The Battlefield Of Women’s Bodies

Some of the most dangerous, depraved and damaging battles are fought not on the battlefields, but on women’s bodies. It doesn’t take much during conflicts and wars to turn women’s bodies into battlefields to be plundered, looted, devastated, paraded and shamed. From historic times till the most recent deplorable Manipur incidents, honour, revenge and women’s bodies have always had an age-old association rooted in patriarchy.

While people in general are adversely affected by conflicts and wars, women, girls and other vulnerable genders continue to be primarily targeted through the use of sexual violence. Rape and other sexual aggression are used as tactics and weapons of war to avenge, disgrace, dominate, instil fear among the opposing families, groups and nation and are committed by combatants on all sides.

Sexualised violence against women and girls during conflicts has always been a part of human history and continues to do so in the contemporary world as well. From individual family disputes and local communal conflicts to large-scale prolonged wars, women are often targeted to avenge. The predominantly male perpetrators include soldiers, paramilitaries, police officers and also ordinary pen. Scholars and policy analysts portray this violence as a weapon of war to humiliate and demoralise the enemy as individuals and as communities.

Women’s bodies are considered as their personal or private space but as accessible spaces to settle scores on, cause shame to the community they  represent and to leave a mark of define territories around them. Rape and other sexual assaults have been used as a way to humiliate and emasculate the enemy – from rape of Jewish women during World War II and German women at the end of World War II, to the Rwandan genocide and during clashes in in Congo, Syria or Ukraine.

According to a UNIFEM (Part of UN Women) factsheet,  between 250,000-500,000 women and girls were raped in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, more than 60,000 in the civil war in Sierra Leone, between 20,000-50,000 in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996.

The outbreak of conflicts exposes women to increased gender-based violence in the immediate conflict area as well as in the aftermath. Women uprooted by war face the double and high risk of sexual violence during their journey away from home and in the places where they seek refuge.

Internally displaced and refugee women; women’s human rights defenders; women belonging to diverse caste, ethnic, national, religious or other minorities or identities who are often attacked as symbolic representatives of their community; widows; and women with disabilities are among the women who are at higher risk.   

Gender-based violence during conflicts are a manifestation of the existing gender discrimination fuelled by prevailing patriarchal power structures in the society. All forms of gender discrimination that exist during peacetime continue in a more severe way during conflicts. So, sexual violence which becomes entrenched in times of peace is exacerbated during times of conflicts. The use of sexual violence as a strategic means is a consequence of these unequal power relationships and patriarchy. Cultures that propagate women as weak, men as protectors of women and associate honour in the purity of their women, are the first to target women and girls during conflicts.

Amnesty International’s report on its 1995 campaign for the protection of women’s human rights says, “The use of rape in conflict reflects the inequalities women face in their everyday lives in peacetime. Until governments live up to their obligations to ensure equality, and end discrimination against women, rape will continue to be a favourite weapon of the aggressor.”

During conflicts, men clearly reveal their claims of possession over the supposedly weaker sex and the rape of women, girls and LGBTIQ people reassuring them of their own male superiority. Rape is considered a symbol of humiliation of the opponent from another religious, cultural, national or ethnic group who cannot protect their women.

When conflicts are assesses from a gendered lens, gender appears as a power relation where men are actively exposed to violence as fighters and women are seen as passive victims. And rape of women from the opposing side is justified as a symbolic way to cause damage to the enemy community, and not just an attack on an individual woman.

However, unlike common perceptions women are not always passive onlookers or victims or targets. Women have in the past and also now, continue to be active in several roles – as combatants, as part of civil society, human rights activists, members of political groups and as active peace-building agents. Also in reality, males too are subjected to sexual violence and women too can be fighters and perpetrators of violence. But yes, female combatants and women in the military are again vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment by both state and non-state groups.

Conflict-related gender-based violence causes a vast range of physical and psychological consequences for women, including injuries and disabilities, increased risk of HIV infection, unwanted pregnancy along with serious mental and emotional trauma. Besides rape, these are other kinds of sexual violence during conflicts such as sexual slavery, trafficking, undressing, sexual mutilation, forced marriage, and branding etc.. Rape survivors are often rejected by their own families and communities. It also leads to multiple additional human rights violations, which undermine women’s equal and meaningful participation in political and public life.

For most women in post-conflict environments, the violence does not stop with the official ceasefire or the signing of the peace agreement and continues in the post-conflict setting too. It continues to instil fear of sexual violence much later as well. This threat of a possibility of sexual violation affects the daily choices women make and shapes the spaces women inhabit.

Journalist Christina Lamb, who has worked in war and combat zones for decades, writes in her book “Our Bodies, Their Battlefield” about the unheard stories of women in conflict, exposing how in modern warfare rape is used by armies, terrorists and militias as a weapon to humiliate, terrify and carry out ethnic cleansing. Speaking to survivors first-hand across four continents, Lamb recounts the experiences, from Southeast Asia, where ‘comfort women’ were enslaved by the Japanese during World War II to the Rohingyas tied to banana trees and gang-raped by Burmese soldiers in 2017. From 1970s Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of women were raped by Pakistani troops to boost the Punjabi population to 1990s Bosnia, where 20,000 women were forced into camps and sexual slavery by Serbian soldiers.

Lamb investigates the rapes of an estimated quarter of a million Tutsi women during the Rwandan genocide; the devastating wake of an Argentinian junta; and life in the Middle East today, from the Yazidi women and children enslaved by ISIS to the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014.

The instances of systematic rape of Bosniak girls and women held at rape camps and the Congolese gynaecologist and his team who have stitched up more than 20,000 rape victims among thousands who have been war raped – demonstrate the extent to which women’s bodies are horribly exploited during conflicts.

Failure to prevent, investigate and punish all forms of gender-based violence, can also lead to further violence against women in post-conflict periods. Social and cultural discomfort with sex and sexual violence creates a shroud of secrecy wherein victims feel ashamed and stigmatized to recount their sexual victimisation. The taboo, silence and indifference around the issue makes it harder for state, governments and the victims to seek attention, redressal and justice.

Although the world has made significant progress in women’s rights, but women across the world continue to be ravaged by wartime sexual atrocities.

Undertaking research and analysis to generate policy attention, identifying practical approaches to prevent/ respond to sexual violence, empowering women and local communities, engaging local authorities in developing and adopting special measures against gender-based violence and ensuring integration of women’s diverse experiences into peace-building and reconstruction processes – are among the critical steps underlined by peacekeeping conventions to address the challenge.

Importantly, unless efforts are directed towards eradicating patriarchal structures causing sexualised violence and creating gender justice women, girls and other vulnerable genders will not be able to lead a safe, dignified life free of violence.


Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Comments are closed.