The slow genocide: War rape and its female survivors

Jessica Buchleitner – WNN Opinion

Burundi women walking on road
Burundi women walk along a road in Gatumba 2006. Image: Susan Novak

(WNN) Global: What could be a better weapon than rape? As a male soldier, you can exterminate your aggression, demoralize your victim and even potentially create a child born from your own hate.

Refugee women caught in the recent conflicts in Somalia have reported being ‘too afraid to grab firewood’ in their refugee camps for fear that Kenyan gang members are lurking in the bushes to demoralize them. Unfortunately this is a common theme for many African women.

I will never forget my “50 Women” book interview with Neema, a mother of three from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I spoke to her about the 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre she survived, she discussed how she spent one month in jail at the mercy of the Mai Mai and other rebel groups who decided to imprison the Banyamulengue Tutsi people. “Women were being raped” she told me in a hushed voice, “those that were pregnant had their babies taken and killed”.

Barbaric as it sounds, this is a common scenario for not only refugee women across the world, but also for civilian women caught in the grip of warfare. Around the world at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Gender-based violence kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer, and its toll on women’s health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined, according to Amnesty International.

Warfare, ethnic cleansing or ethnic based violence only legitimizes the appropriation of women’s bodies for political means or even individual satisfaction by soldiers or other military personnel. During war or military occupation, rape often becomes a means of psychological warfare used to humiliate and dehumanize the enemy. These terrible acts come in the form of sexual slavery, gang rape and forced prostitution.

Take, for example the infamous “Karaman’s House” in Bosnia where, during the Bosnian War, Serbian soldiers imprisoned Bosniak Muslim women as sexual servants and subjected them to repeated rapes, acts of sexual violence and extreme humiliation. The youngest victim was reported to be only twelve years old. In this circumstance, the Muslim women were targeted simply for the means of Serb forces to assert their victory and superiority over them.

War rape is a slow genocide in many forms because of the severe impact on its innocent female victims. The women victims are left with not only physical injury like Vaginal Fistula seen in the massive rapes in Democratic Republic of Congo, but also sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. It’s difficult to imagine a child being born from such a horrific act but in conflict zones access to emergency contraception and abortion are either extremely limited or completely unavailable. Aside from physical are psychological effects of fear, helplessness, depression, and anxiety.

In a sociological context, women victims of war rape may be stigmatized and excluded from their families or communities. In Afghanistan, rape victims are often jailed and seen as prostitutes as the rape of a man’s wife brings shame upon him in the community.

The offspring born from war rape also live a life of isolation and the sense of feeling unwanted. The story of their own birth and conception can make them unwilling to participate in acts of intimacy and child bearing later in life.

War rape often renders women unable to reproduce and because of its psychological impacts, makes them unfit to be mothers. It is an inexcusable and horrific act against humanity. Women should not be seen as a means to exert military dominance. Women are capable individuals, not objects of cruelty. This is genocide in its worst form, the kind of genocide where the victim and potential offspring must remain alive and live with acts of past brutality committed. It is a sure way to cause generations of psychological trauma and sexual stigma to a population.

For more information see this Amnesty report on women – war and conflict:
Burundi: No protection from rape in war and peace,” Amnesty International, August 23, 2007.

Jessica Buchleitner is currently compiling a book collection of international women’s stories called “50 Women”. Find her at or follow her on Twitter @50womenproject


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