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Sexual Violence Towards Women During Wartimes

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The perception of women, as weak figures which should be dominated by their superior, men, shows itself very clearly in all the domains of life. Hierarchy of gender, which finds its roots in history, is based on the idea of male superiority. In this manner, the hierarchy is justified. One can look for the roots of this perception in history, by analyzing the religions, ideologies, state policies, institutions etc. Our aim is not to discuss the reasons or the process of this hierarchy and discrimination. Rather than that, in this paper we want to analyze one of the forms of how this hierarchy is exercised, namely the violence towards women. However since this is a very wide subject to cover, consisting of many different forms, our intention is to focus on a more specific topic, which is sexual violence towards women during war times.

The sexual violence during war times usually takes the form of rape. And as can be imagined, victims are often women. In this paper, first we would like to analyze the motives behind the violence and rape during wars. After giving information about the theories that are proposed in order to explain the wartime rape we will give real examples from 1990s, which are Rwanda and Bosnia. These societies serve as good examples because of their patriarchal foundations and inferior position of women in them. We will check the applicability of the theories for wartime rape in these cases. After that we are going to talk about the effects of this violence on victims and society. We are saying “society”, in the sense that sexual violence does not only affect the victim, but it has negative effect on the society as a whole. It may be about the perception of women as inferior, and the ones to be protected, and the negative effects could be the result of failing to protect them, or feeling dishonoured. And the probabililty of child births also brings up the problem of unwanted children which also have negative impacts on the recovery of the sexual violence.

Sexual Violence, Rape and its Forms

In this paper we will focus on the two wars that took place in 1990s, however it should be mentioned : Historical evidence suggests that wartime rape is not a new phenomena. It is as old as human history itself. Jonathan Gottschall, in his paper “Explaining the Wartime Rape”, gives historical information and examples of wartime rape. For example, ancient literature suggests that it is exercised in ancient times, by Greek and Roman soldiers. It is stated in the Bible while telling the wars between Jews and their enemies. It was also exercised in medieval Europe, in the crusades, in the conquest of Persia by Alexander, in Vikings’ conquests and in many other wars and conflicts (Gottschall, 2003). And for the sake of being more concrete about the universality of this concept, he gives a list of the countries whose military forces were engaged in mass rape in 20th century. They are namely; Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh,Belgium, Brazil, Burma, Bosnia, Cambodia, China, Congo, Crotia, Cyprus, East Timor, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Korea, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, Zaire and Zimbabwe (Gottschall, 2003).

For now, one should be convinced about the universality of wartime rape. There might be slight differences in each society in the form and for the reasons of mass rapes regarding their own cultural, economic, political background, however what is obvious is that there must be common driving forces which are valid for all people who take part in it. Before moving to the suggested theories about this motives and background of wartime rape, first an analysis of sexual violence and the definition of rape is needed.

WHO defines sexual violence as the following;

any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work. (WHO 2002b, p.149)

And rape which is a form of sexual violence is defined as;

physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object. (WHO 2002b, p.149)

In the context of wartime rape, which can be defined as sexual violence and rape by soldiers or armed forces in the times of war,  there is another term that comes into the picture. As evidence suggests, the violence does not show itself as a result of individual decision making process. Rather than that, sexual violence is usually exercised by large groups, and in a systematic way.It is not a hidden action, but it is mostly common act and even encouraged sometimes (Clifford, 2008).  Then the term takes the form of mass rape or gang rape. And it is the one term for which we are going to be analyzing the proposed explanations.

Theories for Wartime Rape

There are many theories with the same aim of explaining the dynamics of wartime rape. Since we do not have enough space to cover all of them, we are going to focus on the ones that are most accepted and relevant to our case studies. The theories we are going to explain are;

  1. Feminist Theory
  2. Strategic Rape Theory
  3. Biosocial Theory

Feminist theory puts the emphasis on the patriarchial relations, norms and the power relations between women and men. Susan Brownmiller, in her book “Against Our Will” defines the rape as nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear (Brownmiller, 1975, pp. 14-15). In this view, rape is exercised by men with the aim of dominating women and making them accept their inferiority. So the reason is the construction of gender roles since this is what makes men feel and act as the superior one. According to Gottschall, in spite of its contributions, feminist theory of rape does not describe the whole picture. He suggests that limiting rape to only gender war and patriarchial relations neglects the conflicts that are not related to gender issues such as conflicts of societies, chiefdoms, tribes etc. and the universality of mass rape needs an explanation of other factors as well (Gottschall, 2003).



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