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Rape Is Not An Inevitability of War

February 8, 2012

Does your Wednesday needs some sobering research on rape as a tool of war? Well! The Women Under Siege Project launched today. I’m proud to have contributed some research on the Libyan conflict to this incredibly important endeavor, and I’d highly recommend you take some time to browse the site. Women Under Siege looks at the use of sexualized violence* in a range of conflicts in order to understand the commonalities and the prevalence – and it is horribly, horribly prevalent.

The employment of sexualized violence in conflict is often a choice and an explicitly or implicitly endorsed policy, not just a random crime. It is used intentionally to punish families and communities, not just individual women. And I mean, nobody’s laboring under some delusion that war’s suddenly going to get safer for women and children because we did some research. I get that bad things happen in war, but the intentionality is what gets me, and why I think this project is so important. Without attention, without outrage, without documentation, decisionmakers in conflict situations will continue to think they can get away with using rape as though it’s a legitimate use of force under the laws of war.

And I’ll be honest – I really struggled with the whole “what’s the point?” of this project. It feels Sisyphean – stopping sexualized violence in war? Really? But Gloria Steinem puts it in context in a Q&A:

LW: Does your work in the women’s movement give you encouragement that we can make headway on sexualized violence in conflict?

GS: Yes, absolutely. In my lifetime, we’ve shown that rape is not sex but violence, and changed the laws that required a virginal victim and a bystander willing to testify. In my high school, boys used to say there was no such thing as rape, that “you can’t thread a needle unless the needle holds still.” They’re not saying that anymore. Actually, I get letters from men in prison who really understand rape because, in the absence of women, they’ve been used as women. Sexualized violence, in and out of conflict, has been named and punishments codified. Now we have to get this off paper and into life.

LW: Do you think it’s ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

GS: Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans—the one that allows our species to survive—is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

So read. Be outraged. Be horrified. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s problem and it doesn’t affect you. Your silence makes it worse.

 

* I feel like I need to get into definitions here, but at minimum, we’re all clear that rape/sexual assault is about violence and control and really has nothing to do with sex, right? I use the term “sexualized violence” because that’s what Gloria Steinem uses. She explains why in the above-referenced Q&A.

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