women’s Bodies

Sep 022004
Authors: Meg Burd

Rebel soldiers burst into the house in the town of Goma in the

Democratic Republic of the Congo where 12-year-old Eleonore was

staying with her family in August 2001. Tying up her father, the

soldiers hit her mother and stole goods from the house as Eleonore

hid in fear. Upon finding her, the men beat her and raped her. She

required transfusions, injections and a series of pills.

A horrific and startling scene reported by Human Rights Watch

during its investigation into war crimes in the Congo, one would

hope that this is a horrible isolated incident during a single

troubling war.

It is not.

According to any number of human rights groups, the United

Nations and women’s groups, this terrible crime of sexual and

physical violence perpetrated on women both young and old

throughout war-torn areas is terrifyingly common.

With the trial of Slobodan Milosevic underway at The Hague, and

reports of rape and abuse in the Sudan pouring in daily, it is

vital that we all turn our attention to stopping this crime against


“Rape as a tool of war is nothing,” stated the National

Organization of Women in a report on the subject. “Marauding armies

have always used rape as a means of controlling the minds and

bodies of those they sought to conquer.”

In recent times, stories from places such as the Congo, the

Balkans, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Sudan and a multitude of other

war-torn places have shown that this war crime is still taking


Former Yugoslavia, for example, “was the site of systematic rape

and sexual enslavement by the Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav armed

forces starting in 1992,” as a way of “ethnically cleansing” the

Bosnian Muslim and Croat women in the area, according to Human

Rights Watch. While it is unknown how many women suffered such

attacks, it is estimated by UNIFEM (the U.N. branch that deals with

women’s issues) that more than 20,000 women were raped during the

war. In the Rwandan genocide, UNIFEM estimates at least 250,000

(perhaps 500,000) women and girls were raped.

In the current conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, “girls as

young as 8 and women of 80 have been raped,” Amnesty International

reports in a BBC story.

In a startling recent report by the Denver Post, the crisis of

rape during times of war strikes even closer to home. Not only

perpetrated by opposing forces who are trying to take over their

land, female troops service in Iraq are, according to Miles Moffeit

and Amy Herdy, “reporting an insidious enemy in their own camps:

fellow American soldiers who sexually assault them.” Rape and

sexual assault during wartime, it would seem, is not limited to the

enemy forces.

Such atrocities have dire consequences even after the conflicts

have ended. Women raped by both enemy and familiar forces face

serious post-traumatic stress disorders, being ostracized by their

families, communities or military units, unwanted pregnancies or

disease. In places such as the Congo, the latter is especially

troubling for victims of sexual assault, since Cesar Chelala, an

international health consultant, said in the Seattle Post

Intelligencer that an estimated 60 percent of combatants in the

region are HIV-infected.

What can be done to address such a horrible problem? UNIFEM,

NOW, Amnesty International and other organizations hope to find

funding to create programs to help women attacked during times of

conflict. Tough prosecutions under the guidelines of the Geneva

Conventions are needed for anyone perpetrating this crime against

humanity, something that is not done today. Similarly, crackdowns

in the American military system to deal with rape are direly


Beyond these ideas, it seems to get at the root of the problem,

the status of women must be raised. As the World Health

Organization says, “gender-based inequality is usually exacerbated

during situations of extreme violence such as armed conflict.” By

ending pre-conceived ideas of inequality worldwide, perhaps we can

see an end to such gender-based violence.

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